PRINT March 1964


Albert Chatelet's and Jacques Thuiller's French Painting from Bouquet to Poussin

Albert Chatelet and Jacques Thuiller, French Painting from Fouquet to Poussin. 226 pages. 

AT HAND IS THE NEW Skira book, French Painting from Fouquet to Poussin, by Albert Chatelet and Jacques Thuiller, containing 226 pages, of which 109 hold color reproductions. There is a good, up-to-date bibliography and a useful general index. Actually, this is one of three books by these authors who intend to comment on the entire corpus of French painting in these works, a formidable obligation. The present volume covers some 250 years from the rise in the early Renaissance of independent painting in the works of anonymous illustrators and panel painters to the seminal works of Nicholas Poussin in the 17th century. Paintings are shown contemporary with France’s low ebb during the Hundred Years War and the disaster of Agincourt (1415), to her rising fortunes under Louis XII and Francis I, and preeminence under Louis XIV, when all the world turned to France for cultural leadership.

Included here is the best color record between one set of covers of French Renaissance painting. The period is inadequately represented in most general works on European painting, particularly in English, though it has been in part known to a post-cubist generation of painters in America, who have profited much therefrom, and to students and curators. The clarity of these forms and their decorative brilliance have made them prototypes for combining images of sculptural clarity within the compressed spatial setting of a magical and make-believe universe. The Avignon Pieta, the Aix Annunciation, and the triptych of the Master of Moulins have done their part to instruct American artists, as have the Clouets, portraits all, and the later works of Nicholas Poussin. The Skira reproductions of these works are as good as this reviewer has seen, short of large-scale facsimiles. The printer has even managed to get some light into the dark shadows of the 17th-century Caravaggiesque pictures.

The authors, deploring the lack in French art history of a Vasari, or a Van Mander of the Lowlands, find criticism of the French strain in European art to have been regrettable. The continuity of French heritage in art they see as “belittled, mutilated by ignoramuses,” for which crimes the authors seek correction. They point to a “strain” of pictorial accomplishment which they believe unequalled “in perseverance” by Spain, Germany, Flanders, or even Italy.

It is this main stream which is the center of things, and the authors feel justified in the omission of major works where they believe more intimate canvases may reveal “a master’s secrets.” Also, foreign artists transient on French soil, as was Simon Marmion, do not appear. Inclusion is made of Flemish and Italian artists in particular who take up extended residence in France, such as the Mannerist Italians, whose work at Fontainebleau eventually was felt in the fabric of French art. The authors correctly show French painting positioned between the arts (and Ducal patrons) of Flanders and Italy, and later of Spain. Customarily, they do not mention the possibility of German connections in either Cologne or Stuttgart, assuming that during the Renaissance both Germany and France took from Flanders and Italy but not from each other. Paris and Dijon, then, have Franco-Italian or Franco-Flemish connections and between them emerged a realism and sense of everyday life, which is Northern; and a concern with human dignity, breadth, and idealism, which is Italian. Between, is the French sense of decorative unity and balance, of restrained sensuousness which may range from austerity to aristocratic richness, but seldom is niggling in descriptive detail, bawdy or sensual in taste, or banal in attitude. This, then, is the message of our authors and it is generally supported by available scholarship and assisted by the well-chosen range of works reproduced. The reviewer, like other Americans who for the past 100 years have been strongly Francophile in their pictorial preferences, does not share the enthusiasm of the writers for 17th-century artists, Valentin de Boulogne and Simon Vouet, who imported Roman, Bolognese and Venetian Baroque painting for large-scale decoration in Parisian hotels and town houses. Resuscitation of these skillful, eclectic painters is timely and their work fits the taste for bravura and painterly display in our day. The work seems still as stagy and vacuous in content and as operatic in setting as ever and not in the pure strain one would think the authors were stoutly defending.

Starting with unknown masters at the turn of the 15th century, “French Painting from Fouquet to Poussin” illustrates an “Annunciation,” on panel in the Cleveland Museum and the celebrated panel of the Crucifixion with the Last Communion and Martyrdom of St. Denis, whose history has been assembled by Charles Sterling of the Louvre. The work is a collaborative effort but principally executed by a Northerner, Jean Malouel. Anonymous masters of panel painting and book illustration from Flemish workshops will assist the French in arriving at a full sense of pictorial space, shapes of sculptural dimension and weight, a feeling for the monumental and some of the techniques of perspective.

