French Painting – The Early Renaissance

IT was the good fortune of France to receive the wine of Italian culture when she was ready to assimilate its heady strength; when, in fact, she was already a strong and growing nation with a vigorous culture all her own. Other nations were less lucky, at least as far as painting is concerned. England at this period was growing lustily, but her background of culture was only meager. Consequently, when the Renaissance reached her, mainly filtered through the French, it found a Shakespeare to fertilize but no painting. Nearly two hundred years had to elapse before there were English painters ready for the Italian influence, by which time the adoption of the latter was largely an affectation. The same is true of Germany, after a still longer period of waiting. The great tradition of Dürer and Holbein was checked by the Reformation; and, when the Renaissance reached her, it found no native culture to ferment. In lieu of it was a tradition of independence and profound religious feeling and these it fertilized. Germany enriched the world with ideas of civil and religious liberty, but at the expense of art. Only little Holland effected for a time the union of the three. As for Italy sooner or later she fructified the world; but her own harvest, of culture was raised upon a soil, already impoverished and continually growing poorer. The dawn of the fifteenth century broke upon the beginning of her highest splendor ; the close of the century saw it set. Twilight passed into a night, that until the nineteenth century remained unbroken. Meanwhile France, even before the collapse of Italian culture, began to be the arbiter and dispenser of art to the modern world and has maintained the role to the present day.

To what must the phenomenon be attributed? Firstly, to the fact already mentioned that at the time of her contact with Italian culture France already had a glorious past in architecture and sculpture and was growing in nationality, with a living literature and art of painting that were racy of the French character. To her the Renaissance did not come as a new birth, but as a reinforcement and refinement of a vigorous life. Secondly, she demonstrated again and not for the last time, her racial capacity of assimilation. Even as she had borrowed from Celtic or German lore and fashioned what she took into literature distinguishably French, and had cast in a like national mold her borrowings from Flemish and German painting, and earlier from Byzantine art; so now, while she reveled in the Renaissance banquet, she digested what she took and made it a part of herself. But a third reason is to be found in that element of poise in the esprit gaulois; an attitude of philosophic gaiety, that while it can be serious, escapes the barrenness of too exclusive seriousness. Accordingly, in France at this period there was no unbridgable gap between religion and art. Catholics and Reformers alike could be humanists, devoted to liberal culture, which did not, as in Italy, tend to paganism. Calvin himself was a prime absorber of humanism, deriving from it a lucidity, precision, grace and pregnancy of style that reacted most invigoratingly on the thought and literature of the period. Poise was displayed in the critical and practical spirit that characterized the acceptance of the new culture. Generally speaking, it was one of unqualified joy in the discovery, of restraint and discretion in the use of it. This affected to some extent the choice of subject matter; but still more the method of handling it. On the one hand, the inflated style of the “Rhetoriqueurs,” which had crept into French writing toward the end of the fifteenth century, was abandoned for simple and direct expression ; on the other, the vocabulary and structure of the language became enriched, more flexible and more subtle by contact with Italian and Classic literature. This was ultimately the effect that the Italian Renaissance exerted upon French painting.

The first printing press was set up in Paris in 1470, nine years before the birth of the great printer and editor, Jean Grolier. By the end of the century, presses had been established in eighteen other cities, scattered over the country from Caen in the North to the Southern town of Perpignan. The appetite for the new learning and the preparedness for it were, in fact, nationwide. Hence it resulted that, when France obtained a hold on humanistic culture, she leapt at once into the position of being the European leader of scholarship. The University of Paris became the center of the movement, chiefly through the transcending ability of Gillaume Bude, better known by his Latinized name, Budaeus. As librarian to Francis I, he formed a notable collection of Greek manuscripts and was the first to interpret the Greek texts on scientific and scholarly lines. He wrote as ably in the French tongue as in Greek and Latin; and was hailed by Calvin as “the foremost glory and support of literature, by whose service our France claims for herself to-day the palm of erudition.” Closely associated with his influence was that of the Hollander, Erasmus, who developed in Paris his scholarly genius, and then through his sojourn in Germany and England became one of the chief pioneers in spreading enlightenment throughout Europe. Other great names among the French scholars of the period were the Scaligers and the Etiennes.

