French Art – Renaissance In France (1475-1589)

THE Renaissance of Art in France is often regarded as some clearly-defined, sudden outburst of Classic Art.—As a movement due to the invasion of Italian artists and workmen—to the influx of classical ideas and models—at a given moment. It has been commonly said that art in France had reached a period of senility. And that if it had not been for the timely infusion of new blood from Italy, the worn-out French artistic genius would have wholly disappeared. But those who, free from prejudice and the trammels of tradition, have studied the period with the most complete insight and honesty,—those who have not allowed themselves to be blinded by trite, cut-and-dried assertions, which from constant repetition come at last to be accepted as fact,—those who have learnt to appreciate the inherent and persistent vitality of the national genius of France—recognise that the Renaissance of the 16th century had its beginnings long before ever an Italian artist or workman set foot in France.

Throughout the Gothic period of the Middle Ages, such a Renaissance—an afflatus of new ideas, aims, motives—an awakening to new life—a desire to make life more beautiful, more perfect—had taken place more than once in France. Boccaccio had come to French Fabliaux for outlines of his stories. Dante attributed the origin of Miniature painting to Paris. And the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries witnessed the great outburst of chivalry and the doctrines of romantic love in Provence—prompting the rough, strong middle age ” to seek after the springs of perfect sweetness in the Hellenic world “.

Thus the later Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, is not, to quote Mr. Pater, ” so much the introduction of a ” wholly new taste ready-made from Italy, but rather the ” finest and subtlest phase of the middle age itself, its last ” fleeting splendour and temperate St. Martin’s summer “.

” For us the Renaissance is the name of a many-sided yet ” united movement, in which the love of things of the Intellect and the imagination for their own sake, the desire for ” a more liberal and comely way of conceiving life, make ” themselves felt, urging those who experience this desire to ” search out first one and then another means of intellectual ” or imaginative enjoyment, and directing them not only to ” the discovery of old and forgotten sources of this enjoy-” ment, but to the divination of fresh sources thereof—new ” experiences, new subjects of poetry, new forms of art.” 1

It is towards the end of Louis XI.’s reign about 1475, that we arrive at the psychologic moment, when the ground has been sufficiently prepared, and the Court of France is ready to acknowledge Italy as arbiter of taste. This is the actual beginning of the period commonly known as the Renaissance of Art in France—of that great wave of Italian taste and influence which swept over the country, there to be arrested and transmuted by French genius ; sweetening and modifying the harshness and ruggedness of Franco-Flemish Art, without in any degree destroying the national character, the true French ideal, which welcomed the invading influence then, as it has so often done before and since, and bent it to its own uses.

This Renaissance of Art embraces two distinct periods.

The first, as I have said, begins at the end of the reign of Louis XI., about 1475. And ends with the death of François I., 1547.

The second begins with the accession of Henri II. And ends with the assassination of Henri III., in 1589.

The first period covers the reigns of Louis XI. (part), Charles VIII., Louis XII., François I. The second period those of Henri II., Charles IX., Henri III.

The movement reaches its high-water mark during the reign of François I. And gradually ebbs, after the brilliant epoch under Henri II., until it dies out at the accession of Henri IV., giving place to new ideals, new aims, new methods. And here let us at once note a misapprehension which has obtained the widest belief. François I. is generally looked upon as, if not the actual originator of the Renaissance, at all events its strongest patron, on whom it absolutely depended for existence. Frederick the Great wrote that François I. ” created Art in France ” ! Many others have made assertions almost as loose and incorrect. But the fact is that Art had naturally reached a culminating point. François I. merely had the rare good fortune to be reigning at that moment, and to possess the taste and the power to encourage the art of the day, without either initiating, guiding, or controlling it.

Many causes had prepared the way for this remarkable movement. For nearly a century France had been gradually becoming better acquainted with her transalpine neighbour. Intercourse between the countries of Europe was growing easier. Ties had been strengthened, and curiosity awakened by Arts of War and Arts of Peace. Among these combining causes, were the conquests of the House of Anjou. The residence of the Popes at Avignon. The Duc de Berry’s relations with Italy. The marriage of Louis d’Orléans and Valentine Visconti, etc., etc.

