Mary Queen of Scots Receiving Her Death Sentence
(Jean-Baptiste Vermay)


Because of Vermay’s departure from Paris to Havana, where he founded a school of painting and drawing, and his early death from cholera, little is known of the artist’s life. Before leaving France Vermay enjoyed the same recognition as his fellow David students and “troubadour” painters. [1] Contemporary chronicler E. J. Delécluze wrote that Vermay would have certainly had a great success in historic genre painting had his death not stopped him mid-career. [2]

Vermay exhibited two paintings of the subject of Mary Stuart receiving her death sentence at the 1808 and 1814 Salons, the first and the last to which he sent works. The critic Charles Landon devoted much attention to the 1808 version in his Salon de 1808, and included an engraving of the work. He noted that “this first work of a very young artist was met with the most favorable public response. It was remarked with what skill the artist disposed his scene and seized the appropriate character for each of the personnages.” [3] The 1808 work was sold immediately after the Salon opening [4] and is now lost. According to Landon a person of very high rank wanted a version exactly like the one exhibited. [5]That person was Empress Josephine, and the version of the Marie Stuart that she commissioned, and which was later owned by her daughter Queen Hortense, [6] is now in the Napoleon Museum, Arenenberg. Despite Josephine’s request for an exact replica her version differed in some details from the Salon picture. Our picture is probably the version that was exhibited in the 1814 Salon (no. 934) under the title Marie Stuart reçevant sa sentence de mort. [7] Although the composition is closer to the Arenenberg picture than to the lost 1808 version, there are again changes, most notably in the figures of Mary’s attendants and in the remarkable elaboration of the richly styled and patterned historic dress.

The political implications that Mary Stuart would acquire during the Bourbon Restoration were not yet at play when Vermay painted this during the Napoleonic Empire, [8]but there had been a long history of French support and sympathy for the tragic Queen. As a young woman she had been the Queen of France married to François II. Following his death in 1558 she returned to Scotland where her devotion to her Catholic faith and a series of unwise alliances led to controversy, her imprisonment, and, ultimately, execution in 1587 by order of her cousin Elizabeth I of England. Shortly after Mary’s death a history of her life had been published in French by Adam Blackwood. His was the first publication that focused on the reading of the death warrant, Mary’s brave acceptance of it, and the anguish of her attendants. [9]This subject, though lacking the adventure of other events from Mary’s life such as her escapes and love affairs, highlighted the psychological drama and her martyr-like acceptance of her fate. This had been the theme of Schiller’s recent drama Maria Stuart (1800) which may have also been an inspiration to Vermay, whose composition and setting is organized much like a theatrical presentation. The painting, like a tableau vivant, can be read from right to left beginning with Mary’s jailer, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who told her that she had been found guilty and condemned to death, and Beal, the clerk of Elizabeth’s Council who read the warrant. Mary stands with absolute calm in the center of the canvas framed by the red velvet draperies of her bed. At the far left Mary’s ladies collapse with the shock of the news. One prays to a crucifix below an open window with light streaming in suggesting perhaps the spiritual salvation that Mary knew she would have after death.

Events from the life of Mary Stuart had been the subject of late eighteenth-century British pictures, most notably for Bowyer’s Historical Gallery, but these precedents were less significant to Vermay’s treatment of the theme than the training he received in David’s studio and his contact with colleagues in the “troubadour” school. To the former he owed the friezelike progression of figures and particularly the contrast between the rigidly posed and composed Queen and her grieving attendants, who in their fluent prostrate poses, recall women in David’s Horatii and Brutus. Like the other David pupils who were attracted to non-classical history subjects, Vermay took an antiquarian interest in the past [10]and the unprecedented degree of historical veracity that resulted in the details of a painting such as this are typical of the troubadour school and show a marked changed from more generalized eighteenth-century depictions.

[1]The critic for the Gazette de France (Nov. 6, 1814), for example, discussing the prevalence of chivalric and domestic historical subjects in the 1814 Salon, praised the vogue for this type of picture, and listed Vermay among the artists whom he was glad to see exhibiting historically faithful scenes from European history.

[2]E.J. Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps, Paris, 1855, p. 244.

[3]”Ce premier ouvrage d’un très-jeune artiste a reçu du public l’accueil le plus favorable. On a remarqué avec quelle habileté l’auteur avait disposé sa scène et saisi le caractère propre à chacun des personnages.” (Landon, Salon de 1808, p. 99)

[4]”Le tableau de Marie Stuart était à peine exposé au Salon, qui’il a cessé d’appartenir à l’auteur.” (Landon, Salon de 1808, p. 99).

[5]”Une personne du plus haut rang a même desiré en avoir un second semblable en tout à celui-ci.” (Ibid.)

[6]The painting, as it looked hanging in Queen Hortense’s salon at Augsbourg, is recorded in an anonymous drawing in the bibliothèque Thiers, Paris.

[7]Alain Pougetoux (“Peintre troubadour, histoire et littérature: autour de deux tableaux des collection de l’impératrice Joséphine,” Revue du Louvre, April 1994, p. 51-2) believes that the Arenenberg picture is the one that was exhibited in the 1814 Salon because, “the Empress having died on May 29th of the same year, her heirs probably wanted to attract attention to aspects of a collection that would soon be dispersed.” (“l’impératrice étant morte le 29 mai de cette même année, ses héritiers souhaitaient très probablement attirer l’attention sur des éléments d’une collection qui devait bientôt être dispersée.”) It seems more probable, however, that with Josephine’s recent death, her husband’s exile, and her daughter’s inheritance of this picture, it would not have been sent to the Salon. Pougetoux also mentions the present picture and regrets that it was not possible for the musée de Malmaison (housing the Empress’ collection) to acquire it.

[8]See Beth S. Wright, “The Auld Alliance in Nineteenth-Century French Painting: The Changing Concept of Mary Stuart, 1814-1833,” Arts Magazine, 58, March 1984, pp. 97-107 and Diane Russcol, “Le thème de la reine prisonnière: Deux tableaux du Salon de 1833, Revue du Louvre, 2, 1990, pp. 123-127).

[9]Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The Queen’s Image, 1987 exhibition catalogue by Helen Smailes and Duncan Thomson, p. 58.

[10]Delécluze (loc. cit.) noted that Vermay, along with other David pupils – Granet, Richard, Révoil, and Forbin – frequented the Musée des Monuments Français which contained a collection of religious and historical monuments saved from the destruction of the Revolution.

50 3/4 by 63 3/4 inches (129 by 162 cm.)
Oil on canvas

71814 Salon (no. 934)?

Exhibited: Matthiesen Gallery & Stair Sainty matthiesen. ‘Romance & Chivalry’, 1996-

Historical Period
Neoclassicism - 1780-1820 & Romanticism - 1810-1870
Historical events
1996-Romance and Chivalry: History and Literature reflected in Early Nineteenth Century French Painting.
Hardback book. 300 pages, fully illustrated with 90 colour plates and 100 black and white illustrations. Introduction (40 pages) by Guy Stair Sainty, twelve essays, catalogue, appendix of salons 1801-24 and bibliography. £50 or $80 inc. p.& p.

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