Illustrations for sacred texts and calendars brought forth under Ducal patronage may be seen in the miniatures from Les Tres Riches Heures, gouache paintings by the Limbourg brothers done for the Duc du Berry. Their impact was much felt in their own time. (In the 20th century, movie sets and costumes were taken from them by Laurence Olivier for the film Henry the V.) However, French painting was relatively dormant in the years when Massacio in Italy and the Van Eyck brothers in Ghent were completing works fundamental to the growth of European art. Nothing contemporary in Paris compares to the murals in the Florentine Church or the altar panel at St. Bavon.

Resurgence in French painting began with Jean Fouquet following whose miniatures there appeared his Melun Diptych and Pieta of about 1450 and 1470 respectively. In Fouquet there was established a median balance between Flemish realism and the Italian nobility of forms which he saw during his trip to Italy. Clear, decisive, drawing, monumental arrangement, and brilliantly decorative color are brought into a unity infrequently surpassed in European painting.

Also, there are contemporary anonymous masters who have been named for their principal panel paintings: The Aix Annunciation, The Villeneuve Pieta, and The Moulins Triptych. In these are found a highly developed grasp of pictorial symbolism, sophisticated in its emotional substance. The painter of The Coronation of the Virgin, a masterwork of Provencal painting, still in Avignon, is known to us through a contract instructing the artist to depict the Holy Trinity in a specified fashion, a host of saints and “a sight whereat the devils are greatly discomfited.” Not much more is known of Enguerrand Charonton than this mid-15th century contract and picture, but the latter sets a standard for plastic unity in large-scale panel decoration, which few later more traveled and sophisticated Frenchmen would equal. During this period France was still debilitated by wars and Paris was struggling to regain its position of leadership as a capital. The court, vastly peripatetic, moved where the King’s political urgencies required; for instance, to Touraine and to Lyon.

French imports of Italian taste, skills and works of art were joined by artisans and artists from the Italian peninsula who came after France’s political intervention there in 1495. Later, Louis XII and Francis I sought systematically to introduce the Italian Renaissance into French life and art. At first, Gallic acceptance of the Italianate was superficial, but from the mid-16th century and following the residence in France of Leonardo, Rosso, and a covey of Mannerist architects, sculptors and painters, the foundations were laid for a strong Mediterranean orientation in French art. These were systematized in the 17th century and have since brought classical order into French art to this day.

During successive waves of Southern art and ideas, France made up her own balance. In the portraits of the Clouet, precision and elegance were expressed in drawing and color as several of the most prized of French portraits resulted from their hands; for example, the Francis I, in the Louvre by the father, Jean Clouet.

In 17th-century France, there was achieved a lateral unity in all of the arts. There was exhibited a logical mentality, an overriding sense of order, and a feeling for the grandeur and scale of which the plastic arts were capable. By the end of the century, France was preeminent in all the arts, arbiter of taste for Europe and manufacturer of the clothing, furnishings, sculpture, buildings and parks to which most of the civilized world paid deference.

The painting of the first part of that century was still tinctured by the continued influx of ideas and persons from Caravaggiesque Italy and the followers of Rubens in Flanders.

The “dark” painting of Rome and Bologna and late Venetian wall painting have their echoes in France, and the eclecticism of the Carracci is paralleled in Valentin de Boulogne and Simon Vouet, our authors to the contrary. George de La Tour is given a separate chapter, fittingly, where excellent illustrations show his nocturnal settings and spare, powerfully drawn figures, each with an internal life at which we can only guess.

Of the 17th-century French artists in Rome, Poussin comes off best. So much has been published about him in such specialized terms that it is difficult to view the general outline of this man whose painting formed the basis of a revised classical pictorial composition in France to the time of Cézanne. The outlines of Poussin’s life and work are reasonably drawn with an excellent choice of works for illustration and details. The text closes with Poussin’s departure from Paris and escape again to Rome.

Under Mazarin and Colbert, certainly under Louis XIV, the French state brought organization into the least details of the arts. Through establishment of the academies, museums, provincial schools, and control of decorative arts through ownership of the factories which produced them, the nation was assured a standard of craftsmanship and form unequalled elsewhere. It also produced an environment uncomfortable to original minds, and not until Louis’ death would a fresh, independent spirit arise again in French art.

Donald B. Goodall