Baroque Classicism in France

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Baroque Classicism in France

The Reception of the Italian Style.

The later sixteenth century had been a time of great turmoil in France. Between 1562 and 1598, a series of religious wars had erupted, leaving the country's political institutions, economy, and society badly battered. In the years after 1600, however, a tenuous stability returned to the country under King Henri IV (r. 1594–1610). Although Henri was eventually assassinated, civil war did not return to France, and during the long reign of Henri's son, Louis XIII (r. 1610–1643), a steady recovery in the country's fortunes continued. In the early years of his reign, Louis' mother, Marie de' Medici, served as regent. A connoisseur of the arts, she came to invite the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens to court, and she supported a number of native artists as well. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, too, many of the artists who were to contribute to the country's great flowering of the arts in the second half of the seventeenth century migrated southward to Italy, particularly to Rome. There they learned of the new styles of Caravaggio and the Carracci. Among these figures, Georges de la Tour (1593–1652), Nicholas Poussin (1593 or 1594–1665), and Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) were to build upon Italian examples, Northern European traditions, and their own native styles to fashion a resurgence of the arts in France. Each of these figures was shaped most definitively by their experience of the Roman Baroque. Georges de la Tour spent time there as a young man, while Poussin and Lorrain eventually emigrated to the city and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Georges de la Tour.

La Tour's career presents us with one case of the vagaries of reputation across the ages. He was an artist of considerable renown in his own times, but he soon fell out of favor after his death, and his place in seventeenth-century painting has only recently been restored. After a provincial upbringing in the province of Lorraine in the east of France, he traveled extensively in the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland) as well as in Italy. He arrived in Rome as the ferment of Caravaggio's new realism was erupting on the artistic scene. While affected by these currents, particularly in his use of chiaroscuro, La Tour was a strikingly original artist. As other Catholic artists of the time, he often painted religious subjects as if they occurred in his own time and place. Today, one of his most famous paintings is the Newborn (c. 1630), a canvas that shows his tendency to convey religious subjects realistically. The picture shows a mother inspecting her child by the light of a candle held by a midwife. Although the reverential feeling of the work suggests that it is a picture of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, no religious symbol, halo, or any other sign supports this assumption. Rather than the light emanating from the infant Jesus as in much traditional imagery, La Tour makes the illumination reflect across the picture surface to form patches of light and dark. Instead of the miraculous otherworldly light with which Caravaggio often cast on religious subjects like the Conversion of St. Paul, La Tour makes this light come from the natural source of a candle. Although we can surmise that the intensely reverential spirit of the work means that the subject is the Birth of Christ, La Tour seems to make here a statement about the wonder that accompanies all human birth. Most of the forty other images that can be attributed to the artist are, like this painting, executed on a small scale, a fact that suggests that La Tour carved out a niche for himself in the French provinces as a painter who worked for private patrons, rather than religious institutions. Of these works most treat religious subjects or are genre pieces, i.e., they treat subjects in everyday life. It is not always easy to tell into which category one of La Tour's paintings falls, since he almost never included haloes or other recognizable religious symbols when he treated the saints or some other religious subject. He avoided placing the figures in his compositions in unnatural or stylized poses, as the Mannerist artists before him had done, and at the same time he did not display the dynamic sense of movement typical of Rubens and other Baroque painters of the time. He seems to have painted from life models, and he captured their natural poses in full-or half-length views. In most of his compositions, a quiet and still observation of human nature and human forms dominates, rather than the turbulent psychological realism of Caravaggio and the Caravaggeschi. His art does not recall the intensely sweeping motion of works like those from the hands of Cortona and his disciples. While he derived certain influences from all these great artists, La Tour's work is highly original and suggests the great variety that existed in seventeenth-century European painting.


introduction: As a French painter living in Rome, Nicholas Poussin (1594–1665) was deeply affected by the High Renaissance classicism of figures like Michelangelo as well as the grandeur of ancient Roman monuments. As a painter of historical themes, Poussin, too, formulated several consistent theories around which he built his art. In one set of writings, he developed the notion that painting should emulate the ancient Greek musical modes, an idea that he outlines in this letter to one of his patrons.

