Art in France

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Art in France

Many historians consider the reign of Francis I (1515–1547) to be the beginning of the Renaissance in France. However, French artists of this period still carried on the traditions of the Middle Ages. Eventually, new styles from Italy began to have an influence in France. The nation's artists blended these foreign ideas with local traditions to create a distinctively French Renaissance style, particularly in architecture and the decorative arts.


Transition from Gothic to Renaissance. During the late Middle Ages, the focus of art in France was largely religious. The major artworks of this time were Gothic* cathedrals. Stonework on the outside of churches, sculptures in their interiors, stained glass windows, and illuminated* manuscripts all played a role in creating the religious background.

During the 1400s developments in neighboring states had an impact on the arts in France. The duchy* of Burgundy to the northeast became a artistic center with a tradition of courtly, or worldly, art. This tradition spread to France and began to flourish alongside religious art. Members of the nobility collected beautiful books, tapestries, and portraits. Meanwhile, artistic ties between France and Italy grew stronger. In the early 1500s styles of the Italian Renaissance gained a large following in France, though Gothic styles did not disappear. Sculptors, for example, blended Renaissance forms into traditional groupings of figures, making them livelier and more dramatic. The new Renaissance styles updated French artistic tradition, rather than revolutionizing it.

Italian designs also influenced French architecture. Buildings that were basically Gothic in style began to include classical* decorations. Several French churches built in the 1500s and 1600s, for example, feature classical columns and rounded rather than pointed arches. However, the greatest architectural changes in France appeared in the design of châteaus, or castles. The French king Francis I built several new châteaus during his reign and updated others. The most famous of his projects was the royal château of Fontainebleau, outside Paris.


Fontainebleau. Around 1528 Francis I began to expand and renovate the château of Fontainebleau, using Italian Renaissance ideas. His plan was to bring the best parts of Italian culture into France. He had already sent agents to Italy to collect books, paintings, and other works of art. A violent attack on Rome in 1527 by an army of the Holy Roman Empire* gave an unexpected boost to the king's project. Numerous artists fled Italy and sought work in France. They brought with them an elegant and ornate style that blended well with French Gothic forms.

Many of the artists who worked on Fontainebleau were part of a new movement called Mannerism*. The collection of art housed at Fontainebleau included pieces by leading Mannerist artists such as Benvenuto Cellini. The room in the château called the Galerie François I (Gallery of Francis I) is widely viewed as the finest work of Mannerist art outside Italy. It features many large frescoes*, some based on stories from ancient mythology and others portraying the king in a variety of allegorical* settings. These large works appear alongside smaller paintings on wall panels and on the tops of columns. The gallery also includes decorative designs in woodwork and stucco*.

The lavish decoration of Fontainebleau expressed the king's grand political and cultural ambitions. Images of this new style spread quickly throughout France thanks to the growth of printing in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Members of the nobility soon adopted it in their own homes and other buildings. In fact, by the late 1500s many observers were criticizing the excessive luxury and ornamentation of French buildings.

The ornamental designs of Fontainebleau also had a tremendous impact on French decorative arts, such as furniture, ceramics (objects made from clay), metalwork, and textiles. Many artists in these fields combined classical decorations with local styles. Bernard Palissy, one of the most famous decorative artists in France in the 1500s, was a naturalist as well as an artist. He dotted his brightly colored ceramics with figures of plants and animals.


The French National Style. French artists who used classical styles wanted to do more than imitate the Italians. Their goal was to capture the spirit of the Renaissance and make it their own. They hoped to transform France into the "new Rome," the cultural heir to the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. Many French writers and artists traveled to Rome or copied Italian prints to capture the classical style.

French architects gradually began to incorporate Italian design into their work and to add classical decoration to the outer surfaces of buildings. However, they adapted the ancient designs to create a French classical style. Elements of this new style included ornamental brickwork and columns broken by roughened stone rings. These features became popular throughout France.

The French classical style of architecture reached its peak in the mid-1500s with the redesign of the Louvre palace in Paris. The architect, Pierre Lescot, blended classical forms with typically French design elements such as slate roofs. The building's sharply slanted roof, large windows, and abundant surface decoration soon became common elements of château design. Artist Jean Goujon decorated the upper levels of the building's exterior with relief* sculptures. These pieces feature heavy, yet graceful figures covered in elaborately molded drapery.

Meanwhile, French artists such as Jean and François Clouet were creating a national style in painting. They created many half-length nude portraits of women in curtained interiors, seated at dressing tables or in the bath. Later French historians considered these elegant paintings the best examples of a pure French national style, untouched by Italian influence. The Clouets also worked as court portraitists, producing formal paintings of kings and nobles. The other name most associated with the French national style, Jean Cousin, actually belongs to two artists—a father and son. Although few of their paintings survive, they are famous for their prints and their designs for decorative arts, such as stained glass and goldwork.


End of the Renaissance in France. The late 1500s and early 1600s were a period of crisis in France and elsewhere. The Protestant Reformation* brought great conflict and change to Europe, and it also had a crushing effect on the world of art. In the second half of the 1500s, France became a battlefield between Catholics and Protestants. The Wars of Religion (1562–1598) devastated the population and economy. The religious wars consumed much of the money and energy that might have been used to produce art.

One art form that continued to flourish was the elaborate performances in the French court. Throughout the 1500s, French monarchs had employed artists such as Jean Cousin and poets such as Pierre de Ronsard to help them plan weddings, religious ceremonies, and other celebrations. These events generally involved elaborate processions and feasts. Artists created illustrated books, paintings, and tapestries in honor of the festivities. In the 1580s performances at court began to feature ballets, complete with music, dance, costume, and mythological themes.

Political conflicts shook France in the late 1500s. Paintings and prints from the 1580s often featured tiny figures engaged in acts of war or religious violence. Various groups used prints to promote their political positions. Some particularly vicious images attacked the king, Henry III, and his mother, Catherine de MÉdicis. In 1589 Henry was assassinated, and five years of bitter civil war followed. When Henry IV won the civil war in 1594, he showed little interest in promoting the arts. However, he did invest a great deal in modernizing the city of Paris. New buildings, bridges, and gardens encouraged nobles to make their homes in the city. These changes set the stage for the growth of new styles in French art.

(See alsoArchitecture; Art; Châteaus and Villas; Decorative Arts; Protestant Reformation; Sculpture. )

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses; also, artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

* illuminated

having pages ornamented with hand-painted color decorations and illustrations

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* Mannerism

artistic style of the 1500s characterized by vivid colors and exaggeration, such as elongated figures in complex poses

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

* allegorical

referring to a literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* stucco

building material made of cement, sand, and lime and used as a hard surface for exterior walls

see color plate 9, vol. 1

* relief

type of sculpture in which figures are raised slightly from a flat surface

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

Art of the Unusual

The style of art called Mannerism developed in Italy during the late Renaissance period. It focused on unusual images, such as figures of exaggerated length and twisted poses, and used bright and sometimes strange colors. Mannerist painters brought considerable emotion and expressiveness to their work. They often left the subjects of their works deliberately unclear, requiring viewers to guess at their meaning.