Enguerrand Quarton/Charenton
Biography of French Painter of "The Avignon Pieta".

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The Avignon Pieta
Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignon
(c.1454-6) Louvre. One of France's
greatest religious paintings of the
fifteenth century.

Enguerrand Quarton (1410-66)


Quarton/Charonton's Art
The Virgin of Mercy
Coronation of the Virgin
The Virgin and Child
The Avignon Pieta
Further Resources

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Quarton/Charonton's Art

One of the greatest Old Masters in 15th century France, Enguerrand Quarton's contribution to French painting was in the area of religious panel paintings, courtly illuminated manuscripts and altarpiece art. Six paintings by Quarton are documented, but only two of these survive. They are The Virgin of Mercy (1452, Musee Conde, Chantilly), created with the assistance of the unknown artist Pierre Villatte; and The Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity (1453-4, Musee Municipal, Villeneuve-les-Avignon). These impressive works of Christian art combine elements from Flemish painting (by Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden) and Gothic sculpture, as well as motifs from the Sienese School of painting (notably Simone Martini who also worked at the papal court in Avignon) on the other. In addition, art historians at the Louvre Museum in Paris now attribute to Quarton the Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignon, commonly known as The Avignon Pieta (c.1454-6, Louvre), arguably the finest French tempera painting of the era. As a result, he now stands alongside Jean Fouquet (1420-81) as one of the greatest painters of 15th century Europe.




Born in Picardy around 1415 or earlier, Quarton (the Latinized version of Charonton or perhaps Charreton) probably received his training between 1430 and 1440. Judging by the many Gothic elements in his work, his style was formed in northern France. The monumental quality of his paintings and of certain of his symbols is derived from Gothic cathedral sculpture, but there is also ample evidence of the influence of Flemish painters, like Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle) (c.1378-1444) and Roger Van der Weyden (1400-1464). During the 1430s Picardy lay in the sphere of influence of Burgundy and such contacts would have been readily available.

NOTE: For an exact Flemish contemporary of Enguerrand de Charenton, see: Petrus Christus (c.1410-75).

The realism that Quarton absorbed from these sources makes him a 'modern' artist in the middle of the 15th century, sensitive to outward forms, to the lineaments of a face or landscape, as well as to the new-found fascination of city life. Quarton, however, always kept this wealth of detail within the bounds of a vision of form that derived as much from the painting of northern France as from the Midi. From the secular Gothic tradition he had inherited his ability in the handling of imposing and expressive arabesques. Provence gave him its special quality of light and landscape, which resulted in sketchy outlines accentuated by short shadows, with the simplified masses broken up into facets.

Quarton was never in Italy despite the many parallels with the work of Domenico Veneziano (1410-1461), Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and Andrea del Castagno (c.1420-57), with whom, in fact, he had no direct connection. He was affected by the type of Italian Renaissance art that had been 'translated' in Provence - that of the time of Simone Martini and Matteo Giovannetti, from whom he borrowed several motifs. The likeness of some details in his work to the Early Renaissance art of Florence is explained by his contact with the paintings he saw in the houses of the numerous Florentine bankers and merchants who had settled in Provence. In Provence he came face to face with a painter who, like himself, came from the north and had been formed by the art of Van Eyck and the painters of Tournai, but had also been influenced by the Midi to the point of being the founder of the Provencal 'cubist' style. This was the Master of the Altarpiece of the Annunciation, which was executed at Aix between 1443 and 1445, the exact time when Quarton was staying in the city.

All this receptivity tends to prove that Quarton was relatively young when he came to Provence. He is heard of in 1444 in Aix, two years later in Arles, and the next year in Avignon, where he stayed until 1466, after which there is no more mention of him. The date of his death is unknown, but details exist of seven contracts made between him and various clients: nobles, rich merchants, clergy and fellow-artists. They all concern large altarpieces including predellas (1446-7, 1452, 1453-4, 1461, 1462-4 and 1466) as well as a processional banner (1457-8). Two of the paintings described have survived, and allow, by comparison, two other non-documented works to be safely attributed to the artist. Curiously, there is no evidence that Quarton received any commissions from Rene of Anjou, the princely ruler of Provence, despite the fact that Rene was a keen patron of the arts and patronised many other artists, and the fact that Quarton produced various types of miniature painting for important figures at Rene's court, such as the Chancellor of Provence for whom Quarton painted the illuminated manuscript known as The Missal of Jean des Martins (National Library of France, Paris).

The Virgin of Mercy

The altarpiece La Vierge de Misericorde (The Virgin of Mercy) (Musee Conde, Chantilly) was commissioned in 1452 in Avignon from Quarton and Pierre Villate by Pierre Cadart, Seigneur du Thor, in the diocese of Limoges. He wished his deceased parents to be portrayed at the feet of the Virgin in company with their patron saints, the two Saints John. The contract also mentions a predella but without specifying a subject. Doubts about whether the Chantilly panel was the combined work of the two artists or of Quarton alone have been resolved by the painting's similarities to Quarton's Couronnement de la Vierge (Coronation of the Virgin). It is therefore presumed that Villatte executed the least important part of the altarpiece, the lost predella. The Chantilly painting is impressive by virtue of the grandeur of its composition and a dominant rhythm.

