Son of the art dealer and collector Grégoire-Hippolyte (d. 1824), Paul Delaroche entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1816 and studied under landscape painter Louis-Étienne Watelet (1780-1866), himself a student of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819). After his failure in the Prix de Rome competitions for landscape, newly instituted in 1817, Delaroche switched in 1818 to the studio of history painter Gros (q.v.).
Delaroche's first participation in the Salon in 1819 won him praise for his paintings of subjects from the Old and New Testaments. At this time the Bourbon monarchy, reinstalled since 1815, promoted religious painting as the most moral and principled subjects, in large part their reaction to the mythological painting produced during Napoleon's reign, which needed new kinds of art and iconography to express the authority of his upstart political regime. The more radical, independent painter Géricault (1791-1824) liked Delaroche's early work for its similarities to the dramatic color and lighting of Gros.
By the late 1820s and early 1830s Delaroche changed course to depict English history subjects, which won him wide fame and considerable prices. The first of these paintings, The Death of Queen Elizabeth of England (Musée du Louvre, Paris), appeared in the Salon of 1827-28, but the painter's greatest success came in the 1831 Salon, where he exhibited Cromwell Gazing into the Coffin of Charles I (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nîmes) and The Children of Edward IV (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The latter painting portrayed the incipient murder of the two royal heirs by usurpers, but it was so popular that the French king, Louis-Philippe, himself an Orléans replacement for the Bourbon monarchs, bought it for 6,000 francs. The painting also inspired playwright Casimir Delavigne's successful drama Les enfants d'Édouard (The Children of Edward), first performed in 1833 and dedicated to Delaroche.
Because of the triumph of the 1831 Salon, Delaroche was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1832. In 1833 he was named professor to the École des Beaux-Arts and received a commission for scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene for the church of the Madeleine in Paris. For this latter project he wished to emulate Renaissance frescoes and so went to Italy to study them. Upon his return, he learned that he would share the commission with another artist and withdrew from the project. After the negative criticism of his St. Cecilia at the 1837 Salon, Delaroche did not exhibit again in the Salons. But in that same year he was awarded his most important commission, the decoration of the hemicycle (auditorium) of the École des Beaux-Arts, which took him four years to complete. This work was considered a success by most conservative and moderate critics. With the 1840s portraiture became a substantial part of his production. At the end of his life, he had begun a four-picture series of scenes from the life of the Virgin and completed one (The Virgin Contemplating the Crown of Thorns, 1856). Delaroche's teaching atelier attracted a variety of young artists, such as Couture (q.v.), Gérôme (q.v.), and Millet (q.v.). Delaroche closed the studio in 1843 after the death of one of his students during a hazing prank.