Three Centuries Of French Portrait Painting

WITH the accession of Francis I in 1516 the art of painting first came into prominent recognition in France. Travel in Italy had first opened the king’s eyes to the splendour of art, and he had besides no mind to be outdone by the Emperor Charles V in the patronage of artistic talent. He invited several Italian painters to his court, including, among lesser men, the Florentine Andrea del Sarto, and the great Leonardo da Vinci. Some of these remained many years, and Leonardo passed his last days there, expiring, as tradition has it, in the arms of his royal friend. This group of Italian painters founded the so-called school of Fontainebleau.

It was probably early in his reign that Francis discovered the merits of a certain Jean Clouet, a Fleming then living in Tours. The king kept him busy till his death in 1539, when the court patronage was transferred to the son François Clouet. Royal favour made the Clouets and their school famous. Their work was almost exclusively in portraiture, both in drawing and painting. In Italy, as we have seen, portrait painting had to free itself gradually from religious composition, of which it was first merely an accessory. In France, on the other hand, portraiture was the first form which painting assumed, since it was the court, not the church, which gave it the original impulse.

The excellence of the Clouets seems the more remarkable when we realize that only half a century of native art lay back of them. Fouquet had been the real founder of French painting. He had made enough of a name to attract the attention of the Pope Eugene IV who, as if there were not better men at home, had called him to Rome in 1440, to paint his portrait. The French painter had lingered five years in Italy, drawing inspiration from its art atmosphere, then returned to France to make the beginnings of a French school. The Clouets were the heirs of his efforts, and brought French portrait painting at a single bound into a position of dignity.

The respective characteristics of father and ‘ son are difficult to distinguish, and the problem is complicated by the variety of names applied indifferently to each : Jean, Jehan, Jehannet, Jeannet, and Janet. Both Clouets were accomplished draughtsmen, but while the elder made rapid and spirited sketches, intended merely as studies, the younger care-fully elaborated his drawings as finished works. The National Library at Paris contains several hundreds of these precious drawings, and there are other collections in private ownership. The Clouet paintings are most numerous at Chantilly, and in the English royale galleries at Windsor and Hampton Court. François outlived King Francis and continued in office under Henry II, until his death in 1572. Contemporary poets vied with one another in extolling his gifts, and Ron sard employed him to paint an ideal portrait of his lady-love.

Many French celebrities of three reigns appear in the portraits of the Clouets and their school: Francis I with his long, crooked nose, small eyes and sinister expression; Eleanor, his queen; Catherine de’ Medici, dangerously innocent looking, concealing her iron will under an amiable smile; Charles IX (at Vienna and in the Louvre) in doublet and hose, with a rich cape and a plumed cap, graceful and princely; the nice little Elizabeth of Austria, his wife, with her smooth hair and pretty high necked dress; the Due d’Alençon, looking rather weak and effeminate, but charmingly dressed; Henry II, sombre and heavy; Mary Stuart, the beautiful English princess, in her unhappy young widowhood.

The Clouets had a great reputation for the likeness, and one must believe that con-temporary judgment was right in this mat-ter. There is a sincerity in their work which is thoroughly convincing. They seemed altogether free from the court painter’s common fault of flattery. Perhaps their Flemish blood counted for something in this respect, modified by the French influence. Their work shows strong kinship with Holbein in frank realism and careful finish. Often there is genuine psychological insight in the portraits and sometimes a peculiar charm of intimacy.

The seventeenth century was not without abundant products of portrait art in France, but the quality was decidedly inferior to the quantity. While Spain and the Netherlands were uniting to make this the golden age of portraiture, their great names have no worthy French compeers. The stamp of Louis Quatorze was upon the art as upon the manners of the time.

The spectacular, the ostentatious, the artificial were the preferred qualities. The simple and the natural were far to seek. The character of the art was dominated by Lebrun, founder and director of the Academy, and the exponent of the pompous and the theatrical. The making or marring of an artist lay with him. Little did he dream that future generations would set his dreary historical compositions below the portrait work of the men to whom he condescended.