Coronation of the Virgin

The contract for Le Couronnement de la Vierge (Hospice of Villeneuve-les-Avignon) is the most detailed to survive for a medieval work of art. It was drawn up in 1453 between Quarton and Jean de Montagnac, Canon of St-Agricol d'Avignon and chaplain of the church of the Charterhouse of Villeneuve. The work, destined for the altar of the Holy Trinity at the Charterhouse, must have been finished in September 1454. It could not have included a predella, and the dais specified in the contract is lost. The plan was extremely ambitious. It evoked the Christian order of the universe in its entirety: Paradise with the saints and the elect, Purgatory, the world, showing the two holy cities of Rome and Jerusalem and their grandest monuments, and, finally, Hell. The Holy Ghost was to be represented in the form of a dove, and there was to be no difference between the Father and the Son, according to the dogma of the Council of Florence in 1439.

Some changes of detail were left to the painter, according to his artistic sensibility and the requirements of balance and three-dimensional harmony. In fact around the Trinity, Quarton painted a pattern of red and blue angels not unlike those in Fouquet's Melun Diptych (1450-55, Koninklijk Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp; Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin).

In 1449, during an illness, Montagnac made a will requesting a work showing him as donor with St Agricola, before the Virgin, to be placed by his tomb in the church of the Charterhouse. On recovering he cancelled this commission and instead went on a pilgrimage to Rome and then Jerusalem. The Couronnement is therefore a commemoration of this journey.

For the altarpiece Quarton drew on his memories of the cathedral sculpture of northern France: the lower portion displays a panoramic view of the Earth and the subterranean world which represents Purgatory, while Hell is shown in the predella. A real lintel supports the tympanum, dominated by the Holy Trinity. In the 15th century the style forged by the Master of the Aix Annunciation and by Quarton is one of the great styles of Latin Europe, on a level with that of Florence and of Spain and Portugal.

The Virgin and Child

No known document refers to the altarpiece La Vierge a l'Enfant entre Saint Jacques et Saint Agricol avec un couple de donateurs (The Virgin and Child between St James and St Agricola with Two Donors) (Avignon Museum), which is probably incomplete. Its origin is unknown and the armorial bearings have worn away so that the donors cannot be identified. The colour, the drawing, the density, the tautness of the faces, and the sunken eyes, the characteristic Virgin, the hands, the directional hatching, however, all point to Quarton's brush. If the bishop is St Agricola, particularly venerated in Avignon, the picture may well date from Quarton's early days in the city, around 1447-50.

The Avignon Pieta

The subject matter of The Avignon Pieta (Louvre) (in particular the way St John takes off the crown of thorns) and also its composition influenced the Tarascon Pieta, painted about 1456 (Paris, Musee de Cluny), which proves that it is earlier than that date. It is almost certainly intended for the Charterhouse of Villeneuve, and certain features of the work, such as the composition, the figure of Christ, and the delineation of the eyes, hands and rocks, point to Quarton's authorship. The dirt now covering the painting has completely changed the colour, which is in fact quite clear and austere, and has also altered the forms by adding a false chiaroscuro. The work's donor, a canon wearing an amice, bears a striking resemblance to the portrait of Montagnac which appears twice in Quarton's Coronation of the Virgin. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Montagnac, on returning from his pilgrimage, decided to recommission the votive painting portraying himself as donor, which was to have been placed by his tomb in the Charterhouse.

The Coronation of the Virgin, painted as an altarpiece, did not take the place of the votive painting (it was not put beside the donor's tomb, and depicts him very discreetly as a tiny praying figure). By comparison, the Pieta, with the orientalized Jerusalem and the donor-canon in the foreground, can claim to be a really new and 'up-to-date' version of the 1449 project, conceived after the pilgrimage. Following the examples of the Master of Flemalle, Van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden, the donor is not portrayed as an archaic figurine but on the same scale as the sacred personages.


Despite Quarton's status as one of the great medieval artists, and his significant influence on religious art in Provence as well as on later Germany and Italian works, he slipped into vitual obscurity until 1900 when the Coronation of the Virgin was exhibited in Paris. Since then, the awareness of his importance, and the number of paintings attributed to him, has steadily increased, culminating in the attribution to him of the Avignon Pieta in the mid-1960s.

Further Resources

For details of other painters active in 15th century France, see the following:

- Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411)
- Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414)
- Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416)

For more about European manuscript illuminators and miniature painting, see:

- Medieval Manuscript Illumination (c.1000-1500)
- Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1000-1150)
- Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1150-1350)

Works by Enguerrand Quarton can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe.


• For more about 15th century French painters, see: Homepage.
• For an evaluation of important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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