THE BACKGROUND THE accession of Francis I in 1515 presents a convenient starting point for the study of French painting provided one looks back as well as forward. For it was at this period of coming into touch with the Italian Renaissance that modern France emerged from medievalism. On the other hand, it must not be overlooked that there was a vigorous growth of French painting before the arrival of Italian influence and that the latter, while it stimulated, never submerged the French genius. France indeed, through all the vicissitudes of her development, has preserved her Northern rather than her Mediterranean traits.
For the French nation has been too exclusively identified with the Latin race. It is true that the French language has its roots in the Latin; that the Roman occupation left an indelible mark upon the race and its institutions, particularly in the South, and that after the fall of the Roman Empire the Roman Catholic Church preserved the tradition of Latin civilization. But the forms of the language, its idioms, and essential spirit are non-Latin, while very far from being undiluted Latin, is the race itself.
The race, originally Celtic and Ligurian, had been infused with Gallic, and nearly six centuries before the appearance of Caesar, Marseilles and other Greek colonies had been planted along the shores of the Mediterranean. It was with this already mixed strain that during thé first four hundred years of the Christian era the Latin blood was mingled. Then followed successive invasions of German tribes, Franks, Allemans, Goths, and Burgundians.
In 485 Clovis the Frank established dominion over a large number of these rival tribes and founded the French monarchy. This so-called Merovingian dynasty persisted for two hundred and sixty-seven years. Then, the last of its enfeebled kings yielding to the increased authority of the Mayors of the Palace, Pepin founded the Carlovingian dynasty, which reached its zenith under his son Charlemagne. The latter’s ambitions were imperial and resulted in an empire which extended east and west of the Rhine. It did not, however, long survive his death. Under the rule of his son and successor, Louis the Pious, the process of disintegration began. Rollo the Dane and his Northmen established the Dukedom of Normandy. Meanwhile, the stronger German element began to gravitate across the Rhine to the east, consolidating a German empire and leaving a residuum that in language, customs and government grew to be distinguishably French. Finally, in 987, Hugh Capet, Duke of Paris, established a supremacy over the other dukedoms into which France had become divided and founded the Capetian, or third French dynasty. This was some five hundred years later than the original invasion of the Germanic tribes.
Racially, therefore, as the French historian M. R. de Maulde la Clavière observes, “France is a singular country. We are slightly Greek, half Latin or Ligurian, very Gallic or very German, and in the West, the country of an intellectual gulfstream, we are dreamers Celts.”
Hugh Capet, as Duke of the Royal Domain, which extended northward from Paris as far as Amiens and southward to Orleans, was a peer among his equals, who at the time numbered one hundred and fifty dukes, counts and barons. Their fiefs, which had become hereditary, were independent, yet mutually bound together by the complicated network of suzerainty and vassalage of the Feudal System. The most important included, along the shore of the Channel, Brittany, Normandy and Flanders, the last extending to the Rhine; on the East, Burgundy; on the West, Anjou, Poitou and Aquitaine; and in the South, Auvergne, Gascony, Toulouse and Provence. Geographically divided into two sections by the course of the Loire, the Southern part, superior at this time in civilization, was distinguished by their use of the Langue d’ Oc, while the Langue d’ Oil obtained in the North. The distinction was derived from corruptions of the Latin words, hoc and hoc-illud, which were respectively employed as terms of affirmation. The Langue d’ Oc, while it admitted many varieties of dialect, remained closer to its Latin origin in vowel sounds, inflections and vocabulary and generally was softer, more harmonious and cunningly cadenced than the Northern French. The latter, on the other hand, excelled in vigor, variety and freshness (Saintsbury) : qualities that fitted it to grow with the development of the nation, until it has become the language of modern France.
The determining influences of the Capetian dynasty were the Crusades and the institution of Chivalry. Under the influence of a moral ideal and bound together by sentiments of honor and fraternity, the nobility were less disposed to internecine rivalry, and cultivated habits of courtesy and respect for women which ameliorated the conditions of society. The immense preparations demanded by the Crusades encouraged the trades and handicrafts, while the actual expeditions tended to bring the West into contact with the older civilization of the East and to hasten the revival of classic learning. Further, the huge loss of life drained the power of the nobility, until it ceased to be so formidable a menace alike to the authority of the Crown and to the growing freedom of the cities. Meanwhile, the bulk of the population was in abject serfdom, so that the country was able to offer little resistance to the encroachments of the English. The rivalry of Ed-ward III with Philip VI, first king of the House of Valois, started the Hundred Years’ War (1340-1453), which depleted what was left of French chivalry and brought protracted disaster to the whole community, until finally the tide of victory was turned by the mystic heroism of the Maid of Orleans.