A few whose portrait works are worth mentioning are Simon Vouet, who painted Louis XIII and all the nobles of his court ; the brothers Le Nain, a number of whose portraits are in England, and Santerre, whose chef d’oeuvre is said to be the portrait of the Duchesse de Bourgogne, and who might have gone on painting beautiful women, had he not been annoyed by the bêtises of his sitters. Others with whom portrait painting was the chief occupation were Mignard, Largilliere, and Rigaud.

The name Mignard, French for exquisite, had come to the family in exchange for the original name of More, from a compliment paid. to the father and uncles of the painter by Henry IV. Seeing the group of young men, — all officers in the royal army, — the king exclaimed, ” Those are not Mores (Moors) , but Mignards.” The name became particularly appropriate to the character of the painter’s work, which was smooth and graceful, with some affectation. His pictures of the Madonna were known as ” mignardes,” and the verb ” mignardiser ” was concocted from the name.

Mignard spent over twenty years of his life in Rome, where he painted the portrait of many distinguished persons, including three popes. At length he was recalled to France by Louis XIV who bestowed commissions and honours upon him. Ten times he painted the portrait of the Grand Monarque. The first of these pictures was dashed off in three hours and was sent to the Spanish princess whom the king was to marry. The most conspicuous is the great picture at Versailles, hanging over the mantelpiece of the Salon d’Hercule. It represents the king in armour on horseback, crowned by victory, after the conquest of Maestricht.

Mignard’s studio became a fashionable re-sort for great ladies whose portraits he painted with pleasing flattery. He had no mean opinion of his own ability, and once when there was question of his leaving France, he remarked, ” With these five fingers, there is no country in Europe where I shall not be more considered, and cannot make a greater fortune than in France.”

Largilliere passed his youth in Flanders, where he received his artistic training from Flemish painters. He was twice in England where .he was in great favour with Charles II and James II. Returning at length to France he entered the Academy by a portrait of Lebrun. Thereafter he continued to devote himself to portrait work, and his patrons included many members of the royal family. Fine examples of his work are in the Louvre, at ‘Versailles, and Chantilly. He was especially successful with women’s portraits, imparting grace and dignity to his sitters. His colour is rich and harmonious.

A warm friendship existed between Largil-Here and Rigaud, their talents being too dissimilar for rivalry. Rigaud disliked to paint women’s portraits as much as Largilliere enjoyed it. ” If I make a true likeness of a woman,” he said, ” it is often unsatisfactory to the sitter, because not beautiful; and if beautiful, it is not satisfactory to me, because not true.” He was an extremely prolific painter, producing thirty or forty portraits a year. His industry reminds one of the English Reynolds. He has been called the Van Dyck of France, and did indeed draw inspiration from the Flemish master, like him imparting dignity and gravity to his subjects. Five kings were among his patrons, and many other notables. His portrait of Louis XIV is considered the official historical portrait of the Grand Monarque. The king wears an ample drapery of ermine-lined velvet, thrown back to show his. figure dressed in small-clothes and close-fitting hose. The huge curled wig is his crowning touch of magnificence, and in attitude and bearing his pompous character is perfectly expressed. The picture has been justly called ” a page of history, the history of the man, the artist and the period.” The engraved works of Rigaud include two hundred portraits. Ranking just below Rigaud and Largilliere was François de Troy, a protégé of Madame de Pompadour, who painted portraits of ladies in the guise of goddesses.

Before leaving the group of seventeenth century painters the name of Philippe de Champaigne should be briefly mentioned as one that is claimed in French art. Champaigne was, however, of Flemish origin, and did not come to Paris till he was nine-teen years of age. He was among the foremost portrait painters of the period, and the Louvre contains over twenty of his portraits. A famous one is the three-fold likeness of Richelieu, in front view and both profiles. All his works have the Flemish character of seriousness and noble expressiveness. It is more logical to group him with his countrymen, Rubens and Van Dyck, than with such men as Rigaud and Largilliere. But the French historian, anxious to make his tale as complete as possible, includes all foreigners who ever sojourned in Paris, and omits no natives who sojourned in foreign lands.

