Thursday, September 3, 2015

French Art at the Louvre

Last half of 1400s—Renaissance Period

Although architecture, sculpture, and interior decoration reached a high degree of sophistication during the early Renaissance period, not many painters were active in France, and most of those were anonymous or nearly unknown. 

Jean Fouquet is one of the few artists from that period whose reputation lives on. He developed the International Gothic style, which incorporated the Flemish influence as well as the innovations of the Italian early Renaissance artists.

Jean Fouquet, c. 1415-20 to 1478-81
Charles VII of France, 1403-1461
Photo by Dan L. Smith

1500s—late Renaissance and Mannerism

Francis I, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, was an enthusiastic patron of the arts who was impressed by the art of Renaissance Italy. He founded the royal art collection by patronizing Italian artists. He even invited Leonardo da Vinci to spend his final years in France, in a small chateau belonging to the royal family in Amboise. Providing Leonardo a home was an important symbolic gesture.  The next image, painted much later, symbolizes the reverence of Francis I for the Renaissance master.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867
Francis I Receiving Leonardo da Vinci's Last Breath
Leonardo's output was not great in his final years, but he brought the Mona Lisa and a few other great paintings with him, and they ended up in the royal collection, now located in the Louvre.

School of Fontainebleau

Francis I, who turned the Louvre into a Renaissance palace, also rebuilt and expanded the Château de Fontainebleau, his favorite residence, which is located in a large forest not far from Paris. He invited Florentine artist Rosso Fiorentino to supervise a group of Italian artists on an extensive decorative program. These artists created works of art for other noble families as well. Their Italianate style is known as the School of Fontainebleau.

By far the most famous painting attributed to "School of Fontainebleau"—and a humorous way to open our history—is this image of two sisters sharing a bath. The woman on the right is meant to be Gabrielle d'Estrées, the mistress of King Henry IV. One of her sisters is pinching her right breast. This gesture has often been taken as symbolizing the latter's pregnancy with the king's illegitimate child.

School of Fontainebleau, 1530-1610
Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters, 1594
Here's a more traditional bathing scene.

School of Fontainebleau, 1530-1610
Toilette of Venus
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Here is a pastiche of scenes inspired by mythology.

School of Fontainebleau, 1530-1610
Mythological Allegory, c. 1580

A few days after visiting the Louvre, Dan and I actually drove out to Fontainebleau and toured the Château so that we could see its art in place. Here's a link for my article on that day: Château de Fontainebleau

1600s—The Baroque Period

The 1600s saw an impressive flowering of painting in France, and several artists rose to fame, including Simon Vouet, Georges de La Tour, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Philippe de Champaigne.

Simon Vouet spent a lot of time in Italy from 1613 to 1627. He absorbed the techniques of Italian artists: Caravaggio's dramatic lighting, Bronzino's Mannerist exaggeration, Veronese's color and foreshortened perspective, and the clear light of Guido Reni. Vouet was an immense success in Rome, and when he returned to France following a summons by the king, he brought the Italian Baroque style with him. In Paris he became the dominant force in French painting.

This example shows the naturalistic influence of Caravaggio on Vouet's work.

Simon Vouet, 1590-1649
Saint Guillaume d’Aquitaine, 1627
The next example is an evocation of wealth, symbolized by jewels and art objects.

Simon Vouet, 1590-1649
Allegory of Wealth, 1630-35
This piece has the clear light and harmonious composition of Guido Reni; however, Mary is distinctly more modern and direct than in the traditional depiction, and Jesus is rather saucy.

Simon Vouet, 1590-1649
The Virgin with the Oak Branch, c. 1645

Georges de La Tour was strongly influenced by Caravaggio. He is best known for his nocturnal light effects with high contrast lighting, such as this one. The painting below depicts Mary Magdalene, who became a follower of Jesus after he cast out her seven demons; she is often shown contemplating her sins, and her death.