The Feudal System, which the circumstances of war had disintegrated, received its quietus from Louis XI (1461-1483). By direct attack and the indirect assaults of diplomacy he wore down a condition of society which had served its time and was now only a hindrance to peace, order and sound government. As a counter-poise to the power of the barons he “created parliaments at Grenoble, Bordeaux and Dijon; multiplied appeals to the King’s Court against sentences pronounced by the feudal tribunals, retained existing provincial assemblies and created new ones ; sanctioned free election of magistrates, and granted to the bourgeoisie privileges which enabled them to hold their own against the barons.” He also encouraged manufactures, industries and commerce. Upon his deathbed he confided his son and heir, Charles VIII, a boy of thirteen, to the care of his daughter Anne of Beaujeu. The latter was only twenty-three years of age, but, as her father used to say of her, “She is the least foolish woman in the world; for there is no such person as a wise one.”
Of the events of Charles’s reign it is sufficient to recall that he married Anne of Brittany, thus uniting the duchy of Brittany and that of Anjou to the French Crown, and accepted the invitation made to him by some of the enemies of Pope Alexander VI to invade Italy. The foreign entanglement was carried forward by his grand-nephew and successor Louis XII, who also married his uncle’s widow, Anne of Brittany.
While the king thus laid the trail that brought France into contact with Italian culture, and by economies at home and encouragement of peace and commerce pre-pared the country to benefit by the new impulses, his queen contributed to the growth of a gentler and more refined influence by establishing a court at which women for the first time appeared in society. Henceforth the feminine equation enters conspicuously into the actual government of France as well as into the story of her artistic development. With the exception of ,the period of masculine domination during the vigorous rule of Louis XIV, before he succumbed to the sway of Madame de Maintenon, feminine influence in the various forms of wife, queen-mother, mistress or leader of a salon, predominated until the end of the eighteenth century.
That it made its appearance at the close of the medieval period is natural enough, since the causes which made for the breaking up of the feudal system must have long contributed to the independence and efficiency of the women. During their husbands’ absence from home in the wars and the minority of their fatherless sons, they would be compelled to undertake the management of the estate, and even the dispensing of justice. Under such circumstances thou-sands of women, unknown to fame, must have been entitled to Brantome’s description of Anne of Beaujeu as “the cleverest and ablest lady that ever was”; while many must have solaced their loneliness with study, as did Anne of Brittany, “who understood Latin and a little Greek.” To extend the opportunity of intellectual culture to other women was partly, no doubt, her motive in assembling at court the younger ladies of noble families. Similarly, in the succeeding reign of Francis I, woman’s influence was decisive. His mother, Louise of Savoy, had reared him as befitted a gallant knight rather than a monarch. He was trained in the code of chivalry and of heroic ideals by familiarity with the poetic romances of the Chansons de Gestes. His thirst for glory, in consequence, exceeded his capacity for war. He failed in his military adventures, but was the center of an elegant and gallant court. Meanwhile his sister, Margaret of Navarre or Angoulême, was intellectually his superior. During his captivity in Spain, following the defeat at Pavia, she handled the reins of government; and after her brother’s restoration established a court of her own at Nerac, which rivaled the esprit and splendor of those at Fountainebleau and the Louvre. Here she reigned as queen over a little kingdom of arts and letters; encouraging native scholars and poets as well as offering hospitality to Italians ; nurturing a spirit of catholic tolerance by extending honor alike to Calvin and Boccaccio, and contributing with her own pen to poetry and prose and even to morality plays and farces. Her poems, collected under the title, Les Marguerites de la Marguerite la Princesse, rank her among the poets of the time, second only to Clement Marot, whom she befriended when he was being pursued by the Church for the freedom of his expressions; while she not only caused the Decameron to be translated into French, but her self composed a heptameron, which comprised fifteen novelettes on the model of Boccaccio’s. She was, indeed, a very vital influence in stimulating and directing the beginnings of the French Renaissance.
It must be remembered, however, that while contact with Italian culture brought about a renaissance in France, the latter country was no stranger to learning or to arts and letters. The eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries the period also distinguished by the extent and perfection of cathedral and church building had produced the epic poems, Chansons de Gestes. The most famous is the Chanson de Roland, based on the exploits of Charlemagne, though dignifying Roland even more than the emperor. Again, toward the end of the twelfth century appeared the French version of the Arthurian legend, originally written in nervous, picturesque prose, but later versified by Chrestien de Troyes, some of whose poems, as Saintsbury says, “are deeply imbued with religious mysticism, passionate gallantry and refined courtesy of manners.” So far, however, a spirit distinguishably French is not represented. The Chansons de Gestes are Teutonic, probably in origin and certainly in genius ; the Arthurian legends are tinged with the Celtic and Byzantine, while the Provençal poetry is rather akin to the temperament and character of Spanish and Italian literature. Moreover, all these forms have a quality of’ artificiality and are the expressions of courtly and knightly society and not of the nation at large. The latter was for the first time represented in the Fabliaux which were produced from the latter half of the twelfth to the latter part of the fourteenth centuries. They have been defined as “a recital, for the most part comic, of an adventure real or possible, which occurs in the ordinary conditions of human life.” In fact the esprit gaulois makes its first appearance in the mocking raillery of these ludicrous presentations of life and humanity. The chief target for their scoffing is the weakness of the female sex and the frailty of the clergy; though all classes, knights, burghers, peasants, come in for their share of ridicule. Their popularity passed over into Italy and England, where Boccaccio and Chaucer imitated them. From Italy they return to France in a Renaissance guise; while the most famous of these, the Roman du Renart, wherein the characters are animals and birds, received a brilliant transformation in the Contes of La Fontaine, and quite recently in the Chantecler of M. Rostand.