There was no sharp transition between the French art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Largilliere and Rigaud lived well into the reign of Louis Quinze, and carried over the artificial spirit with them. Their successors were quite as full of mannerisms, but with this difference : that what was pompous and stilted in the seventeenth century became pretty and insipid in the eighteenth. Force and virility were equally lacking in both periods. If the note of the Louis Quatorze art was set by Lebrun, that of Louis Quinze was given by Watteau. In portrait art Largilliere and Rigaud were succeeded by Nattier and Greuze.

In his youth Nattier was a zealous copyist of the so-called great masters. A drawing he had made of Rigaud’s celebrated portrait of Louis XIV came to the attention of the king, who remarked : ” Monsieur, continue to work thus and you will become a great man.” Nattier obeyed injunctions, and if not a great man according to the broadest standards, attained great fame in his own world. His first important work was in 1715 for Peter the Great, Czar of Russia. Summoned to Amsterdam to meet the monarch, he then and there made a series of portraits of important personages of the Russian court, culminating in a picture of the battle of Pultowa, with the czar as the hero. All this work giving immense satisfaction, the painter was next sent to The Hague to paint the Empress Catherine, where again he made a great hit. Before the portrait was finished, his royal patroness praised it so highly that the impatient czar ordered the unfinished canvas brought to him in Paris where it was set on the throne of the banquet room at a great entertainment. Nattier, however, positively declined an invitation to the court of Russia, at which the czar was so incensed that he countermanded all orders then under way, and Catherine’s portrait was never completed.

It was some years later when Nattier’s portrait work first attracted the attention of Louis XV’s queen, Marie Leczinska. In the following years he went through the en-tire royal family, painting every member, the king, the queen, the dauphin, and Mesdames the several daughters, in all the most beautiful and creditable group of his entire portrait output. The queen herself is the most distinguished of this royal company. She was not considered at all beautiful, but Nattier has Imparted to her a graciousness and charm which are more than beauty. She is seated on a sofa, the lustrous folds of her rich dress spread about her, and a picturesque lace bon-net framing her face.

The patrons of Nattier liked to believe that their portraits were excellent likenesses. Today, however, the wonder is that so many ladies could look so precisely alike. The type of face is as fixed as that of Perugino’s saints, with the same oval outline, the round spark-ling eyes, arched brows, and small perfect mouth. The prevailing fashions accentuate the sameness. Every lady has powdered hair, slightly waved, drawn back closely from the face, rouged cheeks, spotted with court-plaster patches, and a decolleté gown, with a long stiff corset. There is something very attractive in this pretty, smiling being, in spite of her mannerism. The painter’s touch is light, his colour often brilliant and harmonious, his decorative sense fine. For subtlety, characterization, and distinction, we must accept from him grace, and charm, and refinement. Whether it is a seated figure, like Madame Elizabeth and Madame Henriette, the twins who were eldest of the royal daughters, or half-lengths, like Madame Sophie and Ma-dame Louise, the portrait is first of all a ” picture.” Many of Nattier’s sitters affected the rôles of Greek divinities. Hebe, Diana, and Flora, and the Vestal virgins are among these lovely disguises. The same custom prevailed in English portrait painting in this century.’ There is indeed a close affiliation between Nattier and his English contemporaries in his gift for idealizing womanly beauty. For the rest he is too distinctly and typically French to be compared with the English.

Greuze was not preeminently a portrait painter, but there are thirty-five portraits among the one hundred and twenty-five works of his scattered through the European galleries. In addition there are over thirty heads of young girls painted as fancy subjects, a kind of picture which had a great vogue. For twenty-five years he was the fashionable painter in Paris. He was made painter to the king, and his studio was visited by all the foreign princes coming to Paris. His style had the prettiness and sentimentality which calls forth the admiration of the superficial. Of his own special invention were his story pictures of French village life, rendered in a sort of operatic version. The popularity of these works was so great that his contemporaries did not realize that he was at his best and strongest in portraits. In the delineation of young women and girls he was too apt to suggest coquetry and allurement with an affected innocence, where no innocence was. So in his well-known portrait of the beautiful actress, Sophie Arnould, the character of the sitter is almost too obvious, as she surveys her admirer with a lazy but seductive witchery. No such element enters into English portraits of actresses. Occasionally the painter forgot himself so far as to paint a child with exquisite naturalness and charm, like the little girl with an apple, leaning on a window ledge, in the National Gallery. Among his celebrated portrait subjects are Madame de Pornpadour, Louis XVI, and Napoleon as first consul.

