FRANCE: THE AGE OF VERSAILLES
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 expression—and one of
absolutism. This is true of the climactic phase of Louis' reign,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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).
Joseph the Carpenter. ñ.
Oil on canvas, 130 x 100
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Like Georges de La Tour, the three
(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).
Peasant Family, ñ. 1640.
Oil on canvas, 113 x 158.7
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Another one of these neglected early French Baroque masters was
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.
Jacques Callot. Hangman's Tree, from
Great Miseries of War. 1633.
Etching, 9 x
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
Poussin was initially inspired by Titian's warm, rich colors and by
his approach to classical mythology. In Cephalus and Aurora (fig.
visualizes the ancient past as a poetic dream world, although the
unalloved bliss of Titian's bacchanal (fig.
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
Cephalus and Aurora, ñ. 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
More precisely, it is Raphael as filtered through
Annibale Carracci and his school (compare figs.
749). The Venetian
qualities that asserted themselves early in his career have been
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 way—not
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.
The Rape of the Sabine Women, ñ. 1636-37.
Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of
Art, New York
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
The Birth of Bacchus, ñ. 1657.
Oil on canvas, 122.6 x 179.1 cm.
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums,
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.
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.
If Poussin developed the heroic qualities of the ideal landscape, the
great French landscapist
A Pastoral Landscape, ñ.
Oil on copper, 39.3 x 53.3
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
(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
At an early age
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.
The Toilet of Venus, ñ.
Oil on canvas, 165.7 x
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
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
THE ROYAL ACADEMY.
When young Louis XIV took over the reins of government in
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