Henri Delaborde was a key figure in the academic classical tradition of nineteenth-century French painting associated with Ingres. A student and intimate of Delaroche, he produced major large-scale history paintings and ecclesiastical decorations early in his career. Then, in the 1850s, he became a significant critic and curator, championing the tradition in which he had worked and proving himself an early authority on the history of printmaking. Henri Delaborde was born in Rennes, Ille-et-Vilaine, France, on 2 May 1811, the third of the four children of the French Revolutionary general, Comte Henri-François Delaborde, and his wife, Julie (née Guillaume). Considered to be a brilliant pupil, while at the Bourbon and Charlemagne lycées, both in Paris, he began to study law. However, he soon decided instead to develop his precocious talent for art and, with his father’s permission, between 1829 and 1834, trained in the studio of the painter, Paul Delaroche.
There he established a friendship with his fellow student, Eugène Lami, and together they would become Delaroche’s particular intimates, Delaborde eventually writing articles about his esteemed teacher. In the early months of 1834, Delaborde assisted Delaroche on his painting, Strafford on his Way to Execution, before accompanying him and their fellow painter, Edouard Bertin, on a trip to Italy to study the frescoes of the Renaissance. While in Florence, he copied works by Fra Angelico and Masaccio, among others.
In 1836, Delaborde began to exhibit historical and religious subjects at the Paris Salon, with Agar dans le desert (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon), and in 1837 won a second class medal for his Conversion de Saint Augustin (in the church of Raismes, Pas de Calais). The present work, L’Arrestation du Comte Ugolin, was painted in the same year, and apparently praised by fellow painter, Eugène Delacroix, when shown at the Salon in 1838. He was soon commissioned by the state to produce some history paintings for the Musée d’Impérial de Versailles, including Les Croisés, commandés par Jean de Brienne, allèrent mettre le siége devant Damiette (1839).
Following a visit to Ravenna and Venice in 1839, Delaborde spent a three-year stay in Italy in the years 1842-45. While there, he produced a number of drawings and watercolours, including a series of copies after Renaissance artists. These influenced his decoration of chapels in the church of Ste-Clotilde, Paris (1844-59), and some were later published in his Les Maîtres Florentines du quinzième siècle (1878). he received a first-class medal at the Salon in 1847 for Le Christ au jardin des olives.
In 1846, Delaborde married Henriette Louise (née Le Clerc). They had a daughter, Julie, and a son, Henri-François, the latter becoming a historian. Delaborde was also one of the foster fathers of François Emile Michel, who became a painter and critic.
During the 1850s, Delaborde suffered from such serious bouts of ill health that he had to give up painting and find alternative employment. In 1855, he became the curator of engravings at the Bibliothèque impériale (now the Bibliothèque nationale), rising to the position of chief curator three years later and serving as general administrator during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In all, he worked at the library for 30 years.
During the same period, Delaborde became an art critic and historian, an unusual step for an artist at the time, as most critics had a literary background. He contributed articles to the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, including some on Italian art, engraving and contemporary artists. He also published a number of books, notably Oeuvre de Paul Delaroche (1858, with Robert Jefferson Bingham and Jules Godé), Études sur les beaux-arts en France et en Italie (1864), Lettres et pensées d’Hippolyte Flandrin (1865, accompanied by a catalogue of his work) and Ingres: sa vie, ses travaux, sa doctrine (1870). His taste for the tradition of academic Classicism, in which he himself had worked, led to sarcastic comments from the brothers Goncourt, who promoted Naturalism.
In 1860, Delaborde accepted the distinction of the Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, but in the same year refused to become Minister of the Arts, a position offered him by Emperor Napoléon III. In 1868, he was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and, in 1874 became its permanent secretary, composing a number of notices and discourses. In 1893, he became a Commandeur de Légion d’honneur. Having held the title of Vicomte (probably from the death of his father in 1833), he later became Comte (probably on the death of his elder brother in 1889). He died in Paris on 24 May 1899.
His work is represented in numerous French public collections, including the Château de Versailles. The collection of the library of the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, contains many of his drawings and watercolours.
Further reading Hélène Guicharnaud, ‘Delaborde, Henri (b Rennes, May 2, 1811; d Paris, May 24, 1899), Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 8, page 637; Lee Sorensen, ‘Delaborde, Henri, vicomte’, Dictionary of Art Historians [online] Johan Swinnen, ‘Delaborde, Henri (1811-1899)’, John Hannavy (ed), Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, Abingdon: Routledge, 2008, page 401