Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture




















ARCHITECTURE AND SCULPTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9





Under Henry IV (1553-1610), Louis XIII (1601-1643), and Louis XIV (1638-1715), France became the most powerful nation of Europe, militarily and culturally. In this they were aided by a succession of extremely able ministers and advisers: the Due de Sully, Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert. By the late seventeenth century, Paris was vying with Rome as the world capital of the major and minor arts, a position the Holy City had held for centuries. How did this change come about? Because of the Palace of Versailles and other vast projects glorifying the king of France, we are tempted to think of French art in the age of Louis XIV as the expressionand one of the productsof absolutism. This is true of the climactic phase of Louis' reign, 1660-85, but by that time seventeenth-century French art had already attained its distinctive style.

The French are reluctant to call this manner Baroque. To them, it is the Style of Louis XIV. Often they also describe the art and literature of the period as "classic." In this context, the word has three meanings. It is first of all a synonym for "highest achievement," which implies that the Style of Louis XIV corresponds to the High Renaissance in Italy or the age of Pericles in ancient Greece. The term also relers to the emulation of the form and subject matter of classical antiquity. Finally, "classic" suggests qualities of balance and restraint, shared by ancient art and the Renaissance. The second and third of these meanings describe what could more accurately be called "classicism." Since the Style of Louis XIV reflects Italian Baroque art, however modified, we may label it "Baroque classicism."

This classicism was the official court style between 1660 and 1685, but its origin was primarily artistic, not political. Sixteenth-century architecture in France, and to a lesser extent sculpture, were more intimately linked with the Italian Renaissance than in any other Northern country, although painting continued to be dominated by the Mannerist style of the later school of Fontainebleau until after 1600. Classicism was also nourished by French humanism, with its intellectual heritage of reason and Stoic virtue, which reflected the values of the middle-class who dominated cultural and political life. These factors retarded the spread of the Baroque in France and modified its interpretation. Rubens' Medici cycle (see fig. 778), for example, had no effect on French art until the very end of the century. In the 1620s, when he painted it, the young artists in France were still assimilating the Early Baroque.


De La Tour.

Many of these painters were influenced by Caravaggio, although how they absorbed his style is far from clear. They were for the most part minor artists toiling in the provinces, but a few developed highly original styles. The finest of them was Georges de La Tour  
(15931652), whose importance was recognized only 200 years later. Although he spent his career in Lorraine in northeast France, he was by no means a simple provincial artist. In addition to being named a painter to the king, De La Tour received important commissions from the governor of Lorraine. He began his career painting picturesque figures in the tradition of Callot (see fig. 807), then turned to elaborate stock scenes from contemporary theater derived largely from Caravaggio's Northern followers. Although the latter are well painted, he would arouse no more than passing interest were it not for his mature religious pictures, which have a seriousness and grandeur that are classic, without being classical. Joseph the Carpenter (fig. 805) might be mistaken for a genre scene, but its devotional spirit has the power of Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew (see fig. 741). De La Tour's intensity of vision lends each gesture, each expression its maximum significance within this spellbinding composition. The boy Jesus holds a candle, a favorite device with this artist, which lights the scene with an intimacy and tenderness reminiscent of the Nativity by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (fig. 552). De La Tour also shares Geertgen s tendency to reduce forms to a geometric simplicity that elevates them above the everyday world, despite their apparent realism.

805. Georges de La Tour .
Joseph the Carpenter. . 1645.
Oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris

The Le Nains.

Like Georges de La Tour, the three Le Nain brothersAntoine, Louis, and Mathieuwere rediscovered in modern times, but they did not have to wait quite so long. Although their birth dates are not known, all must have been born in Laon during the first decade of the century. By 1629 the eldest two were in Paris, where they died within days of each other in 1648. Despite the fact that they shared the same style, signed their pictures simply "Le Nain," and worked on paintings together, each had a distinctive personality. Antoine was a miniaturist at heart, Louis the most severe, and Mathieu the most robust. Louis' Peasant Family (fig. 806) nevertheless exemplifies their "family" style and its virtues. Like the peasant scenes of seventeenth-century Holland and Flanders, with which, it has much in common, the picture stems from a tradition going back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (see fig. 730). But whereas the Netherlandish scenes of lowlife are often humorous or satirical (see fig. 788), Le Nain endows them with a human dignity and monumental weight that recall Velazquez' Water Carrier of Seville (see fig. 772).

