Paul Delaroche’s Saint Amélie, Queen of Hungary was commissioned to the artist by the last king of France, King Louis Philippe, for his wife, Marie-Amélie d’Orleans. The scene, reminiscent of Medieval manuscript illuminations, depicts the queen’s patron saint offering flowers to a shrine accompanied by three female figures. Delaroche conveyed the whole painting as a portrait of the female members of the Orleans family, in which Queen Marie-Amelie is subtly complimented by appearing with the in the guise of a late medieval royal saint.
Delaroche painted the present canvas as a preparatory work for the stained-glass window that was to decorate her private chapel at the Château d'Eu, in Normandy. The work was likely presented to the king and queen as the final study for the window, and was then used as a template for the Sèvres manufactures. In a letter dating from 1832, Delaroche states that after the window was finished, he found the canvas in such a poor state that he was forced to repaint certain areas. It was a working tool which was likely handled daily by the stained-glass master.
Yet, the finely finished canvas acquired a category of finished work of art, and became part of the Royal collection. After retrieving the painting from Sèvres, Delaroche exhibited it in the Paris Salon of 1832, where it was listed as belonging to the king. Though the painting is listed in the 1832 catalogue without measurements, an exhibition catalogue from 1834, where a preparatory drawing for the present work was exhibited, mentions the final work (Fig. 1). The catalogue notes that the drawing had the same measures as the canvas exhibited in the 1832 Salon belonging to the king, which coincide with the present work.
The painting became one of Queen Marie-Amélie’s most treasured possessions. It hung at the Palace of the Tuilleries, where she could enjoy it whilst being away from stain-glass window in the Château d'Eu. When she fled in exile to England during the Revolution of 1848 that was to terminate the French monarchy, Saint Amélie was amongst the few belongings she was able to take with her. In a watercolour by Joseph Nash of the Queen’s bedroom at Claremond House executed shortly after her death, the painting appears depicted besides her bed, above a praying stall (Fig. 2). Not only was it an object of significant sentimental value but also of considerable worth. When an inventory of her possessions was drawn at the time of her death, Sainte Amélie was the first and most costly painting in the list.
The queen’s prised painting was inherited by her son the Duc of Nemours, and perhaps remained in the family for an unknown period of time. However, these are only speculations, as the painting was unlocated until 1980. It however, remained unrecognised and was sold first as Fleury Francois Richard and later, in 1989, as 19th century German School. Only known from an engraving by Paolo Mercuri and from several larger copies, the painting was believed to be lost (Fig. 3). It was not until 2016 that new technology and digitised archives and collections aided the team of specialists and scholars in BBC’s Fake or Fortune? to firmly attribute it to Paul Delaroche. The work was subsequently authenticated by Professor Stephen Bann.
The result is the rediscovery of a masterpiece with royal provenance, whilst the technical analysis that was carried out has brought clarity to the differences between Delaroche’s canvas and later copies. As mentioned above, Delaroche had repainted certain areas, such as the plant holder and drape behind the altar, and had used pigments that degraded with time. Saint Amélie, Queen of Hungary has resurfaced as the last piece of the puzzle that associated the British Museum drawing to the Chateau D’Eu’s stain glass window, a treasure in the collection of France’s last queen, and a Delaroche masterpiece.