Georges de La Tour, 1593-1652
Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, c. 1640
This gambling scene takes up a genre that Caravaggio popularized.

Georges de La Tour, 1593-1652
The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, 1635

Nicolas Poussin was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style; he spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works are religious or mythological subjects with a large landscape element. Here's a placid and harmonious scene of John the Baptist administering the holy sacrament to Jesus. All the possible reactions are depicted: a few women on the right look on curiously, a few men on the left are skeptical, in the foreground a few men are preparing to follow Jesus' example, and a mother is preparing to have her child blessed. But who's the guy on the horse?

Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1650
Saint John Baptising the People, 1636
The next painting shows a wild and violent episode from the story surrounding the founding of Rome. When the city was first established, there was a lack of women to bear children, so the soldiers planned a mass abduction. They invited the neighboring Sabines to a feast, during which they seized the women and drove the men away.

Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1650
Rape of the Sabines, c. 1638

Claude Lorrain is another Baroque painter who spent most of his life in Italy. His works generally depict a landscape with structures, strong daylight effects, and some sort of mythological story. He had a great deal of influence on the development of landscape painting.

Claude Lorrain, c. 1602-1682
Embarkation of Ulysses, 1646

Philippe de Champaigne was a Baroque painter who, although he was born in Belgium, worked in France most of his life and developed a French style of painting. He was the only artist who was allowed to paint Richelieu enrobed as a cardinal, which he did eleven times.

Philippe de Champaigne, 1602-1674
Cardinal Richelieu, c. 1639
He also did paintings for religious organizations.

Philippe de Champaigne, 1602-1674
The Last Supper, c. 1652

Humorous Footnote

This humorous painting is totally unusual for any artist in any period. The two men forming the arch of opposed forms in the center foreground are "cabmen": their cabs are two-wheeled carts, like rickshaws, that they pull themselves. They appear to be arguing about who has the right of way, while their passengers, in fantastical costumes are egging them on. A cleric looks on and tries to bring peace to the situation.

Claude Gillot, 1673-1722
Cabmen’s Dispute, c. 1707

Early 1700s—Rococo

In the first half of the 1700s, French painters pulled away from the Italian influence and developed a strictly French style, called Rococo. The Rococo style of painting was marked by asymmetry, pastel colors, and light-hearted subjects such as festivals, theater scenes, mythological narratives, and the female nude. The accent is on the decorative and pleasant aspect of the scenes depicted. The important painters in this style were Antoine Watteau, Jean-Siméon Chardin, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Antoine Watteau is credited with inventing the genre of fêtes galantes: scenes of bucolic and idyllic charm, suffused with an air of theatricality. In the painting below, Cythera is a mythical island of love; some couples are arriving, some leaving, some cavorting.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1684-1721
Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717
This work by Watteau is enigmatic, not quite fitting any conventions. The figures are all stock characters from a theatrical form known as Commedia dell'Arte, but why is one huge, while the others seem to be standing below the stage? Pierrot has a marvelous satin costume, but he looks depressed, as though he has no idea what he is supposed to be doing. Was this a commission, an exercise, or some sort of personal statement?

Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1684-1721
Pierrot, c. 1719

Jean-Siméon Chardin lived during the age of Rococo, but his work has a totally different look. Instead of painting society people having fun, he generally painted ordinary people—mothers, children, servants—and instead of being pastel and frivolous, his style was sober and restrained. Instead of frolicking in the country, his characters are going about their business in dark interiors. He was particularly good with young people amusing themselves. The first boy is playing with a top instead of studying; it is a stiff society that makes kids wear powdered wigs. The older boy in the second example is sharpening his drawing implement.

Jean-Siméon Chardin, 1699-1779
Child with a Top, 1738
Jean-Siméon Chardin, 1699-1779
The Young Draughtsman, c. 1737
The next picture shows Chardin's moralizing side. It states that young mothers should teach their children to say grace.