806. Louts Le Nain. Peasant Family, . 1640.
Oil on canvas, 113 x 158.7 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris


Another one of these neglected early French Baroque masters was Jacques Callot (1592/3-1635), an etcher and engraver whose work was of importance for both De La Tour and the young Rembrandt. After a decade spent at the court of Cosimo II de' Medici in Florence, he returned in 1621 to his native town of Nancy, where his work underwent a profound change. His prints now alternate between apocalyptic intensity, which allies him directly with Hicronymous Bosch, and astonishing directness, which draws close to the spirit of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Thus Callot's work looks to past tradition rather than to the art of the present, yet it belongs fully to his own time. These qualities merge in Great Miseries of War. This series of etchings, which appeared in 1633, the year Richelieu conquered Nancy, represents a distillation of Callot's experience of the Thirty Years' War. In Hangman's Tree (fig. 807), which depicts (so the inscription tells us) "thieves, sordid and forlorn, hanging like unfortunate pieces of fruit," the style remains Mannerist, except in the group to the right, which participates in Le Nain's naturalism. Callot's unflinching portrayal makes this stark scene far grimmer than Bosch's vision of Hell in The Garden of Delights (see fig. 553). The plate has a striking immediacy that in turn anticipates the vividness of Goya's imagery (see fig. 879).

807. Jacques Callot. Hangman's Tree, from Great Miseries of War. 1633.
Etching, 9 x 23 cm.
British Museum, London


Why were these artists forgotten so quickly? The reason is simply that after the 1640s, classicism was supreme in France. The clarity, balance, and restraint of their art, when measured against other Caravaggesque painters, might be termed "classical," but neither was a "classicist." The artist who did the most to bring the rise of classicism about was Nicola Poussin (1593/4-1665). The greatest French painter of the century and the first French painter in history to win international fame, Poussin nevertheless spent almost his entire career in Rome. There, under the influence of Raphael, he formulated the style that was to become the ideal model for French painters of the second half of the century.

Poussin was initially inspired by Titian's warm, rich colors and by his approach to classical mythology. In Cephalus and Aurora (fig. 808) Poussin visualizes the ancient past as a poetic dream world, although the unalloved bliss of Titian's bacchanal (fig. 670) is now overcast with melancholy. Like many other early subjects by Poussin, this is a tale of frustrated love drawn from the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, a favorite source for Baroque artists, although the picture characteristically departs from the text. Aurora, the goddess of dawn, tries to embrace the mortal Cephalus, who spurns her love out of faithfulness to his wife, Procris. Cephalus' fidelity is shown by the charming device of a putto holding up a portrait of Procris to his gaze. The sleeping river-god to the left signifies night, as the sun-god Apollo waits by his chariot in the background for daybreak (see also fig. 749).

808. Nicola Poussin. Cephalus and Aurora, . 1630.
Oil on canvas,
96.7 x 129.7
The National Gallery, London.

By contrast, The Rape of the Sabine Women (fig. 809) must be seen altogether differently. It, too, shows his profound allegiance to antiquity, but in style and attitude the two works arc much farther apart than the seven years' difference in date would suggest. The Rape of the Sabine Women epitomizes the severe discipline of Poussin's intellectual style, which developed in response to what he regarded as the excesses of the High Baroque. The strongly modeled figures are "frozen in action " like statues; many are, in fact, derived from Hellenistic sculpture. Poussin has placed them before reconstructions of Roman architecture that he believed to be archaeologically correct. The composition has an air of theatricality, and with good reason. It was worked out by moving clay figurines around a miniature stagelike setting until it looked right to the artist. Emotion is abundantly displayed, but it is so lacking in spontaneity that it fails to touch us. The attitude reflected here is clearly Raphael's (see figs. 665 and 666). More precisely, it is Raphael as filtered through Annibale Carracci and his school (compare figs. 744 and 749). The Venetian qualities that asserted themselves early in his career have been consciously suppressed.