But four causes more especially contributed to bring Italy and Italian Art closer to the knowledge of French artists.

1. The first and chief of these was Jean Foucquet’s journey to Italy, 1440-1445.

2. The embassy to Rome of Étienne Chevalier, Argentier to Charles VII.

3. The embassy of De Commines to Florence.

4. The ephemeral reign of King René de Provence, in Italy.

Jean Foucquet’s journey is one of the most important dates in the history of French Art. Foucquet, at that time not thirty years old, but already chief of the school of Tours, was summoned to Rome to paint the portrait of Pope Eugene IV. And the influence of his sojourn there, upon his own mind and those of his contemporaries, proved to be immense ; as he returned to his native country wholly captivated by the Art and life of Italy. King René carried his love of things Italian still further. For he was almost the first to encourage the importation of Italian artists into France. He was in close relations with the Della Robbias ; and attached the sculptor Francesco Laurana to his person. And here we find a curious evidence of the vigour and individuality of the French spirit. While Foucquet endeavours, but in vain—for he remains French to the end—to Italianize himself, Laurana is strongly influenced by French forms ; as may be seen in the cenotaph to King René’s brother, the Comte de Maine, at Le Mans.

The work thus begun, was completed by Charles VIII.’s Italian campaign. The Court was now fascinated and en-chanted by Italian luxury—by the riches, the art, the elegance and refinement of living they found in Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples. Charles VIII. summoned a crowd of sculptors and decorators from Italy—Guido Manzoni of Modena among them ; and Jérome de Fiesole, who decorated Amboise which became a sumptuous museum of Italian Art.

Under Louis XII. the Italian influence grows stronger. The King orders at Genoa the splendid tomb for St. Denis, in memory of Louis d’Orléans and Valentine Visconti. The nobles follow suit. Raoul de Launoy, Governor of Genoa, orders from Della Porta, the sumptuous tomb now in the Church of Folleville (Somme). Briçonnet has Italians to decorate his Hotel d’Alluye at Blois. So has Lallemand at Bourges. And when Georges d’Amboise, the famous minister of Louis XII., builds Chateau Gaillon, he engages ” ornemantistes italiens ” to work under the direction of his French architect, Pierre Fain.

The continual and increasing intercourse between France and Italy is now not merely that of individuals. The whole army and noblesse of France under Charles VIII., Louis XII., and François I., overflow Italy ; and come back laden not only with material spoils, but with those far more precious spoils of the intelligence—with Italian ideas and examples of life and living, which respond to the growing desires of the French for a fuller, more refined, more beautiful conduct of existence.

Italy looked on life as a work of art. To the natural gifts of the country, adored by the Classics, light, space, shade, water, flowers, she now added the splendours of modern civilization—riches, luxury—the pleasures of a re-fined and highly cultivated society. And in this gracious setting she placed ” the complete man “. His body, no longer despised as in the gloomier Middle Ages, when the human frame was contemned—fit only for constant mortification, to be kept under as a thing vile, hateful, and of no account—but now trained with deliberate intention to the utmost perfection of form and strength. His soul and his mind perfected also in their fullest development—enriched by the experience of all possible sides of existence. Man, with rights to realize his own ideals and ends—the right to be and to enjoy, in the highest attainable degree. Man, expanding into a richness of being in his three supreme powers —action, understanding, feeling.

In France this perfected ideal of life was eagerly assimilated. And it quickly showed its results in Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, as well as literature. A natural daintiness of hand—” netteté d’exécution “—has always been a characteristic of French Art. And as Mr. Pater has pointed out, we find this exemplified to the full in the works of the Renaissance. In the silvery colour and clearness of expression in Clouet’s paintings, as distinct from the greater solidity of the great Flemings, Memling and the Van Eycks. In Villon’s poetry, and the Hours of Anne of Brittany. In the beauty of carvings and traceries with which the strong, even heavy Gothic forms were now overlaid. In the Chateau de Gaillon — ” a Gothic donjon veiled ” faintly by a surface of delicate Italian traceries ” we find a key to the whole matter. The ponderous mass is softened and beautified by the exquisite taste of those who now demanded what was refined, what was graceful.