It was characteristic of French scholarship that much of it was expended in spreading the knowledge of the Classics through translations in the vulgar tongue; the latter becoming matured, extended and subtilized in the process. The greatest of the contributors to this diffusion of knowledge was Jacques Amyot (1513-1593), whose chief work was the translation of “Plutarch’s Lives.” This book, as much through the quality of Amyot’s style as through its own intrinsic merits, immediately acquired a popularity in France, which spread to other countries ; the French form, rather than the original Greek, becoming the basis of the various translations into other tongues. How it inspired Shakespeare is a matter of common knowledge, while its influence some two hundred years later on the growth of French thought which led to the Revolution is equally indisputable. The secret of its style is explained in the author’s own advice “Take heed and find the words that are fittest to signify the thing of which we mean to speak. Choose words which seem to be the pleasantest, which sound best in our ears, which are customary in the mouths of good talkers, which are honest natives and no foreigners.” It is not difficult to see how the same principle can be applied to the technique of painting; as indeed it was by the original, as contrasted with the imitative, artists of the French Renaissance.

It is interesting to recall that during this century of literary activity, the French began to imitate the colonial activities of the Spaniards. Jacque Cartier, a native of St. Malo, born within a year of Columbus’s discovery of America, made three voyages to Canada, respectively in 1534, 1535 and 1541; while simultaneously with the last year De Soto was exploring Louisiana.

It was scarcely to be expected that the development of painting at this period could keep pace with that of literature; for the former had no such agent in its service as the printing-press. Scholars and writers were in the employ or under the patronage of royalty or nobility; but through the press they spoke to the public at large and thereby were encouraged to speak as Frenchmen. With the painter or sculptor it was necessarily different. He worked to please his patron, and the latter’s taste for the most part followed the Italianate fashion, set by Francis I, whose disasters in Italy did not impair his admiration for Italian art. He invited to Fontainebleau Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Il Rosso, Primaticcio and Niccolò dell’ Abbate and the sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. Of these, Primaticcio exerted the greatest influence, since his sojourn in France extended over thirty years. His most noteworthy followers were Toussaint du Breuil (1561–1602) and Jean Cousin (1500?–1589), the latter a man of versatile gifts, practising also as an architect, sculptor, miniaturist, decorator and glassworker. He is represented in the Louvre by The Last Judgment. The scene is medieval in its conception and composed in close resemblance to the elaborate mystery plays of the sixteenth century; to that, for example, given at Valenciennes in 1547, of which a drawing still exists. and is reproduced in Karl Mantzius’ “History of Theatrical Art.” The foreground in Cousin’s picture is occupied by newly risen souls, some of whom are entering a cave, while others are being dragged off to Hell, which, as usual, is situated at the right of the scene. The clouds open overhead, revealing Christ, standing upon the globe of the earth, attended by the Virgin and St. John and a retinue of saints. Mean-while the composition shows a marked advance in freedom and boldness of design, in knowledge of anatomy and foreshortening and in geometrical perspective. The picture, in its union of old feeling and new technical accomplishment stands in the same category as The Last Judgment of Van Orley in the Antwerp Museum.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the Italian invasion, a group of portrait painters, consisting of the Clouets and their pupils, preserved the characteristics, if not of strictly French, at least of Northern painting. For Jean Clouet, the father, otherwise called Jehannet, Jhannet or Janet, was a native of Flanders; while Francois Clouet, the most distinguished of the three sons, exhibits a style which suggests that he may have been a pupil of Holbein. The date of the father’s birth is unknown, but about the year 1475 he moved to France and settled in Tours, where François was born in 1500.

