The Story in Paintings: Georges Rochegrosse, gruesome death

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Interior of the Cathedral of Reims in Flames (detail) (1915), oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm, Musée des beaux-arts, Reims, France. By G.Garitan, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have shown some of Georges Rochegrosse’s beautiful paintings, mostly from later in his career. His earlier work was quite different.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace (Vitellius Dragged Through the Streets of Rome by the People) (1882-3), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée de Sens, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Although claimed to have been painted the following year, his Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace (Vitellius Dragged Through the Streets of Rome by the People) was his great success and medal-winner of the Paris Salon in 1882.

Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus (15-69 CE), known briefly as Vitellius, was Emperor of Rome for just eight months, during a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. In that time the Roman legions in the east revolted, and crushed his loyal forces in northern Italy, forcing Vitellius to prepare for abdication. Rome was not prepared to wait, nor to let him get away with abdication. The Praetorian Guard forced him to take shelter in his palace, then he was dragged out, driven to the Gemonian Steps in the city, and executed.

Rochegrosse shows Vitellius being forced down the Gemonian Steps, a long dagger held at his throat. Already his fine clothing has been torn back and is stained with his blood. Surrounded by this seething mob, his face shows naked fear, and the knowledge that in a few moments, it will all be over.

This is strong narrative, from an instant just prior to the climax, which follows Alberti’s rules completely. Rochegrosse uses facial expressions and body language to great effect. Vitellius’s torn robes and the possible presence of his well-dressed wife at his left side link to the immediate past; the blood and blade tells the future quite clearly.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Andromache (1883), oil on canvas, 884 x 479 cm, Musée des Beaux-arts, Rouen, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Rochegrosse’s great success at the Salon was his Andromache (1883), a huge canvas nearly nine metres high. It tells the story of another downfall of the once mighty, this time with greater tragedy during the legend of the fall of Troy.

Andromache was the legendary daughter of the king of Cilician Thebe, and the wife of Hector, the great Trojan warrior. Hector was killed during the Trojan War, and when the city fell, she was warned that the Greeks intended to kill her son Astyanax. Neoptolemus seized Astyanax and hurled him from the remains of the city walls, to his death, then took Andromache as a concubine. She later became Queen of Epirus, and died of old age in Pergamum.

Rochegrosse’s painting is gruesome in the extreme. Andromache is at the centre, being restrained by four Greeks prior to her adbuction by Neoptolemus. Her left arm points further up the steps, to a Greek warrior in black armour holding the infant Astyanax, as he takes him up to the top (where another Greek is shown in silhouette) to murder him. There is death and desolation around the foot of the steps: a small pile of severed heads, a jumble of living and dead, and the debris of the sacking of Troy. All is summarised in a large splash of blood just below the centre of the canvas.

Although there is little scope for the use of facial expression here, Rochegrosse’s powerful composition and body language makes this story come horrifyingly alive. His timing, and use of past and future references, is as perfect as with Vitellius.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), The Death of Babylon (autograph small copy) (1891), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Later in his career, Rochegrosse’s tales of death and destruction went more awry. His The Death of Babylon (1891) has been criticised for its narrative errors; sadly the original huge canvas, this time about 7 x 9 metres, has been lost, and this small autograph copy is all that remains. It shows the arrival of the Persian army at Balthazar’s palace in Babylon in 539 BCE. Cyrus the Great’s troops had entered the city via its river, the only weakness in its otherwise impenetrable defences. They did this during a national feast.

Rochegrosse’s painting is spectacular, but baffling. As Sérié writes,
initially, we have no idea what is going on. We have to make an effort to decipher the image.

This is a vast palace. In the foreground, an orgy is slowly dissolving into exhausted sleep, with naked bodies flagrantly strewn all over the place. At the right, Balthazar sits on a modest throne, looking towards the huge arched entrance. In the middle distance, at that entrance, is a crowd, presumably of Persians about to enter the palace. Although there seems to be no barrier preventing their entry, a few have climbed part of a gate to the left of the entrance.