Through the Middle Ages, France had been broken up into many states—Kingdoms within the Kingdom—of which the powerful princes and nobles had been almost—in some cases completely—independent sovereigns, only owing fealty to the King, as vassals to the Suzerain. Art, as I have shown, was in a parallel condition, consisting of many independent and indigenous schools. But by degrees these separate states politic, and separate schools artistic, had been slowly welded together, and centralized after the fashion of all things French. ” The King was at last King, and his ” Court took the initiative both in politics and art,” as Lady Dilke admirably says. It is therefore to the Court that we must look henceforth, as the centre of artistic movement. During the reigns of Louis XI., Charles VIII., and Louis XII., the Court was not in Paris, but at Tours. And thus Touraine and the course of the Loire becomes the head-quarters of the early Renaissance and the Italian movement. With François I. the Court is transferred to Paris. And the centre of artistic activity moves with it.

It is in Touraine, under the pressure of Italian influences, that we find an artistic phenomenon of the highest importance. M. Courajod has happily defined this, as ” la détente ” du style Franco-Flamand “. ” To the ruggedness, the ” harshness of the Burgundian School, in which all the ” endeavours of the 14th century are summed up, a sort of ” tender languor succeeds—a milder, amended interpretation ” of nature, a kind of sobriety, of calm and discreet emotion, ” a preoccupation with elegance and distinction which are ” to be the mark of the period.”

Two men stand pre-eminent in influence in the impulse now given to French Art: Jean Perréal and Michel Colombe.

Jean Perréal of Lyons was the principal instrument of the vogue for things Italian—” the chief, who at the head of the ” men of the south, led the assault on French liberties with ” the greatest ardour “. He was one of those universal geniuses, ” l’homme à tout faire, l’homme à la mode,” who is almost as disconcerting to posterity as Jean Cousin. For like Jean Cousin, he left an immense reputation, without any one typical work surviving which justifies his fame. He was in turn painter, sculptor, architect, poet, decorator, miniaturist, or verrier. As hardly more than a youth, we find him indispensable to the City of Lyons in organising the splendid receptions and public entries of Cardinal, King, or Queen. And from 1494 he entered the Royal service, accompanying successive Kings in their Italian campaigns, and bringing back to Tours and to Paris fresh inspirations for every branch of Art.

While the restless, clever, ambitious Perréal—” nostre second Zeusis ou Apelles en painture “—closely attached to the Court, was bringing all his powers to bear on the introduction of Italian ideas, a remarkable development in sculpture was taking place in Touraine. During the reign of Charles VIII. Italian influence is shown simultaneously in the sculpture of Poitou, Gascony, Forez, the Lyonnais, Burgundy, etc. But under Louis XII., these isolated efforts are dominated by the school of Tours. And Michel Colombe’s influence makes itself felt all through French Sculpture. The school of Tours under Michel Colombe is the result of the fusion of North and South. It was the school of Tours which established the formulas of the new ideal. And the works of Michel Colombe are its most charming and most significant manifestation.

Michel Colombe is one of the great figures of France. Born in Brittany, his origin and his education were Gothic. In his youth he travelled, and studied the works of the great Flemish-Burgundians. Penetrated with memories of Jean de Cambrai, Claux Sluter, De Werwe, Le Moiturier, and Jacques Morel he returned to Tours. And in the very centre of Italian influence, he set to work to apply what he had learnt from the strong and rugged old masters. The result is a singularly beautiful and interesting one. In his work we see the loftiest and strongest qualities of Gothic work, combined with the new sensations supplied by the Renaissance. ln the prodigious group—the Saint Sépulcre, in the Church of Solesmes, we are instantly reminded of Sluter, of Jean de Cambrai, of Beauneveu. While at the same moment delicate arabesques speak to us of Italy. The famous Saint-George from Chateau Gaillon, (now in the Louvre) is perhaps the most perfect example of this fusion. Saint George alone is Italian. All the rest is purely French—the landscape, the trees, the Princesse Lydie, who is a young French girl in dress and type. While the Dragon is the Tarasque of the Cathedral of Aix.