Our wise ancient Greeks, inventors of all beautiful things, found several Modes by means of which they produced marvellous effects.

This word "Mode" means actually the rule or the measure and form, which serves us in our productions. This rule constrains us not to exaggerate by making us act in all things with a certain restraint and moderation; and, consequently, this restraint and moderation is nothing more than a certain determined manner or order, and includes the procedure by which the object is preserved in its essence.

The Modes of the ancients were a combination of several things put together; from their variety was born a certain difference of Mode whereby one was able to understand that each one of them retained in itself a subtle variation; particularly when all the things which entered into combination were put together in such a proportion that it was made possible to arouse the soul of the spectator to various passions. Hence the fact that the ancient sages attributed to each style its own effects. Because of this they called the Dorian Mode stable, grave, and severe, and applied it to subjects which are grave and severe and full of wisdom.

And proceeding thence to pleasant and joyous things, they used the Phrygian Mode, in which there are more minute modulations than in any other mode, and a more clear-cut aspect. These two styles and no others were praised and approved of by Plato and Aristotle, who deemed the others superfluous, they considered this [Phrygian Mode] intense, vehement, violent, and very severe, and capable of astonishing people.

I hope, before another year is out, to paint a subject in this Phrygian Mode. The subject of frightful wars lends itself to this manner.

source: Nicolas Poussin, "Letter to Chantelou, November 24, 1647," in A Documentary History of Art. Vol. II. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Books, 1958): 155–156.


Perhaps the two greatest painters to appear in seventeenth-century France were Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), both of whom eventually settled in Rome. Like La Tour, both were also provincials; Poussin was from Normandy, while Lorrain was from the eastern French province of the same name. Poussin became perhaps the greatest painter of classical themes in the Western tradition. Unlike the heavily muscled classical images produced by Michelangelo in the sixteenth century or the swift-moving dynamism of Annibale Carracci, Poussin's works exude a quiet intellectualism. He did not labor to reproduce decisive moments from the scenes he painted as Caravaggio had done, but instead tried to retell ancient myths and legends faithfully, creating images that suggested their entire sweep and texture. While he also painted many religious scenes, he is best known for works on antique themes. An important artistic theorist as well, Poussin developed his own theory of aesthetics. He insisted that an artist must first have a clear understanding of the theme or story that he wanted to communicate before planning his composition. At the same time, an artist must execute his work so that it appears unlabored and natural. As his career progressed, the artist refined his aesthetics, and he tried to paint according to the system of modes once used in Greek music, perceiving in these abstract systems of tone an underlying sense of beauty that might communicate his ideas clearly to his audience. In his Rape of the Sabines, painted just after 1635, he relied on the Phrygian mode's organizing principles to create a work notable for its abstract principles of organization, in which the eye is carried around the canvas in a wheel-like rotation. Similarly, in his great masterpiece from around the same time, The Dance to the Music of Time, he explicitly relies on music to give life to the subject. Here the eternal cyclical rotation of the powers of poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure are conceptualized in terms of being a great dance operating throughout history. In this, one of the greatest of his many pictures, the typical features of Poussin's design are clear, particularly his emphasis on creating an art notable for its balance of color, lighting, and forms. Unlike the dramatic and highly dynamic art popular in Rome at the time, Poussin's vision was altogether quieter and more cerebral. That he flourished in the same city remains a testimony to Baroque Rome's great and tolerant community of connoisseurs.


introduction: A central dilemma of French painting in the seventeenth century revolved around how to capture the human emotions in a way that was still suitably grand and appropriate to the idealized format that large paintings provided. French artists and theorists debated just how much emotion was suitable in paintings, and the ways in which different emotions should be portrayed. The figure of Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) dominated art commissioned for the monarchy for much of the century, having been named by Louis XIII "Royal Painter" in 1638. He also served Louis' son, Louis XIV, and played a dominant role in the development of the French academies, the decoration of Versailles, as well as the Gobelins manufactory scheme. In this address to the members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, he tries to define the relationship between human expressions and the interior passions or emotions. His remarks are interesting because of the almost clinical way in which he observes the various emotions' effects on the body.