Poussin now strikes us as an artist who knew his own mind only too well, an impression confirmed by the numerous letters in which he expounded his views to friends and patrons. The highest aim of painting, he believed, is to represent noble and serious human actions. This is true even in The Rape of the Sabine Women, which, ironically, was admired as an act of patriotism that insured the future of Rome. (According to the accounts of Livy and Plutarch, the Sabines otherwise escaped unharmed, and the young women abducted as wives by the Romans later became peacemakers between the two sides.) Be that as it may, such actions must be shown in a logical and orderly waynot as they really happened, but as they would have happened if nature were perfect. To this end, art must strive for the general and typical. In appealing to the mind rather than the senses, the painter should suppress such incidentals as color, and stress form and composition. In a good picture, the beholder must be able to "read" the exact emotions of each figure and relate them to the story. These ideas were not new. We recall Horace's dictum ut pictura poesis and Leonardo's statement that the highest aim of painting is to depict "the intention of man's soul". Before Poussin, however, no one made the analogy between painting and literature so close, nor put it into practice so single-mindedly. His method accounts for the cold and over-explicit rhetoric in The Rape of the Sabine Women, which makes the picture seem so remote, much as we may admire its rigor.

809. Nicola Poussin. The Rape of the Sabine Women, . 1636-37.
Oil on canvas.
 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Poussin also painted "ideal" landscapes according to this theoretical view, with surprisingly impressive results, for they have an austere beauty and somber calm. This severe rationalism lasted until about 1650, when he began to paint a series of landscapes that return to the realm of mythology he had abandoned in middle age. They unite the Titianesque style of his early work with his later, Raphaclesque classicism to produce a new kind of mythological landscape, close in spirit to Claude Lorraine's but rich in personal associations that lend them multiple levels of meaning. Indeed, the artist's late ruminations have rightly been called transcendental meditations, for they contain archetypal imagery of universal significance. The birth of Bacchus (fig. 810), among his most profound statements, takes up the great Stoic theme (which Poussin had treated twice already as a voting man) that death is to be found even in the happiest realm. The painting shows the moment when the infant, created by Jupiter's union with Semele, the moon-goddess, and born from his thigh, is delivered for safekeeping by Mercury to the river-goddess Dirce, while the satyr Pan plays the flute in rapt inspiration. (Jupiter himself had been raised by sylvan deities.)

40. Nicola Poussin The Birth of Bacchus, . 1657.
Oil on canvas, 122.6 x 179.1 cm.
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums,
Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The picture is not beautifully executed. The act of painting became difficult for the artist in old age, so that the brush-work is shaky. He nevertheless turned this liability to his advantage, and The Birth of Bacchus represents the purest realization of expressive intent in painted form. It is full of serene lyricism conveying the joy of life on the one hand, and dark forebodings of death on the other: to the right, the nymph Echo weeps over the dead Narcissus, the beautiful youth who spurned her love and instead drowned kissing his reflection. Like Cephalus and Aurora, the story of Echo and Narcissus is taken from Ovid, but now it is the meaning, not the narrative, that interests Poussin. He treats it as part of the eternal cycle of nature, in which the gods embody natural forces and the myths contain fundamental truths. Although he certainly drew on the pantheistic writings of Tommaso Campanella and the learned commentaries of the Stoic Natale Conti, it is the artist's personal synthesis that brings these ideas to life.


Claude Lorrain.