Jean-Siméon Chardin, 1699-1779
Saying Grace, c. 1740

François Boucher was the most rococo of Rococo painters. Most of his famous work is pure confection. This next painting shows a beautiful woman who has been seduced by the beauty of a white bull, the form that Zeus has taken in order to carry her away. One doesn't like to think about what might happen next.

François Boucher, 1703-1770
The Rape of Europa, 1747
In Virgil’s epic Aeneid, Venus seduces Vulcan and persuades him to forge weapons for her son Aeneas. In this painting, Vulcan offers Venus a sword; other armament surrounds him, as well as his forging equipment.

François Boucher, 1703-1770
Vulcan’s Forge, 1757

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was an extremely prolific and versatile artist. In 1769, Fragonard painted fourteen "fanciful figures," eight of which are now in the Louvre. He started with the likeness of a real person, but he romanticized the image to express a particular emotion or characteristic. These may be compared to the fantastical portraits of Rembrandt and other Dutch painters in the 1600s. Fanciful portraits became all the rage. This next painting depicts a woman who was a musician and composer.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732-1806
Fantasy Figure: Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, c. 1769

Late 1700s—Neo-classicism

As a natural reaction to the frivolousness of Rococo painting, artists started looking once again toward Rome, both for subjects and styles. The major artists of the period were Hubert Robert, Jacques-Louis DavidÉlisabeth Vigée LeBrun, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose work extended into the 1800s.

Hubert Robert went to Rome in 1754 and spent eleven years there. He worked for a time in the studio of Pannini, who was very much interested in Roman ruins. When he returned to Paris, he quickly became a success as the premier painter of Roman ruins, which were trendy at the time. This painting shows a Roman aqueduct. Some years ago Captain Dan and I walked along the top of this structure, over 450 feet above the Gard River in southern France.

Hubert Robert, 1733-1808
The Pont du Gard, 1787
Robert could paint contemporary architecture as well, and in 1796 he created a pair of works that display that ability along with a subtle sense of humor. The first painting is a view of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre Museum, which was already legendary among artists as a place to study the masters.

Hubert Robert, 1733-1808
View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, 1796
The second painting is an imaginary view of this same gallery in ruins, a very modern train of thought.

Hubert Robert, 1733-1808
Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie du Louvre in Ruins, 1796

Jacques-Louis David was a giant of the Neoclassical style, a style than tended toward austerity and severity, balanced composition, invisible brushstrokes, and firm contours. He revived interest in grand paintings showing historical or mythological scenes. This example could be called the ultimate Neoclassical painting. It illustrates a Roman legend about a conflict between the Romans and a rival group from a nearby town. Rather than continue a full-scale war, they elect representative combatants to settle their dispute. The Romans select the sons of Horatius. Their father is holding up their swords and they are swearing to "Conquer or Die." Contrasting with this show of loyalty and courage is the sorrow of the women in their family. To make the story more poignant, one of the sisters is betrothed to one of the three brothers representing their enemy, so she stands to lose no matter what the outcome. The moralistic tone and the noble presentation made this painting a great hit at the time, and it was highly influential on the future of painting.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
The Oath of the Horatii, c. 1784
David had shifting political loyalties, and this impacted his choice of subjects, as well as later interpretations of his work. Early in his career he received Royal patronage, but later he supported the French Revolution and painted compositions that represented their goals. The character in the next painting was a French revolutionary leader and radical journalist named Jean-Paul Marat who was murdered in his bath. He suffered from a skin condition that caused him to spend much of his time in the tub, and even to work there. He is holding a letter of introduction for Charlotte Corday, who claimed to have information about his enemies. Corday fatally stabbed him, making him a martyr to the cause of Revolution.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
The Death of Marat, 1794
David was eventually imprisoned for his support of the Revolution. While in prison, he decided to paint a 'sequel' to Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women, which was discussed above. This version depicts the wife of Rome's founder rushing between him and her father, the leader of the Sabines, and even placing her babies between them. It is interpreted as a call for peace after the Revolution. David was imprisoned twice for short periods in Luxembourg Palace, where he was allowed to paint. It took him four years to complete this canvas, and it was a big success with the public.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
The Intervention of the Sabines, 1799
Intermixed with these grand canvases with moral themes, David fulfilled many commissions for portraits in the traditional manner. This portrait recalls Dutch double portraits. Although the woman is noticeably younger than her husband, she's clearly a lively and assertive person in her own right.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
Portrait  of Antoine Mongez and his Wife, Angélique, 1812
In the next painting, he turned a portrait of a young woman into a symbol of the classical virtues of simplicity, grace and frankness.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
Madame Raymond de Verninac, 1799
He showed the Parisian socialite in the next painting in the height of Neoclassical fashion.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
Madame Récamier, 1800
David painted this self-portrait while he was imprisoned, but he showed himself younger and more robust than he was at the time, reminiscent of a fantasy figure by Fragonard.

Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825
Self-Portrait, 1794

Late 1700s—The Rise of Women Artists

One marvelous aspect of the late 1700s is that several women artists created successful careers. Although they were popular in their time, after their deaths, their work was long neglected or attributed to male artists, typically their teachers. In recent decades, new research has re-discovered these women and gradually corrected the attribution of their paintings. The Louvre was showing work by three of them: Anne Vallayer-Coster, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.

Anne Vallayer-Coster was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1770, at the age of 26, a real ground-breaker. She was best known for her paintings of flowers. Here's an exercise that shows off her ability to define form and space. I made special note of this talented painter because it is the first time I had heard of her.

Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1744-1818
Attributes of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, 1769

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was a big star of portrait painting in her own time, and continues to be very popular. She was very prolific, and her work may be seen in many museums. All of her work was portraiture for royal or aristocratic patrons, and she generally idealized and romanticized their image. She excelled at concocting colorful costumes, and her ability to convey the texture of fabric was uncanny. Her sweet palette and light touch relate her work to the Rococo style, but her figures have the solidity, the clear light, and the traditional poses of Neoclassical portraiture.

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1755-1842
Portrait of Madame Molé-Reymond, 1786
Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1755-1842
Portrait of Madame Rousseau and her son, 1789

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1783, on the same day as Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and she also specialized in portraits of royals and aristocrats. For a long time she was considered less talented than Vigée-Lebrun, but she was more versatile and truer to reality, so esteem for her work is growing. Her skill is very convincingly demonstrated in this portrait of her teacher.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1749-1803
François-André Vincent, c. 1795
Here's an example of work by her teacher, who later became her husband. It depicts a "beauty contest" in which an artist is choosing a model to represent Helen of Troy.

François-André Vincent, 1746-1816
Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the Image of Helen, 1789

Early 1800s—Neoclassicism continues

The last important Neoclassical painter was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a student of David, an admirer of Raphael, and a guardian of cultural conservatism. All his life, he moved back and forth between Paris and Rome. He believed in the supremacy of line and form over color, and he was devoted to a search for ideal beauty. He considered himself a history painter in the tradition of Poussin and David, but he became the most sought-after portraitist in France, and his portraits are now considered his greatest legacy.

Here are is a pair of his portraits, depicting a husband and wife. Although they are undeniably Neoclassical in style, their nonchalant poses, their direct gaze, and their sense of entitlement make them look more modern.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867
Madame Rivière, 1806
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867
Philibert Rivière, c. 1805
Ingres seems to have been an innovator in spite of himself. For instance, he popularized the female nude as a subject in itself, with no mythological pretext. In all the previous centuries of French art there had been nothing like this next painting. He painted it while he was a student in Rome.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867
The Bather, 1808
When he was eighty-two years old, he painted a peak expression of voluptuousness. The figure above reappears in the foreground of this painting, even wearing the same headscarf, but seated on the floor playing an instrument. She gazes upon an extraordinary scene. What sort of situation would bring a lot of naked women together in such tight quarters? It would have to be a harem or a brothel. Why do they look so languid? Could that be opium paraphernalia in the foreground? The nature of the scene is tawdry, but almost irrelevant. What mattered to Ingres was to make a perfect design showing the female nude in every conceivable pose; what mattered was to show depth of field through a progression of smaller figures and darker shading; what mattered was that sweeping curve from the back of the instrumentalist around through the frontal nudes to the back. The mood of waiting, of unconscious drifting, is captivating.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867
The Turkish Bath, 1862

