French Painting 16th, 17th, And 18th-Century

EARLY FRENCH ART: Painting in France did not, as in Italy, spring directly from Christianity, though it dealt with the religious subject. From the beginning a decorative motive—the strong feature of French art—appears as the chief motive of painting. This showed itself largely in church ornament, garments, tapestries, miniatures, and illuminations. Mural paintings were produced during the fifth century, probably in imitation of Italian or Roman example.

Under Charlemagne, in the eighth century, Byzantine influences were at work. In the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries much stained-glass work appeared, and also many missal paintings and furniture decorations.

In the fifteenth century Rene of Anjou (1408–1480), king and painter, gave an impetus to art which he perhaps originally received from Italy. His work showed some Italian influence mingled with a great deal of Flemish precision, and corresponded for France to the early Renaissance work of Italy, though by no means so advanced. Contemporary with Rene was Jean Fouquet (1415?–1480?) an illuminator and portrait-painter, one of the earliest in French history. He was an artist- of some original characteristics and produced an art detailed and exact in its realism. Jean Pereal(?–1528?) and Jean Bourdichon (1457 ?-1521 ?) with Fouquet’s pupils and sons, formed a school at Tours which afterward came to show some Italian influence. The native workmen at Paris—they sprang up from illuminators to painters in all probability—showed more of the Flemish influence. Neither of the schools of the fifteenth century reflected much life or thought, but what there was of it was native to the soil, though their methods were influenced from without.

SIXTEENTH-CENTURY PAINTING: During this century Francis I., at Fontainebleau, seems to have encouraged two schools of painting, one the native French and the other an imported Italian, which afterward took to itself the name of the ” School of Fontainebleau.” Of the native artists the Clouets were the most conspicuous. They were of Flemish origin, and followed Flemish methods both in technic and mediums. There were four of them, of whom Jean (1485?–1541?) and Francois (1500?–1572?) were the most noteworthy. They painted many portraits, and Francois’ work, bearing some resemblance to that of Holbein, it has been doubtfully said that he was a pupil of that painter. All of their work was remarkable for detail and closely followed facts.

The Italian importation came about largely through the travels of Francis I. in Italy. He invited to Fontainebleau Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Il Rosso, Primaticcio, and Nicollo dell’ Abbate. These painters rather superseded and greatly influenced the French painters. The result was an Italianized school of French art which ruled in France for many years. Primaticcio was probably the greatest of the influencers, remaining as he did for thirty years in France. The native painters, Jean Cousin (1500 ?—1 589) and Toussaint du Breuil (1561–1602) followed his style, and in the next century the painters were even more servile imitators of Italy—imitating not the best models either, but the Mannerists, the Eclectics, and the Roman painters of the Decadence.

SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY PAINTING: This was a century of great development and production in France, the time of the founding of the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and the formation of many picture collections. In the first part of the century the Flemish and native tendencies existed, but they were overawed, outnumbered by the Italian. Not even Rubens’s painting for Marie de’ Medici, in the palace of the Luxembourg, could stem the tide of Italy. The French painters flocked to Rome to study the art of their great predecessors and were led astray by the flashy elegance of the late Italians. Among the earliest of this century was Freminet (1567-1619). He was first taught by his father and Jean Cousin, but afterward spent fifteen years in Italy studying Parmigianino and Michael Angelo. His work had something of the Mannerist style about it and was overwrought and exaggerated. In shadows he seemed to have borrowed from Caravaggio. Vouet (1590-1649) was a student in Italy of Veronese’s painting and afterward of Guido Reni and Caravaggio. He was a mediocre artist, but had a great vogue in France and left many celebrated pupils.

By all odds the best painter of this time was Nicolas Poussin (1593-1665). He lived almost all of his life in Italy, and might be put down as an Italian of the Decadence. He was well versed in classical archaeology, and had much of the classic taste and feeling prevalent at that time in the Roman school of Giulio Romano. His work showed great intelligence and had an elevated grandiloquent style about it that was impressive. It reflected nothing French, and had little more root in present human sympathy than any of the other painting of the time, but it was better done. The drawing was correct if severe, the composition agree-able if formal, the coloring variegated if violent. Many of his pictures have now changed for the worse in coloring owing to the dissipation of surface pigments. He was the founder of the classic and academic in French art, and in influence was the most important man of the century. He was especially strong in the heroic landscape, and in this branch helped form the style of his brother-in-law, Gaspard (Dughet) Poussin (1613-1675).