If Poussin developed the heroic qualities of the ideal landscape, the great French landscapist Claude Lorrain
(1600-1682) brought out its idyllic aspects. He, too, spent almost his entire career in Rome. Like many Northerners, Claude explored the surrounding countryside, the Campagna, more thoroughly and affectionately than any Italian. Countless drawings made on the spot bear witness to his extraordinary powers of observation. He is also documented as having sketched in oils outdoors, the first artist known to have done so. Sketches, however, were only the raw material for his paintings, which do not aim at topographic exactitude but evoke the poetic essence of a countryside filled with echoes of antiquity. Often, as in A Pastoral Landscape (fig. 811), the compositions are suffused with the hazy, luminous atmosphere of early morning or late afternoon. The space expands serenely, rather than receding step-by-step as in Poussin's landscapes. An air of nostalgia hangs over such vistas, of past experience gilded by memory. Hence they appealed especially to the English who had seen Italy only briefly or even not at all.

811. Claude Lorrain. A Pastoral Landscape, . 1650.
Oil on copper, 39.3 x 53.3 cm.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut


At an early age Simon Vouet (1590-1649), too, went to Rome, where he became the leader of the French Caravaggesque painters; but unlike Poussin and Claude, he returned permanently to France. Upon settling in Paris, he quickly shed all vestiges of Caravaggio's manner and formulated a colorful style based on Carracci's which won such acclaim that Vouet was named First Painter to the king. He also brought with him memories of the great North Italian precursors of the Baroque. The Toilet of Venus (fig. 812) depicts a subject popular in Venice from Titian to Veronese. Vouet's figure looks back as well to Correggio's Io (see fig. 693), but without her frank eroticism. Instead, she has been given an elegant sensuousness that could hardly be further removed from Poussin's disciplined art.

Ironically, The Toilet of Venus was painted about 1640, toward the beginning of Poussin's ill-fated sojourn in Paris, where he had gone at the invitation of Louis XIII. He met with no more success than Bernini was to have 20 years later. After several years Poussin left, deeply disillusioned by his experience at the court, whose taste and politics Vouet understood far better. In one sense, their rivalry was to continue long afterward. Vouet's decorative manner provided the foundation for the Rococo, but it was Poussin's classicism that soon dominated art in France. The two traditions vied with each other through the Romantic era, alternating in succession without gaining the upper hand for long.

812. Simon Vouet. The Toilet of Venus, . 1640.
Oil on canvas, 165.7 x 114.3 cm.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh


When young Louis XIV took over the reins of government in 1661, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his chief adviser, built the administrative apparatus to support the power of the absolute monarch. In this system, aimed at subjecting the thoughts and actions of the entire nation to strict control from above, the visual arts had the task of glorifying the king, and the official "royal style," in both theory and practice, was classicism. Centralized control over the visual arts was exerted by Colbert and the artist Charles Lebrun (1619-1690), who became supervisor of all the king's artistic projects. As chief dispenser of royal art patronage, Lebrun commanded so much power that for all practical purposes he was the dictator of the arts in France. This authority extended beyond the power of the purse. It also included a new system of educating artists in the officially approved style.

Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, artists had been trained by apprenticeship, and this time-honored practice still prevailed in the Renaissance. As painting, sculpture, and architecture gained the status of liberal arts, artists wished to supplement their "mechanical" training with theoretical knowledge. For this purpose, "art academies" were founded, patterned on the academies of the humanists. (The name academy is derived from the Athenian grove where Plato met with his disciples.) Art academies appeared first in Italy in the later sixteenth century. They seem to have been private associations of artists who met periodically to draw from the model and discuss questions of art theory. These academies later became formal institutions that took over some functions from the guilds, but their teaching was limited and far from systematic. This was the case as well with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, founded in 1648. But when Lebrun became its director in 1663, he established a rigid curriculum of compulsory instruction in practice and theory, based on a system of "rules." This set the pattern for all later academies, including their successors, the art schools of today. Much of this doctrine was derived from Poussin, under whom Lebrun had spent several years studying in Rome, but it was carried to rationalistic extremes. The Academy even devised a method for tabulating, in numerical grades, the merits of artists past and present in such categories as drawing, expression, and proportion. The ancients received the highest marks, needless to say, then came Raphael and his school, and Poussin. The Venetians, who "over-emphasized" color, ranked low, the Flemish and Dutch even lower. Subjects were similarly classified, from "history" (that is, narrative subjects, be they classical, biblical, or mythological) at the top to still life at the bottom.


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