Sirs: At the last assembly you approved the plan which I adopted to discuss expression with you. It is therefore necessary first to know in what it consists.

Expression, in my opinion, is a naive and natural resemblance [true to nature] of the things which are to be represented. It is necessary and appears in all aspects of painting and a picture could not be perfect without expression. It is expression that marks the true character of each thing; by means of it is the nature of bodies discerned, the figures seem to have movement and all that is pretense appears to be truth.

Expression is present in color as well as in drawing; and it must also be present in the representation of landscapes and in the arrangement of figures.

It is this, Sirs, that I have tried to call to your attention in past lectures. Today I shall try to make you see that expression is also a part that shows the emotion of the soul and makes visible the effects of passion.

So many learned persons have discussed the passions that one can only say what they have already written. There I should not repeat their opinion on this subject were it not that, in order to explain better what concerns our art, it seems necessary to me to touch upon several things for the benefit of young students of painting. This I will try to do as briefly as I can.

In the first place, passion is an emotion of the soul, which lies in the sensitive part [of the body]. It pursues what the soul thinks is good for it, or flees what it thinks bad for it; ordinarily whatever causes passion in the soul evokes action in the body.

Since, then, it is true that most of the passions of the soul produce bodily action, we should know which actions of the body express the passions and what those actions are …

It would not therefore be inappropriate to say something of the nature of these passions in order to understand them better … We shall begin with admiration.

Admiration is a surprise which causes the soul to consider attentively the objects which seem to it rare and extraordinary. This surprise is so powerful that it sometimes impels the spirit toward the site of the impression of the object and causes it to be so occupied in considering that impression that there are no more spirits passing into the muscles, so that the body becomes motionless as a statue …

Anger. When anger takes possession of the soul, he who experiences this emotion has red and inflamed eyes, a wandering and sparkling pupil, both eyebrows now lowered, now raised, the forehead deeply creased, creases between the eyes, wide-open nostrils, lips pressed tightly together, and the lower lip pushed up over the upper, leaving the corners of the mouth a little open to form a cruel and disdainful laugh. He seems to grind his teeth, his mouth fills with saliva, his face is swollen, pale in spots and inflamed in others, the veins of his temples and forehead and neck are swollen and protruding, his hair bristling, and one who experiences this passion seems more to blow himself up rather than to breathe because the heart is oppressed by the abundance of blood which comes to its aid.

source: Charles Le Brun, "Concerning Expression In General and In Particular" (1667), in A Documentary History of Art. Vol. II. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Books, 1958): 161–163.

Claude Lorrain.

If Poussin was a great painter of historical themes, Claude Lorrain became the greatest French landscape artist of the seventeenth century. Poussin set his works in settings notable for their classical architecture, but his artistic vision always fell upon the human figure, and his choice of scale was determined to set off their forms and accentuate their actions. By contrast, Claude Lorrain included human forms in his many canvases, but almost always to establish the grandeur of the landscapes that he painted around them. These grand views of countryside and cityscapes were not forbidding or uninhabitable, but they were certainly immense in the prospects they offered to their viewers. These views are always idealized; they present, in other words, nature more inviting and beautiful than it is in actuality. In his Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, completed around 1648, Lorrain retells the ancient biblical story in a countryside that resembles the area around Rome and the river that runs through the center of the image looks very much like the Tiber. Along the left of the painting an idealized classical portico and several other buildings allow the viewer to interpret the mammoth recession of space that occurs in the background, as does a large tree to the right. In the narrow but deep cavern of space that Lorrain carves out of this picture plane, the river rolls to the horizon as if it were the Mediterranean Sea, and once at its destination it disappears into the gorgeous yellowish glow of a late afternoon sun. The image points to a central underlying feature of Lorrain's art: its use of light as a way to grant unity and compositional integrity to his landscapes. Lorrain was not, to be sure, the inventor of the landscape form. It had begun to emerge in Venetian painting during the early sixteenth century. But his works opened up the genre's possibilities and the beauty with which he painted these scenes meant that he acquired many patrons. The Roman aristocracy came to commission many works from him in the more than forty years that he lived in their city. Unlike most artists, his mature style did not alter over time and he remained committed to the genre of ideal landscape into his old age.