Even the lighting is confused. The foreground seems to be lit from some diffuse source behind the viewer. Much of the grandeur of the rest of the hall appears to be lit by unseen artificial lights. Daylight outside does not pour in, but remains outside in a grey haze. Alberti has been ignored completely: not a face is to be seen clearly enough to guess emotion, and body language is almost absent. Rochegrosse’s timing could not be more remote from any action or climax, just as the Persians are remote in the painting.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), oil on canvas, 392 × 496 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Contrast Delacroix’s earlier and similar scene showing the legendary overthrow of the last king of Assyria in his palace in Nineveh.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Interior of the Cathedral of Reims in Flames (1915), oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm, Musée des beaux-arts, Reims, France. By G.Garitan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rochegrosse’s Pre-Raphaelite quest, perhaps for his own Holy Grail, continued in the depths of the First World War. The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims, where the Kings of France were once crowned, had been commissioned as a hospital and demilitarised. German shells hit the cathedral during opening engagements on 20 September 1914, setting alight scaffolding, and destroying some of the stonework. The fire spread through woodwork, melting the lead on the roof, and destroying the bishop’s palace. The French accused the Germans of the deliberate destruction of part of its national and cultural heritage.

Rochegrosse’s Interior of the Cathedral of Reims in Flames (1915), a much smaller canvas, casts this in a curious combination of the physical reality of the shattered masonry and fire, the ancient glory of the cathedral’s stained glass, and an Arthurian figure (possibly the Madonna herself) reaching up to seek divine intervention.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), The Death of Messalina (1916), oil on canvas, 125.8 x 180 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The last narrative painting that I have found by Rochegrosse is his The Death of Messalina (1916), in which he returns to more traditional techniques.

Valeria Messalina (c 17/20-48 CE) married the Roman Emperor Claudius. She was powerful, influential, and had a reputation for insatiable promiscuity, although the latter may have been invented or exaggerated for political purposes. In 48 CE, there was an unsuccessful plot against Claudius, and Messalina was, rightly or wrongly, accused of conspiracy. She was executed forthwith.

Rochegrosse chooses the instant before her death, as the climax, rather than any prior peripeteia. He shows a leader of the Praetorian Guard about to kill Messalina with his sword. She is dressed in bright scarlet, in accordance with her reputation, and tries to push him away with her left hand. At the left, her maid stands, facing away from the scene, her face buried in her hands. A couple of other women of the court are seen in the background at the left edge, looking on in horror.

Behind the imminent execution, Claudius stands, his hands on his hips, smiling wrily at the killing, with the ranks of the guard stood close behind. The immediate foreground has beautiful red flowers, echoing the bloodshed.

Rochegrosse’s effective use of facial expressions and body language, and near-perfect timing, make this powerful narrative. It is an odd contrast to many previous paintings of Messalina, which tended to play on her promiscuity rather than her untimely end. Indeed, by this stage it is interesting to speculate how many of his viewers would even know of Messalina. Far more were likely to have been more interested in Cubism.


These paintings epitomise the crisis which narrative painting had reached by the beginning of the twentieth century. If it stuck to the traditional, it was seen as staid, old hat, and hackneyed. If it tried to become modern, as Rochegrosse did in The Death of Babylon, it became opaque and too difficult to read. Its favourite stories from the classics were also becoming less well-known, but it struggled to find more modern stories which it could use instead.

The paintings of Rochegrosse show most of all a genre in trouble, in danger of extinction.


Wikipedia (English) and Wikipedia (French).
The Odyssey translated into French and illustrated by Rochegrosse (1931).

Sérié P (2016), Theatricality versus anti-theatricality: narrative techniques in French history painting (1850-1900), chapter 10 in Cooke P & Lübbren N, eds., Painting and Narrative in France, from Poussin to Gauguin, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 4724 4010 5.