Early 1800s—Romanticism

While Ingres was pushing Neo-classicism to extremes, Romanticism was becoming the dominant trend in all the arts. Romanticism was about action and emotion, imagination and individual expression; Romanticists abandoned reason and order as guiding aesthetic principles. The foremost French Romantic painters were Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix.

Théodore Géricault was a pioneer of the Romantic movement. Although he died young, his work was very influential. His first major work was a big success.

Théodore Géricault, 1791-1824
The Charging Chasseur, c. 1812
Géricault is most famous for this painting of a contemporary French shipwreck in which the captain left the crew and passengers to die. The incident became a national scandal, and Géricault's dramatic interpretation presented a contemporary tragedy. It is a huge, dark canvas in dreadful need of restoration.

Théodore Géricault, 1791-1824
The Raft of the Medusa, 1819
Eugène Delacroix was Géricault's friend and spiritual heir, and is generally considered the leader of the French Romantic school. His style emphasized color and movement rather than clarity of outline or careful modeling of forms. He favored dramatic content. The next painting was his most influential. Parisians, having taken up arms, are marching forward under the banner of the tricolour representing liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is a very large canvas, and it needs restoration.

Eugène Delacroix, 1798-1863
Liberty Leading the People, 1831
In 1954 and 1955, Picasso painted a series of 15 variations on Delacroix’s 1834 “The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” which depicts Algerian women in a harem. In 2015, the last of this series sold at auction for $179.4 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

Eugène Delacroix, 1798-1863
Women of Algiers, 1834
Here's an internet grab of Picasso's version.

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Women of Algiers, 1934
Internet grab
1800s—The Rise of Landscape Painting

In contrast with all that drama and exoticism, the Romantic era also ushered in a new interest in landscape for its own sake. Previously, landscape had been primarily an imagined setting for a historical or mythological scene, as exemplified in France by Poussin. But in the early 1800s, people got interested in nature, and artists began painting landscapes that were based on real places, places they had seen themselves.

Camille Corot was an important pioneer of landscape painting in France. Although his paintings were generally finished in the studio, they were based on sketches he made out of doors. The scenes frequently included some architecture that identifies the location. In the serene and harmonious views he created, with their restrained or muted colors, his work relates back to Neo-classicism, but with his outdoor studies, his careful observation of natural light, and his experimental brushstrokes, he is considered an early influence on Impressionism.

His manner of handling paint went through various phases. Early on, his subjects look quite solid and real.

Camille Corot, 1796-1875
Chartres Cathedral, 1830
Later on his scenes became very wispy and lyrical. In some ways this next painting looks very old-fashioned but the way the composition funnels toward the church is new and very effective.

Camille Corot, 1796-1875
The Church at Marissel, 1866
Corot was also highly respected by following generations as a painter of figures. The point of the next painting was too create a mood of deep reverie; the figure may represent a seer or oracle.

Camille Corot, 1796-1875
Velléda, c. 1870


First with the Rococo style and later with Neo-classicism, the French dominated the history of painting in the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s. With his interest in landscape painting, his working outdoors, and his atmospheric style, Corot was a transition artist, preparing the way for Impressionism. Impressionist paintings are not exhibited at the Louvre, but at the Orsay Museum. We'll get there in a few days.