In these works of Michel Colombe’s—and still more when the Renaissance has full sway under François I.—we find that the innovators, such as Jean Perréal, bring all their forces to bear on ornament ; while statuary remains almost untouched by Italian feeling. In the first period of the Renaissance, architectural forms remain French, while the decoration ” s’enguirlande à l’Italienne “. For the first agent of transmission of Italian Art throughout Europe, is ornament borrowed from the antique, and introduced through the commerce of furniture, dress and personal adornments. The base of the structure remains solidly Gothic. The clothing of the structure, by means of classic arabesque, alone becomes Italian. This is to be seen in all the buildings of the time of Louis XII. and François I., at Blois, Orleans, Chambord, Azay le Rideau, St. Germain, Chateau de Madrid, etc. Gothic ornament, elaborated by the genius of the French race “with such marvellous intuition, such logical perfection, ” such entire originality,” is alone attacked by the great current of Italian influence. Statuary, whose object is the human figure, especially statuary of an iconic character, remains almost untouched by foreign ideals. One of the most remarkable instances of this is the monument of De Commines (now in the Louvre). Here the effigies are purely French. The ornaments are distinctly Italian—in the style of those by Jerome de Fiésole at Solesmes, and the tomb of the Children of Charles VIII. at Tours.

After Michel Colombe’s death in 1512, there was a pause in French Sculpture. The Franco-Flemish tendencies were completely exhausted. Sculpture under François I. became essentially architectural and ornamental. ” Of the ideas, ” sentiments, methods, of the sublime Middle Ages, still alive ” at the death of Michel Colombe, nothing remains but vague ” reminiscence. The spirit of antiquity triumphs without ” hindrance.” 1 The evolution of the Italian and classical ideal, begun under Charles VIII., touches its apogee. France was now overrun by an army of Italian artists, who, with Andrea del Sarto, found profitable as well as appreciative patronage

” In that humane great monarch’s golden look ” One finger in his beard or twisted curl ” Over his mouth’s good mark that made the smile, ” One arm about my shoulder, round my neck, ” The jingle of his gold chain in my ear, ” I painting proudly with his breath on me, ” All his Court round him, seeing with his eyes, ” Such frank French eyes, and such a fire of souls ” Profuse, my hand kept plying by those hearts.”

The great Leonardo da Vinci was getting his 700 crowns at Tours. Primaticcio and Rosso were painting at Fontainebleau. And that delightful swashbuckler of genius, Benvenuto Cellini, was making his immortal silver and bronze statuettes, his golden bowls and salt cellars, in the Petit Nesle for his Sacred Majesty—abusing the architecture of the door at Fontainebleau, ” in their vicious French ” style ” ; and designing the great fountain which makes the King exclaim in a strong voice, ” Verily, I have found a man ” here after my own heart.”

Under the tremendous pressure of this wave of foreign and classic influence, we ask, will it be possible for France to discover the elements of a new, expressive, homogeneous Art—to give proof once more of her ever-fertile, living, national spirit. This is the noble task to which the great artists of the reign of Henri II. are about to apply themselves. We now see how the national genius once more asserts itself. How the permanent instincts of the French race triumph over formulas which seemed destined to crush them for ever. How in painting, sculpture, and architecture, French Art, as I have said, merely takes what suits its own genius from the foreign invaders, and remains absolutely true to its own ideals.

Of painting of the Renaissance, I must speak in another chapter.

It is in portraiture that French Sculpture found its safe-guard against the most violent attacks of ultramontanism. In portraiture the French genius has always taken refuge, and has found strength, counsel, and inspiration. And portraits of the Renaissance remain in essence absolutely French, even when they endeavour to be Italian. The bust of Dordet de Montai (Louvre)—the effigy of Guillaume de Rochefort (Beaux Arts)—and many more anonymous portrait busts, tell us that the French spirit was not dead. It was but pausing. Feeling its way. Preparing for some fresh effort. When the time is ripe, the new ideal springs into life in strange perfection. One of the most brilliant epoques of French sculpture now dawns. And its most absolute expression is found in the works of Jean Goujon.

