Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jean Fouquet

Jean Fouquet
Jean Fouquet was a painter of portraits and landscapes, even though, as a painter of the early Renaissance in 15th century France, he was largely limited to painting those things in the context of religious art (see my post on Giovanni Bellini).

Fouquet was the court painter to Louis XI, and is usually regarded as the most important French painter of his period. He traveled to Italy, where he caused a stir by painting a portrait of Pope Eugenius IV on canvas rather than wood; and brought the influence of Italian art into his own style, combining it with the influences from Jan and Hubert van Eyck, whose styles dominated northern European painting at the time (see my post on Jan van Eyck).

Fouquet painted at least one free-standing portrait, a self portrait on a copper medallion, now in the Louvre, that is the earliest known portrait miniature; and is in contention for the earliest formal self-portrait in Western art, depending on whether Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man is actually a self-portrait (which it likely is).

It is as a miniaturist that I find Fouquet at his most interesting. He produced astonishing “illuminations”, miniature paintings on pages of manuscript, that have an uncanny monumentality and presence, and a surprising feeling of painting styles more common many years after his time. He was particularly known for his miniatures form the Book of Hours by Étienne Chevalier.

The image at top, above (larger version here, click for enlargement and click “100%’ if image doesn’t show), is a manuscript illumination from a history of Julius Ceasar, and portrays his crossing of the Rubicon. The naturalistic feeling and attention lavished on the background convinces me that, were he born a few centuries later, Fouquet might have dedicated himself to landscape. (It’s interesting, though, as accomplished as he is, to see Fouquet apparently struggle a bit with perspective, particularly if you assume the trees to be the same height. Perhaps the confines of the illuminated manuscript made laying out geometric perspective difficult.)

The other image, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, is the right half of a now separated diptych. It caused a stir in later years (and perhaps at the time) for its sensual overtones, and portrayal of the Madonna in fancy and stylish fashions of the time. (Hey Renaissance fair re-enactors, are the noblewomen among you shaving your forehead and temples as part of your period dress?) It has also been suggested that the model for Mary was Agnés Sorel, a famously beautiful woman of the time, further cause for moral outrage. The Madonna is accompanied by some bizarre cherubs, starkly blue and red, except for their glassy eyes, arranged in a pattern reminiscent of one of M.C. Escher’s surface tessellations.

The Bibliothéque nationale de France (the National Library of France, roughly analogous to the Library of Congress for the U.S.) has mounted a virtual exhibition of Fouquet’s work, particularly his manuscript illumination miniatures, titled Fouquet, painter and illuminator of the XVth century, that gives a good introduction, though the images are somewhat small. You can supplement it with some of the other resources I’ve listed below, particularly the Web Gallery of Art.

[Virtual exhibition listing via "Thomas J. Wise" on MetaFilter]

2 thoughts on “Jean Fouquet

  1. Daniel van Benthuysen

    The Madonna has some overtones that are not just sensuous but somewhat weird. Her breast has always appeared to me to have the consistency and high-gloss sheen of a billiard ball. That, together with the stiffness of her attitude, argue in favor of the Agnes Sorel likeness: It’s a tricky business for a court painter to portray a king’s courtesan. One wants to make the lady look great but not appear to be to familiar about creating the likeness.

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