The Age of Louis XIV.

The arts in France came to be dramatically affected by the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715). Louis came to power as a young boy, and in his youth his mother, Anne of Austria, served as regent. Anne was a great connoisseur of the arts, and in 1648 supported the foundation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. During the 1660s Louis assumed the reins of government and a series of regulations attempted to regularize the teaching practices of this institution. Like most of the academies founded under Louis XIV, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was concerned with establishing canons of classicism in the visual arts. Louis XIV was not a great connoisseur of art as his mother and her chief minister Cardinal Mazarin had been. Yet like many educated French men and women of the period he idealized the classical art of the Italian Renaissance, seeing in the art of Michelangelo and Raphael a high standard of excellence that students needed to study. The program of the Royal Academy was designed around instruction in the art of ancient Rome and Greece as well as these masters of the Renaissance. History painting, too, played a special role in the institution's goals, since no master was allowed to gain entrance into the Academy without having proved himself in this genre. To further these goals, Louis founded the French Academy in Rome, a place to which young painters and sculptors could travel in order to attain firsthand exposure to the great art of the ancient city. A state grant supported this institution, which was required to stage annual exhibitions of all its students. To create a market for the French Academy's instruction, moreover, the king granted the institution a monopoly over the teaching of life drawing. Thus if a student wanted to master the techniques of drawing with life models, he was forced to enroll in the Academy in Paris. To grant the institution greater cachet, Louis also insisted that he would award no commissions to any artist who was not a member. The king's state interventions in the art world were unprecedented in seventeenth-century Europe, and were not immediately imitated elsewhere. By the eighteenth century, however, a series of foundations of national academies elsewhere in Europe came to be closely modeled on the French example, and in this way, the European state acquired an important role in the training and support of artists. During Louis's time, however, royal support of the arts was evidenced primarily in a flurry of building. In architecture, the reign of the Sun King was a period of undeniable greatness that began with the completion of the East Façade of the Louvre in Paris. A number of designers, including François Mansart, Louis Le Vau, Claude Perrault, and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, developed a style notable for its Baroque monumentality and rigorous classicism. Louis XIV's age also became synonymous with the building of Versailles, an enormous project that displayed the king's grandiose ambitions. At Versailles the king favored Charles Le Brun (1609–1690), the most important member of the Royal Academy at the time. Le Brun's decoration of the Hall of Mirrors, the King's Bedroom, and other public spaces in the palace provided a suitably grand backdrop for the Sun King's pretensions. Somewhat later, Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743) rose to prominence as the king's favorite, and Rigaud excelled primarily as a portraitist. He created the contours of a severe and grand royal portraiture that persisted throughout most of the eighteenth century. In sculpture, the dominant artist of the time was Antoine Coysevox (1640–1720), who created a number of busts and equestrian treatments for Versailles. Louis XIV's taste frequently ran toward the decorative, and during his reign the support that he gave to French industries was decisive in their development. Most prominent among Louis' actions in this regard was his acquisition of the Gobelins factory in Paris in 1661. He placed the factory under the direction of his minister Colbert, who further entrusted many of the details of its development to Charles Le Brun. Louis recruited a number of foreign craftsmen to come and teach the workers at the Gobelins the techniques of their trade. The Gobelins thus became a workshop for the creation of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and furniture for all the royal households. It also played a key role in founding a number of decorative arts and complex trades in the country that had not previously been known to French masters. Gobelin-produced goods were not sold to the general public, but instead were produced directly for the consumption of the king and court. While this scheme flourished under Le Brun's direction, it fell into decline after the death of Colbert. The institution has survived, however, primarily as a tapestry factory until modern times. While commercially the scheme might be considered a failure, it played a tremendous role in extending knowledge of techniques in the decorative arts in and around the city of Paris.


Jean Coural, Les Gobelins (Paris: Nouvelles Editions latine, 1989).

Helen Langdon, Claude Lorrain (London: Phaidon, 1989).

Alain Mérot, Nicholas Poussin (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990).

Anne Reinbold, Georges de la Tour (Paris: Fayard, 1991).