The sculptor of the 16th century was still, as he had been in the Middle Ages, a workman, taking orders from his employer the architect. And at first we find Goujon employed at Rouen Cathedral and Saint-Maclou, for designs of the doors and fountain. Then, leaving Rouen, he joins the band of distinguished men who were restoring St. Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris, under the direction of Pierre Lescot. But he soon ceased to work for the Church. For it was the Court which now occupied the position, so long and so splendidly filled by the Church, as patron of art. ” The ” development of secular magnificence eclipsed the brilliance ” of ecclesiastical splendour.”‘ Instead of churches, palaces were now built. And every resource of Art was brought to bear on these superb dwellings, by an army of artists—sculptors, painters, verriers, enamellers, tapestry and metal workers, under the supreme direction of such architects as Bastien François, Le Nepveu, Philibert de l’Orme, Bullant, and Pierre Lescot, aided by such sculptors as Goujon, Germain Pilon, Barthelemy Prieur, etc.

During the second period of the Renaissance, from the death of François I. to that of Henri III., the Gothic form of Architecture gradually disappears, with the last semblance of defence in the Chateaux. We see in its place, the perfecting of that singular adaptation of classical styles to the requirements of the country, from which the great architects of the 16th century evolved such conceptions as Chambord and Azay le Rideau, Anet and Ecouen, the Louvre and the Tuileries.

Society is now growing more complex and more luxurious. The Chateau is no longer the Chateau-fort—the place of defence : but the splendid country-house or palace, in which each great noble gathers a little court about him, as does the King with a larger court. A palace in which there must be space and room, and rooms in which each can live their own life, as well as the life of society—in which they can surround themselves with precious possessions, with works of art, books, pictures, costly hangings and ornaments. And in these palaces each princely personage—Duke or Cardinal—Count or Constable—has his own lesser train of poets, painters, sculptors, architects, attached to his person, as has the King on a larger scale. This period, therefore, sees the complete transition from the Maison forte, to the Maison de plaisance. The indications of this transition can be traced from the middle of the 15th century. At Langeais, Lady Duke has pointed out that in a fortress of the Middle Ages we find the first sign of the coming change. The interior battlements of the court are replaced by a cornice. While at Chenonceau, Azay le Rideau, Blois, Chambord, the cornice replaces the outside battlements ; and ” its bold projecting ” lines encircle each building with a crown.”

The French instinct for line and order now asserts itself afresh. The dormers are grouped symmetrically. The croisées are arranged one above the other. ” Not only do all ” openings at irregular intervals disappear before the growing ” exigencies of an instinct which marshals even the smallest ” details into fitting place within an ordained framework of ” well-considered lines, but gradually all these openings are ” so placed as to give the perpendicular lines of the general ” design.”

At Chenonceau, in the first year of the reign of François I., we get the earlier form of the Chateau. The idea of defence is not yet wholly abandoned. But the walls and moats are a mere pretence, enclosing nothing but gardens and courts. Ten years later at Chambord, the Gothic form is still maintained in the structure. ” Late Gothic caprice and ” fantastic love of the unforeseen rule triumphant.” But the ornament belongs to the Renaissance. And in the interior, galleries, passages, numbers of smaller rooms as well as halls of state, testify to the complete change of architectural arrangement, to meet the exigencies of this complex and pleasure-loving society. At Azay le Rideau, all pretence of defence has been abandoned. The entrance is a lofty portal richly carved, as is the superb staircase it supports. François I’s salamander, and Claude of Brittany’s ermine, decorate the frieze ; and the arcade which connects the ground floor and upper storeys, is exquisite with arabesques of the highest beauty.

