France, Art in

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FRANCE, ART IN. In the sixteenth century Italian artists and Italian styles dominated the visual arts in France. However, by the end of the eighteenth century it was French artists and French styles that dominated the European artistic arena. The major trends in French art during the early modern period (16001789) reflect the establishment of France as a nation-state and its rise to a position of international power. In the sixteenth century predominantly Italian artists developed a court-based art in an elegant, mannerist style; in the seventeenth century, although the Italian influence continued, reflecting the trends of realism and classicism practiced in Italy, an official state style was established during the reign of King Louis XIV that relied on a dignified visual vocabulary capable of expressing the ambition of the king, the chief patron of the arts; in the eighteenth century a distinctively French style emerged with rococo, which appealed to a public and to patrons well beyond the king and court, and in the latter part of the century a neoclassical style officially prevailed.

King Francis I of France (ruled 15151547) had visited Italy as part of his military campaigns, and he was impressed with the magnificence of the courts in Italy. When he returned to Paris in 1525 after the defeat of Pavia, he embarked on a cultural campaign to create a court and a court art that would rival those he observed in Italy. There were no French artists who were up to the task, so Francis I invited Italian artists to decorate his new palaces. Rosso Fiorentino (14941540) arrived in 1530 and Francesco Primaticcio (15041570) in 1532 to work on the newly remodeled palace at Fontainebleau, just outside Paris. Referred to as the School of Fontainebleau, this new style became the hallmark French court style during the sixteenth century. As seenattheGalleryof Francis I at the palace of Fontainebleau, the decorative style combines stucco (plaster) framework in high relief surrounding a painting. Typical decorative motifs on the stucco frame include strapwork (resembling leather straps that are rolled on the ends), the forms of humans, fruit, and animals, and pure ornament. The paintings are in the mannerist style; they feature elongated, elegant figures in a compressed and energized space. They were intended to glorify the king through complex allegories that draw on classical mythology and history and Christian symbolism. Although the symbolism is Christian, it occurs in a secular context; in France this represents a larger shift from medieval sacred art to a court-based profane art.

Despite the religious and civil wars in France in 15601589, which reduced much of France to a state of chaos, a Second School of Fontainebleau persisted as part of court culture during the reign of King Henry IV (ruled 15891610).

A new wave of Italian influence appears in French painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Numerous French and Dutch artists went to Rome, then considered the capital of the art world, where many discovered the style of Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi). Caravaggio painted moving religious scenes that featured ordinary people and dramatic contrasts between light and dark. We do not know if the French painter Georges de La Tour (15931652) went to Rome, but his work shows the influence of Caravaggio. La Tour was a provincial artist born in Lorraine; he more likely learned of Caravaggio's realism and light effects secondhand through Dutch artists who had traveled to Rome and upon their return had begun to work in the style of Caravaggio. La Tour's St. Sebastian Attended by Saint Irene (c. 1649, Louvre, Paris) depicts figures at close range dramatically illuminated by a candle. There is a stillness to his works that La Tour achieves in part through his simplified, almost lathelike geometric forms and an overall smoothness of texture.

The Le Nain brothers, Antoine (15881648), Louis (15931648), and Mathieu (16071677), also worked in a realist style. They were born in Laon but active as painters in Paris; attributing specific works to them individually has proved difficult and controversial. The brothers are best known today for scenes of peasant life, such as Peasant Family in an Interior (c. 1645, Louvre, Paris) in which common peasants are portrayed with dignity and objectivity. Previously, peasants had been depicted as objects of either derision or satire. Le Nain's peasants are poor, but clearly well fed and clothed. Some have interpreted these scenes as a city-dweller's idealized vision of peasant life, and it was most likely a middle-class Parisian audience who purchased these works.

Simon Vouet (15901649) also practiced a realist style at the beginning of his career. Vouet was the first artist to receive a royal stipend to make an artistic pilgrimage to Rome (16151627). His later style shifted from a dark realism to a lighter and more idealized style practiced by Italian painters such as Guido Reni. On his return to Paris, he decorated the townhouses of wealthy Parisians with bright allegorical figures and mythological scenes, such as Allegory of Wealth (c. 16301635, Louvre, Paris), and painted altarpieces for Parisian churches and monasteries. Vouet is an important figure in the history of French painting, for he established a large, successful studio where many artists apprenticed. He helped to create a taste for and train artists in a more classicizing style.

Nicolas Poussin (15941665) further developed this classicism and infused it with rationalism. Poussin spent most his active career in Rome, yet his work and theory greatly influenced French art; he had many patrons in Paris, and French artists worked with him when they came to Rome. Poussin cultivated a group of intellectually minded patrons who appreciated his composed and restrained art. In The Arcadian Shepherds (1650, Louvre, Paris) the classical subject exhibits a symmetrical and balanced composition. Poussin always sought a set of elemental guidelines to govern painting. He believed that the type of subjectheroic, lyric, melancholy, etc.should dictate the stylistic treatment, and he formulated a theory based on these ideas.