The landscape painter of the period, however, was Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). He differed from Poussin in making his pictures depend more strictly upon landscape than upon figures. With both painters, the trees, mountains, valleys, buildings, figures, were of the grand classic variety. Hills and plains, sylvan groves, flowing streams, peopled harbors, Ionic and Corinthian temples, Roman aqueducts, mythological groups, were the materials used, and the object of their use was to show the ideal dwelling-place of man—the former Garden of the Gods. Panoramic and slightly theatrical at times, Claude’s work was not without its poetic side, shrewd knowledge, and skilful execution. He was a leader in landscape, the man who first put a real sun in the heavens and shed its light upon earth. There is a soft summer’s-day drowsiness, a golden haze of atmosphere, a feeling of composure and restfulness about his pictures that are attractive. Like Poussin he depended much upon long sweeping lines in composition, and upon effects of linear perspective.

COURT PAINTING: When Louis XIV came to the throne painting took on a decided character, but it was hardly national or race character. The popular idea, if the people had an idea, did not obtain. There was no motive springing from the French except an inclination to follow Italy; and in Italy all the great art – motives were dead. In method the French painters followed the late Italians, and imitated an imitation ; in matter they bowed to the dictates of the court and reflected the king’s mock-heroic spirit. Echoing the fashion of the day, painting became pompous, theatrical, grandiloquent—a mass of vapid vanity utterly lacking in sincerity and truth. Lebrun (1619–1690), painter in ordinary to the king, directed substantially all the painting of the reign. He aimed at pleasing royalty with flattering allusions to Caesarism and extravagant personifications of the king as a classic conqueror. His art had neither truth, nor genius, nor great skill, and so sought to startle by subject or size. Enormous canvases of Alexander’s triumphs, in allusion to those of the great Louis, were turned out to order, and Versailles to this day is tapestried with battle – pieces in which Louis is always victor. Considering the amount of work done, Lebrun showed great fecundity and industry, but none of it has much more than a mechanical ingenuity about it. It was rather original in composition, but poor in drawing, lighting, and coloring ; and its example upon the painters of the time was pernicious.

His contemporary, Le Sueur (1616-1655), was a more sympathetic and sincere painter, if not a much better technician. Both were pupils of Vouet, but Le Sueur’s art was religious in subject, while Lebrun’s was military and monarchical. Le Sueur had a feeling for his theme, but was a weak painter, inclined to the sentimental, thin in coloring, and not at all certain in his drawing. French allusions to him as ” the French Raphael ” show more national complacency than correctness. Sebastian Bourdon (1616–1671) was another painter of history, but a little out of the Lebrun circle. He was not, however, free from the influence of Italy, where he spent three years studying color more than drawing. This shows in his works, most of which are lacking in form.

Contemporary with these men was a group of portrait-painters who gained celebrity perhaps as much by their subjects as by their own powers. They were facile flatterers given over to the pomps of the reign and mirroring all its absurdities of fashion. Their work has a graceful, smooth appearance, and, for its time, it was undoubtedly excellent portraiture. Even to this day it has qualities of drawing and coloring to commend it, and at times one meets with exceptionally good work. The leaders among these portrait-painters were Philip de Champaigne (1602-1674), the best of his time ; Pierre Mignard (1610 ?-1695), a pupil of Vouet, who studied in Rome and afterward re-turned to France to become the successful rival of Lebrun ; Largilliere (1656–1746) and Rigaud (1659-1743).

EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY PAINTING: The painting of Louis XIV’s time was continued into the eighteenth century for some fifteen years or more with little change. With the advent of Louis XV. art took upon itself another character, and one that reflected perfectly the moral, social, and political France of the eighteenth century. The first Louis clamored for glory, the second Louis revelled in gayety, frivolity, and sensuality. This was the difference between both monarchs and both arts. The gay and the coquettish in painting had already been introduced by the Regent, himself a dilettante in art, and when Louis XV. came to the throne it passed from the gay to the insipid, the flippant, even the erotic. Shepherds and shepherdesses dressed in court silks and satins with cottony sheep beside them posed in stage-set Arcadias, pretty gods and goddesses reclined indolently upon gossamer clouds, and court gallants lounged under artificial trees by artificial ponds making love to pretty soubrettes from the theatre.

Yet, in spite of the lack of moral and intellectual elevation, in spite of frivolity and make-believe, this art was infinitely better than the pompous imitation of foreign example set up by Louis XIV. It was more spontaneous, more original, more French. The influence of Italy began to fail, and the painters began to mirror French life. It was largely court life, lively, vivacious, licentious, but in that very respect characteristic of the time. Moreover, there was another quality about it that showed French taste at its best–the decorative quality. It can hardly be supposed that the fairy creations of the age were intended to represent actual nature. They were designed to ornament hall and boudoir, and in pure decorative delicacy of design, lightness of touch, color charm, they have never been ex-celled. The serious spirit was lacking, but the gayety of line and color was well given.

Watteau (1684-1721) was the one chiefly responsible for the coquette and soubrette of French art, and Watteau was, practically speaking, the first French painter. His subjects were trifling bits of fashionable love-making, scenes from the opera, fetes, balls, and the like. All his characters played at life in parks and groves that never grew, and most of his color was beautifully unreal ; but for all that the work was original, decorative, and charming. Moreover, Watteau was a brushman, and introduced not only a new spirit and new subject into art, but a new method. The epic treatment of the Italians was laid aside in favor of a genre treatment, and instead of line and flat surface Watteau introduced color and cleverly laid pigment. He was a brilliant painter ; not a great man in thought or imagination, but one of fancy, delicacy, and skill. Unfortunately he set a bad example by his gay subjects, and those who came after him carried his gayety and lightness of spirit into exaggeration. Watteau’s best pupils were Lancret (1690–1743) and Pater (1695–1736), who painted in his style with fair results.

After these men came Van Loo (1705–1765) and Boucher (1703–1770), who turned Watteau’s charming fetes, showing the costumes and manners of the Regency, into flippant extravagance. Not only was the moral tone and intellectual stamina of their art far below that of Watteau, but their workmanship grew defective. Both men possessed a remarkable facility of the hand and a keen decorative color-sense ; but after a time both became stereotyped and mannered. Drawing and modelling were neglected, light was wholly conventional, and landscape turned into a piece of embroidered background with a Dresden china-tapestry effect about it. As decoration the general effect was often excellent, as a serious expression of life it was very weak, as an intellectual or moral force it was worse than worth-less. Fragonard (1732–1806) followed in a similar style, but was a more knowing man, clever in color, and a much freer and better brushman.

A few painters in the time of Louis XV remained apparently unaffected by the court influence, and stand in conspicuous isolation. Claude JosephVernet (1712–1789) was a landscape and marine painter of some repute in his time. He had a sense of the pictorial, but not a remarkable sense of the truthful in nature. Chardin (1699–1779) and Greuze (1725–1805), clung to portrayals of humble life and sought to popularize the genre subject. Chardin was not appreciated by the masses. His frank realism, his absolute sincerity of purpose, his play of light and its effect upon color, and his charming handling of textures were comparatively unnoticed. Yet as a colorist he may be ranked second to none in French art, and in freshness of handling his work is a model for present-day painters. Diderot early recognized Chardin’s excellence, and many artists since his day have admired his pictures ; but he is not now a well-known or popular painter. The populace fancies Greuze and his sentimental heads of young girls. They have a prettiness about them that is attractive, but as art they lack in force, and in workmanship they are too smooth, finical, and thin in handling.

PRINCIPAL WORKS: All of these French painters are best represented in the collections of the Louvre. Some of the other galleries, like the Dresden, Berlin, and National at London, have examples of their work ; but the masterpieces are with the French people in the Louvre and in the other municipal galleries of France.