At the Chateau de Longchamps, or Madrid, in the Bois de Boulogne, of which nothing alas ! remains but drawings and plans, as it wag completely destroyed at the Revolution—we find the actual Maison de plaisance. Its covered galleries, its secret chambers, its great garde robes for armour, and weapons, and jewels, and the thirty suits that every self-respecting courtier must possess, its enamelled tiles, friezes, medallions, by no less an artist than Girolamo della Robbia—all fitted solely for the gay luxury of François I. and his Court. Though built by Italian workmen, Madrid is an example of the ” controlling force of French taste “. It is not, as might naturally have been expected, an Italian Palace, but a French summer country-house. And it shows in a noteworthy manner how France seized upon Italian ideas, transmuted them by the inherent nationality of her art, and produced a purely French result.

With Écouen and Anet, the Tuileries and the Louvre, we reach the full expression of the second period of the French Renaissance. At Écouen, Jean Bullant, in building it for the Connétable Anne de Montmorency, has given us an historical document of the highest interest. For it shows more than any other French Chateau, the final departure from the Gothic traditions. The deep fosse on three sides is a reminiscence it is true, of defence. But that is merely a fanciful detail, a complimentary allusion to the profession of the rough and violent Constable, and is not maintained by the rest of the building. The lavish use of pillar and pilaster —the portal covered with rich decoration, with Doric and Ionic columns and arcades, all crowned by the great statue of the Constable riding aloft above the entrance—” the ” exuberant profusion of creeping ornament which over-” flows the bordering lines of every frieze,” all show us that a new era has dawned. While at Anet we find the supreme example of the French Summer Palace. The Chateau was built by Philibert de l’Orme for Diane de Poitiers. She was able easily to pay for it out of the ” paulette,” which had been presented to her by Henri II. on his accession ; and the work was pushed forward and finished in an incredibly short time. It occupied three sides of a square, the fourth being filled by the elaborate gateway and its accessories, with Acteon and his hounds above it. Colonnades, galleries, and a terrace give dignity to the elevation. And round about, enclosed in walls, are immense gardens and courts, in one of which, high above the waters of a fountain, Diana herself in the guise of the goddess her namesake, reposes with her stag and her dogs, immortalised by the chisel of Jean Goujon.

The Court having been transferred from Touraine to Paris, the later years of François I. and the reign of Henri II., show increased activity and occupation with regard to the Royal residences of the capital. Besides building the Chateau de Longchamps, François I. put Fontainebleau into the hands of Rosso and Primaticcio. And in 1546 he appointed Pierre Lescot as director of the works at the Louvre.

In 1564 another great palace close by the Louvre was begun. The Queen-Mother, Catherine de Medicis, recalled Philibert de l’Orme, the builder of Anet, who for five years had been in disgrace. And in May the foundations were laid of the Palace of the Tuileries. De l’Orme must have been considerably hampered in this work. For Catherine, who prided herself on her knowledge of Architecture, not only closely superintended the work, but made working drawings for the building. In the original plans of the Tuileries, the. colonnade, which supports a terrace on a level with the first storey, recalls the elevation of Anet. These show not only the single line of building, but a large group, with minor courts round a central court. The central pavilion, remark-able for an enchanting spiral staircase, and its wings, were alone finished in de l’Orme’s lifetime. And in spite of the extravagances of ornament which Catherine endeavoured to force on her architect, the building has the dignity we find in all good Renaissance work. The Palace, however, was unfortunate from the beginning. At de l’Orme’s death in 1570, Bullant succeeded to his various appointments, and carried on the work at the Tuileries. He added the two pavilions on the North and South, and broke up the front with numberless columns, deep cut niches, and a wealth of elaborate detail of ornament in every possible place. And although de l’Orme’s central pavilion and its wings were completely re-fashioned under Louis XIV., and the spiral staircase destroyed, Bullant’s pavilions remained almost untouched in all their beauty, until the Commune of 1871.

With the Tuileries and the Louvre we near the end of the Renaissance. The great wave that had flooded France with love of the beautiful, with the desire for a comely and liberal manner of living, with enthusiasm for things of the intellect, had spent its force. When Lescot died in 1578, the spirit of the Renaissance was dying too. But in the hundred years that spirit held sway in the fair land of France, it had accomplished its work. The teaching of the Humanists had changed the aspect of life for all and each. Modern civilization was an established fact.