Greuze had an extraordinary opinion of his own ability. Pointing to his own works, he would say, ” It is perfectly incomprehensible to me how with merely a few bits of pounded earth, a man can put so much life into a can-vas. Really if these were the days of mythology, I should fear the fate of Prometheus.” His self-esteem drew an ironical re-proof from the painter Vernet, who told him he had one enemy who would ruin him, even though he loved him to distraction. ” And who is that? ” asked the painter, innocently. ” Yourself,” was the reply. The painter out-lived his vogue, and had a neglected and lonely old age lasting a few years into the new century.

Madame Vigée Le Brun’s eighty-seven years were nearly divided between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her career began early in life, and at fifteen she was contributing to the family support by painting portraits. Her beauty and vivacity were no little help in her profession, and she soon had plenty of patronage from admiring young men. Such patrons she cleverly posed with eyes focussed in another direction than her easel. If the sitter’s glances strayed towards the fair artist, she would call him to task by announcing: ” Now I am doing the eyes.” Her charm of manner lasted all through life, and made her a host of friends in the highest circles. At a meeting of the French Academy La Harpe paid her an extravagant tribute which brought forth the applause of the whole audience. Her most characteristic work be-longs to the early half of her life, when she was the favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette. After the Revolution she travelled extensively in Italy and Germany, lived a long time in St. Petersburg, visited London, where she met Reynolds, and finally returned to Paris under Napoleon, where she died in 1842.

Beginning in her girlhood by copying heads of Greuze, she always followed the tradition of Watteau, Fragonard, and Nattier, but with more simplicity and sincerity. She was indefatigably industrious, and was always too busy for self-improvement. Nevertheless her pictures have the characteristic charm of her nationality : delicacy, grace, and sentiment. She was particularly felicitous in pose and grouping.

Madame Le Brun’s portraits of Marie Antoinette have done as much to keep fresh the memory of the unfortunate queen as Van Dyck’s of Charles I did for that monarch. There were between thirty and forty of these pictures, a goodly number of which are still at Versailles. The queen was far from beautiful, but the painter understood the art of flattery as well as her contemporaries. She made her royal patroness a pretty doll-like creature, carrying her head magnificently as a queen should. The rich dresses, the high, powdered coiffure, crowned with the big hats set aslant, as with the English ladies of Gainsborough’s canvases, are charming additions. A beautiful composition is the Queen seated with her three children, the young dauphin, the eldest daughter, Madame Royale, and the infant Due de’ Normandie.

After Marie Antoinette, Madame Le Brun was her own most interesting sitter. She often painted her own portrait, now in a plumed hat with rolling brim jauntily set back upon her curls, now in a broad-brimmed hat shading her face, à la Rubens’ ” Chapeau de Poil,” now in a white kerchief knotted about her head, now in a turban, seated at her easel, now in a Greek costume, embracing her little daughter. Always she is vivacious and apparently happy, looking out on life with a splendid courage which triumphs over the troubles of a disappointed life. She was unhappy in her marriage and in the relations with her adored daughter; but through all the vicissitudes of a strange life she clung bravely to her art. By her own count she painted six hundred and sixty-two portraits, and if the work is neither strong nor great, it did her honour. As her biographer has said, ” She is one of the most aimable painters of the French school.”

Much of the French art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was ephemeral. The product of an artificial spirit, it does not interest a more thoughtful generation. It is on the whole the portrait work which has the most permanent value. This is the most sincere and vital in intention. Lacking the noble elements of some other schools, it yet holds its own for qualities of external beauty which will never cease to charm.