The theorization and codification of art reached further heights with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648. This institution was established to elevate the status of painting and sculpture from a manual art to a liberal art. Poussin's rationalist approach to art reinforced the notion that art is an intellectual practice. The academy became part of the official state machinery in 1663 when King Louis XIV reorganized it to serve his interests and underwrote its funding. Under the directorship of Charles Le Brun (16191690), the academy and its membership became a powerful institution with a monopoly on all the most important royal commissions. The academy was organized around a series of hierarchies and rules that governed the standards of taste and evaluation and the creative process. The result was an art that was rather homogenous. Le Brun's The Tent of Darius (1661, Versailles) is typical of the academic subject and style. It is a "history painting" (scenes representing ancient history or mythology and biblical history) depicting the moment when the family of the defeated Persian king, Darius, presents itself to the victorious Alexander the Great. King Louis XIV associated himself with Alexander the Great, so the painting is also a flattering reference to the king. The figures' pantomime-like poses, gestures, and expressions were intended to clearly convey their emotions and hence contribute to a clear exposition of the story.

Le Brun led teams of artists in decorating Versailles and other royal building projects; the academy provided an army of artists to glorify king, country, and God, and it also exercised royal control over the kinds of images that were produced. The Gobelins Manufacture, also royally sponsored, produced tapestries, furniture, and other luxury items to furnish these new buildings. The sculptor François Girardon (16281715) and others created large-scale sculptures of classical subjects, such as Apollo and the Nymphs of Thetis (1666), at Versailles, to decorate the grounds of royal palaces. However, by the end of the seventeenth century this great burst of state-sponsored art production came to a halt. King Louis XIV's wars had diminished the funds available for the arts and for luxury goods. When the monarch died in 1715, there was very little financial support for the academy.

With large prestigious commissions no longer available through the academy, artists turned to private patrons who preferred less weighty subjects and a lighter, less formal style. These private patrons preferred an art that was witty and that pleased the eye to an art that was didactic and intended for public propaganda. In response to this shift in patronage, a new style, now referred to as the rococo, developed. Antoine Watteau is often credited with creating both this style and a new type of subject in paintingthe fête galante, 'gallant party'. These are scenes of men and women at elite entertainments, often outdoors, engaged in flirtations and conversations. Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717, Louvre, Paris) represents an imaginary pilgrimage to Venus's island where everyone is destined to fall in love. Rococo painting tends to be small in scale, playful in subject, witty and subtle in meaning, and intended for a discerning audience. Much rococo painting decorated the interiors of private townhouses in Paris, for after the reign of King Louis XIV, Paris supplanted Versailles as the center of society's universe.

During the reign of King Louis XV the rococo style did become a court style. Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was a great patron of the arts and fostered the careers of a number of painters working in a rococo style, such as François Boucher (17031770). Boucher painted decorative mythological scenes for Madame de Pompadour's châteaus and portraits of her. The flattering portrait in Munich (1756) represents her not only as beautiful (and beautifully dressed), but also as a woman of learning, alluded to through the books, letters, and sealing wax that appear in the painting. The popularity of portraits increased in the eighteenth century, although portraits had always been a staple of French painting and sculpture. Two women artists working later in the century, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (17551842) and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (17491803), enjoyed great success as society portraitists. They were accepted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, filling two of the four memberships allotted to women within that institution. Theirs were exceptional cases because women were not allowed to practice painting professionally.

The rococo style remained popular through most of the eighteenth century although other subjects and styles of paintings coexisted with it. For example, domestic genre scenes of the middle classes that often featured children, such as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's (16991779) Grace at Table (1740, Louvre, Paris), began to achieve recognition in the 1730s. Chardin's work depicted a quiet, self-contained sphere of female domesticity. The medium of inexpensive prints helped to augment the popularity of these domestic scenes (and the still life paintings he did as well). Another painter who also depicted the middle-class domestic sphere, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (17251805), emerged as a popular figure in the 1750s. Greuze's world, however, is one of emotion. His paintings, such as The Punished Son (1777, Louvre, Paris), remind us of contemporary soap operas in their unbridled emotions. Nonetheless, Chardin's and Greuze's works should be understood as part of a movement referred to as the cult of feeling. Authors such as the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot called for an art that would move the viewer and impart a moral message. One was to experience emotions and trust them. Motherhood was extolled because it was seen as a woman's natural calling, and images of motherhood proliferated as a result.

Images representing the classical past also proliferated in the 1770s. This interest in antiquity was spurred by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. There was a great demand for luxury items in the "Greek taste," including furniture, porcelain, and decorative paintings of pretty Greek maidens. Vigée-Lebrun, mentioned earlier, often dressed her sitters in the Greek style. Neoclassicism was also fueled by a reform movement in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture instituted by Comte d'Angiviller, who was appointed director in 1774. D'Angiviller rejected rococo painting as immoral and wanted to restore dignity and virtue to art. The classical past served as a model, and artists within the academy began painting subjects from Roman history that extolled what were believed to be the masculine moral virtues of civic duty and public responsibility. The work of Jacques-Louis David (17481825), such as his Oath of the Horatii (1784, Louvre, Paris), embodies this stoic type of neoclassicism. The Horatii brothers take an oath in the name of their father to protect their lands as part of civic responsibility. The setting is archaeologically correct; David, like many artists, had gone to Rome and studied the monuments of antiquity. David eventually became an artistic leader during the French Revolution, and the neoclassical style prevailed well into the nineteenth century in France.

See also Chardin, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon ; David, Jacques-Louis ; Fontainebleau, School of ; France, Architecture in ; Greuze, Jean-Baptiste ; Le Brun, Charles ; Neoclassicism ; Painting ; Poussin, Nicolas ; Rococo ; Versailles ; Vigée-Lebrun, Élisabeth ; Vouet, Simon ; Watteau, Antoine .


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Julie Plax

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