To Jean Clouet the Louvre catalogue attributes the fine Portrait of Francis I (frontispiece). It represents the king about thirty years old, in a pearly satin doublet, striped with black velvet and embroidered in gold, resting his left hand on a balustrade covered with green velvet, while an arras damasked in two tones of dull claret red appears in the background. The very dark brown hair is dressed in a flat roll over the ears while the chin and cheeks are covered with the soft curly growth of a beard that has never known a razor. The expression of the face is sly and sensuous. If one compares the portrait with a later one (1007) of the same king, executed probably by a pupil of the Clouets, the change is significant. The face is puffier and coarsened, the complexion reddened, the expression that of the confirmed sensualist. The two pictures, as M. Geoffroy well says, exhibit respectively the youth and the maturity of the satyr. Clouet’s portrait may also be compared, this time for technical interest, with Titian’s Louvre portrait (1588), Francis I. The latter, of which many repetitions exist, was probably not made from life; but possibly from a medal. Pictorially, of course, the Titian is finer than the Clouet ; exhibiting a masterful treatment of planes and surfaces, as well as a controlling knowledge and skill that has swept all into an ensemble as apparently spontaneous as it is magnificent. Alongside of it the Clouet is, no doubt, caligraphic rather than painterlike; in which respect it is interesting to compare it with the beautiful portrait by Ingres of Madame Rivière (p. 109) . Yet in its very innocence of any brushwork bravura, in its close and prolonged analysis of values and the unremitting integrity with which the results of observation have been rendered, there is not only an assurance of fidelity of portraiture but a stirring suggestion of virility. If one’s temperament inclines to prefer the less learned portrait, I don’t think he need feel ashamed.

The same penetrating truth of characterization distinguishes the portraits by François (also called Jehannet) Clouet; while the precision is associated with increased fluency of brushwork. and a more subtle harmonizing of the flesh-tints, costumes and background. The Louvre possesses his full length Portrait of Charles IX, of which a life-sized repetition exists in the Museum of Vienna; the latter bearing the inscription “Charles VIIII, très chrétien roy de France, en Page de XX ans, peint au vif per Jannet, 1563.” It is supposed that both of these pictures were sent to Vienna in 1570, at the time of the young king’s marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of the Emperor Maximilian. This portrait reveals a weak and vicious face, with the wary, cruel expression of a ferret. It bespeaks the character that two years later (1572) could countenance the treachery and political folly of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Admiral Coligny, the most illustrious victim of the devilish plot and his enemy, the Duke of Guise, and many other men and women who enacted willing and unwilling roles in the drama of the period are among the subjects represented in the Louvre’s collection of historic portraits.

They suggest a momentary glance at the back ground of events following the death of Francis I in 1547. He was succeeded by his son, Henry II, who had married Catherine de’ Medici. This able and unscrupulous woman, trained in the principles of Machiavelli, had ample scope for her prowess during the minority of her two sons, Francis II and Charles IX. The former succeeded his father in 1559 at the age of sixteen and died the following year, the Crown passing to his brother, at the time, a boy of ten. The latter reigned for fourteen years and was succeeded by Catherine de’ Medici’s third son, Henry III. The period of these three ignoble reigns is occupied with the struggle between Catholic and Huguenot parties. For the day of philosophic tolerance was past and war was carried on à l’outrance between the rival religionists. The reason for the change of feeling is to be found in the attitude of Francis I toward the aristocracy. Whereas it had been the policy of the preceding kings to subordinate the power of the latter to the authority of the Crown, Francis had courted popularity by lifting the aristocracy up to social equality with himself. It was his delight to pose as “the first gentleman of France.” The ultimate effect of this was to precipitate that complete cleavage between a privileged nobility and the rest of the nation, which after working untold suffering and wrong was to culminate in the Revolution. Mean while, during the minority of the young kings, the more powerful nobles asserted their rights to a share in the powers of the Regency. In the rivalry which ensued Catherine allied herself with the Catholic family of Guise and thus the struggle became one of politics as well as religion. The power of the Guise continued until their infamy in instigating the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Eve had been avenged by the murder of themselves. This was contrived by Henry III, who himself paid the penalty the following year (1589) , when he was assassinated by Jacques Clement, a Dominican friar.

The reign of this last of the rulers of the House of Valois was the most contemptible in the annals of the French monarchy. The profligacy of the Court, which under Francis I preserved some grace of gallantry, had been fomented by Catherine de’ Medici for political purposes, until respect for decent women disappeared and even the charm of the licentious palled. Henry chose his favorites among young men and even had the audacity to bestow places of authority upon these mignons. Protestants and Catholics alike were disgusted. The leader of the former was now the son of Antoine de Bourbon, Henry of Navarre, who had been drawn by the Queen dowager into a marriage with Margaret, the dissolute sister of the king. To oppose his pretensions to the succession the Catholics founded The League to support the rival claims of the young Duke of Guise. On his deathbed the king named his brother-in-law as successor but warned him that none but a Catholic could reign over France. The forecast was realized. Although Henry defeated The League at the battle of Ivry, he found himself barred from Paris. Accordingly, after an indecisive struggle of several years he accepted Catholicism and was crowned as Henry IV, first King of the House of Bourbon. The discontent of the Protestants was allayed by his issue of the Edict of Nantes. Having established his power, he obtained a divorce from Margaret and married Marie de’ Medici, whom Rubens later commemorated in the series of historic decorations that are now in the Louvre. Henry met his death at the hands of the assassin, Ravaillac.

