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 the products—of
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, 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 (1593—1652), 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, 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 might be mistaken for a genre
scene, but its devotional spirit has the power of Caravaggio's
Calling of St. Matthew. 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. 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.
Georges de La Tour .
Joseph the Carpenter. ñ. 1645.
Oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Louis Le Nain
Like Georges de La Tour, the three
Le Nain brothers—Antoine, Louis, and Mathieu—were 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
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. But whereas the
Netherlandish scenes of lowlife are often humorous or satirical, Le
Nain endows them with a human dignity and monumental weight that
recall Velazquez' Water Carrier of Seville.
Louis Le Nain. Peasant Family, ñ. 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. The plate has a striking
immediacy that in turn anticipates the vividness of Goya's imagery.
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
(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
Poussin was initially inspired by
Titian's warm, rich colors and by his approach to classical
mythology. In Cephalus and Aurora Poussin visualizes the ancient
past as a poetic dream world, although the unalloved bliss of
Titian's bacchanal 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.
Nicola Poussin. Cephalus and Aurora, ñ. 1630.
Oil on canvas, 96.7 x 129.7 cm.
The National Gallery, London.
By contrast, The Rape of the Sabine
Women 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. More precisely, it is Raphael
as filtered through Annibale Carracci and his school. 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.
Nicola Poussin. The Rape of the Sabine Women, c. 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,
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
Nicola Poussin 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
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,
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.
Claude Lorrain. A Pastoral Landscape, ñ. 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 depicts a subject popular in Venice from Titian to Veronese.
Vouet's figure looks back as well to Correggio's Io, 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
812. Simon Vouet. The Toilet of Venus, ñ. 1640.
Oil on canvas, 165.7 x 114.3 cm.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
THE ROYAL ACADEMY.
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.