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The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) Paul Delaroche. Oil On Canvas. The National Gallery, London.

I was hanging out at the National Gallery yesterday and was completely taken aback by this painting. It’s stunning work, technically; the textures, composition and light are all so disarmingly beautiful that I didn’t see one person able to walk right past it without stopping and staring.

But it is also a painting that has a strong violent tone, and is profoundly disturbing for how the men in the painting are depicted in relation to Lady Jane Grey. Now, Jane Grey was Queen of England for 9 days, prior to being ousted by Queen Mary. She was executed on the orders of Queen Mary, aged just 16. So in this painting we have a young girl being coaxed into position for her execution by the Lieutenant of Tower Green in a way that might at first seem gentle. But look at the size difference between Lady Jane Grey and the Lieutenant; it’s almost sinister, dominant. Then on the right we have the executioner, nonchalantly standing by and waiting to be called to behead the former Queen, entirely unaffected by both the distress of Jane’s maids on the far left, and by Jane Grey herself.

But what I also saw while I was in the National Gallery was several sketch artists making incredibly detailed sketches from this piece, and all of them, without exception, were focused entirely on the figure of the blindfolded and powerless Lady Jane Grey. This painting is so daunting, and with such a clear, gendered and unbalanced power dynamic, that I do wonder about the draw of this painting for those who surely can only put themselves in the position of the controlling male figures of the work.

It kind of reminds me of the real, sick fascination there was (is?) with images like the evidence photo of Rihanna from 2009 after she was abused, and that hideous domestic abuse themed photo shoot (no really) that photographer Tyler Shields and Glee actressslashmodel Heather Morris did, where she was made-up to look as if she’d been beaten up black-eye et-al, and posed, among other shots, holding an iron to her face.

In all of these cases, the visual of the abused, powerless woman is the captivating image. Why are we so drawn to violent images? Is The Execution of Lady Jane Grey just the 19th Century equivalent of rubber-necking drivers slowing down when passing a car crash on the M25, or is it a clue of something more problematic; maybe even a serious flaw in our cultural ambivalence over images of abuse towards women.