By those who wish to study the painting of the so called School of Fontainebleau a visit must be made to the Château, which owes its most characteristic splendor to the successive efforts of Francis T, Henry II and Henry IV. “The King’s Staircase” which leads to the apartments of Francis’ mistress, the Duchesse d’ Étampes, is adorned with frescoes, variously ascribed to Primaticcio, Il Rosso and Niccolò Dell’ Abbate. In them Francis is depicted as Alexander the Great in a series of scenes from the life of the Macedonian conqueror. Francis also erected the gallery which bears his name and the magnificent Salle des Fêtes. He lived to complete the decoration of the former with mythological subjects executed by Il Rosso ; but the embellishment of the latter was undertaken by Henry II, in honor of Diane de Poitiers. His initial, linked with that of his mistress, appears in all directions amid bows, arrows, and crescents, the emblems of Diana, while the panels are filled with eight large compositions and fifty smaller ones, embodying scenes from mythology.

So thoroughly identified is Fontainebleau with the memory of Diane de Poitiers that it is something of a shock to the sense of romance to recall that the lady was twenty years the senior of her royal lover; old enough, in fact, to be his mother. But Henry was quite a passionless person and only followed his father’s example in adopting a mistress because the custom seemed to be de rigueur. And Diane herself played rather the part of a prudent directoress, whose influence on the king was edifying. Regarded, indeed, from the point of view of her contemporaries, the position of Diane was magnificent and divine, for her relations with the king represented to them the perfect type of Platonism, at once practical and sacred. Du Bellay voiced this in a poem in her honor “God had made you appear among us like a miracle, that you may possess the soul of this great King, whose faith is in-violable, and that his affection through your perfection may burn with a holy flame.” And he adds, “You have won the heart of all France.”

This Platonistic tendency, borrowed from the Italians, strange as it may seem from the modern point of view, was in a measure the expedient of women of refinement to hold at bay the coarseness of the men. Nevertheless, it was a symptom of decadence and held in it the disease of profligacy which followed. Meanwhile its vogue explains the spirit which prompted and saw nothing incongruous in the sculptor Goujon’s representation of the king’s mistress as a nude Diana, reclining upon a stag, surrounded by her hounds; a group which originally adorned the front of Diane’s palatial Chateau d’Anet. It is now in the Louvre, where its beauty can be enjoyed for its intrinsic charm. Goujon was the typical sculptor of the French Renaissance; the one who most happily enriched his Northern temperament with the grace and fluency of the Italian. Yet how completely he escaped a servitude to the Italian influence may be seen by comparing this group with the Nymph of Fontainebleau by Benvenuto Cellini, which to some extent must have been Goujon’s model. The Cellini, in the exuberance of the bosom and turbulent pose of the abdomen, betrays the decadence of style that the misunderstood example of Michelangelo was promoting, while the long slender legs are more than a little meaningless and the expression of the face is trivial and formal. Goujon’s Diana, on the contrary, is instinct with nature; monumental, it is true, and sublimated, but still woman, a synthesis of the purity and vigor of splendid womanhood. She is exquisitely personal ; nevertheless aloof. Indeed it is this quality of humanness, touched with abstraction, that seems to be the secret of its fascination to the modern mind.

A corresponding quality distinguishes the painting (1013) Diana (p. 47) which is one of the few examples of the School of Fontainebleau comprised in the Louvre. The hair is blond, the flesh pale rosy cream; the drapery of golden buff silk; the hanger of the quiver a delicate blue, with dainty jewels; the color of the greyhound cream; the background, dull olive green foliage and a gray blue, characteristically Parisian sky. The drawing and modeling of the young figure betrays no learned assurance, the pose no artifice. The artist has rendered, with simple fidelity, his model. No sophistication intervenes. The maiden bears the charm of unconscious nakedness rather than conscious nudity; veiled with the naïveté of her artless purity. The painter doubtless owed much to Italian influence, but his spirit was distinguishably French.