Akin to the mocking tone of the Fabliaux are the satirical lyrics of Adam de la Halle and Ruteboeuf. On the other hand verse was the medium for serious historical themes, as in the Roman de Rou (Rollo) by Wace, and for a moral story in allegorical guise, as in the very famous Roman de la Rose. This poem of twenty thousand lines relates the poet’s dream. He walks abroad on a fair May morning until he reaches a garden. Upon the walls are painted the figures of Hatred, Covetousness, Avarice, Envy, Sadness, Old Age and Poverty. Dame Leisure admits him through a barred wicket and introduces him to Courtesy, who invites him to join the company of singers and dancers in the train of Delight. ‘Wandering toward the Fountain of Narcissus he espies a Rosebud and covets it. But thorns and thistles bar his approach and the God of Love pierces him with an arrow. Finally after many rebuffs he is permitted by Venus to kiss the Rose-bud; whereupon Shame and Jealousy conspire against him and he is driven from the Garden. So far the poem was written by one William de Loiris. It was continued by Jean de Meung, who introduced a coarser vein of satirical observation, descanting upon the ways of women and the subject of morality, and citing in-numerable examples from sacred and secular writings.
The taste for allegory and didactic moralizing engendered by the popularity of this poem, found speedy expression in the Morality plays; for the step from narrative form to one in which the characters speak in propria persona was easy and natural. Far earlier than these, however, had been the Mystery and Miracle plays ; the former dealing with the Life and Passion of the Saviour and with events and personages of the Old Testament, the latter with the lives of the Virgin and Saints. Originally presented in the church or cathedral by the clergy, they outgrew the limitations of the sacred edifice and passed into the hands of the laity; becoming occasions of local importance, presided over by the several guilds of trades. Finally regular societies of ac-tors were formed for their representation, among which the earliest and most famous was the Confraternity of the Passion, licensed in Paris in 1402.
Meanwhile, even before the arrival of the Moralities a secular drama made its appearance. To Adam de la Halle is credited the earliest known comedy in the vulgar tongue, and the earliest specimen of comic opera. In Li Jus de la Feuille, the author relates his own troubles with his wife and satirizes other citizens of his native town, Arras, while the plot of Robin and Manon represents a dramatized form of the popular romantic love poems, known as Pastourelles. Also related to the Fabliaux are the Farces which become so characteristic a feature of the French drama. The most famous is that of Pathelin, which survived the Renaissance, was included in 1706 in the repertoire of the Theatre Français and was acted in Paris so recently as 1872. For the performance of farces the clerks of the law courts had organized themselves into a company, licensed by the Crown, known as La Bazoche du Palais; while various Fool Companies, among which Les Enfants Sans Souci were conspicuous, devoted themselves to that peculiar form of farce known as the Sottie. It dealt in political satire and was performed by typical Fool characters, such as Prince des Sots (the leader of the company), Mère Sotte and the like. The most famous Mère Sotte, both as author and actor was Pierre Gringoire, who also composed a mystery and a morality for the trades guilds to perform and was Master of the Revels on the occasion of official pageants. Flourishing under Louis XII, his popularity continued into the reign of Francis I, notwithstanding the latter’s dislike of the freedom of the Sottie, and only succumbed to the change of taste brought about by the arrival at the French Court of the Italian Comedians.
The fact which stands out preeminently in the fore going brief summary of the literary life of France prior to the sixteenth century is its native vigor and racial originality. The national genius, though as yet undeveloped and furnished with a vehicle of language still rude in form and lacking in quantity and subtlety of vocabulary, set its imprint upon everything it handled. In the Epic of Arthur, the satire of Renard and the allegorical romance of the Rose it produced the three most popular works of the Middle Ages. More-over, “it is now established beyond the possibility of doubt that to France almost every great literary style, as distinguished from great individual works, is at this period due.” France, in fact, had demonstrated literary greatness of a high order and undeniably racial character during three centuries before her contact with Italian culture initiated her own Renaissance. The same is true of her painting.