Jean Fouquet
Biography of French International Gothic Painter, Manuscript Illuminator, Noted for Melun Diptych.

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Portrait of Charles VII of France
(c.1443-5, Louvre, Paris)

COLOURS USED IN PAINTING
For an idea of the pigments
used by Jean Fouquet in his
panel painting and illuminations,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

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Jean Fouquet (1420-81)

The finest French painter of the 15th century, whose work can be viewed as a bridge between French International Gothic and Italian Early Renaissance, Fouquet is noted for his portrait art, as exemplified by Portrait of Charles VII of France (c.1443-5, Louvre), and Portrait of Pope Eugenius IV (now lost); a Book of Hours for Etienne Chevalier (1450-60, Musee Conde, Chantilly); and the altarpiece known as the Melun Diptych (c.1452, Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp and Gemaldegalerie, Berlin); as well as a number of miniatures, panel paintings and illuminated manuscripts including the Statuts de l'ordre de Saint-Michel (1470, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Antiquites Judaiques (the only work which bears Fouquet's name). Fouquet's life can be pieced together only from snippets of information that are sometimes hard to interpret, while much of the chronology of his career is undocumented and thus uncertain. However, we do know that, despite his Italian experiences, his work is basically rooted in the traditions of French Gothic art, rather than the new idiom of the Florentine Renaissance. Active mainly in his native Tours, Fouquet worked mostly for Kings and nobles of the French courts: he was official painter to Charles VII and Louis XI. A contemporary of the great Provencal painter Enguerrand de Charenton (Quarton) (c.1410-1466), Fouquet was famous for 100 years, not least as one of France's best miniaturists, then forgotten about until the 19th century.

Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet
Melun Diptych (1450-55)
This diptych is one of the most
famous works in the International
Gothic style.

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Early Days and Major Paintings

Fouquet is reported to have been the son of a priest and he himself is alleged to have taken holy orders; but this is unverified. He is known to have made a journey to Italy while still young - between 1444 and 1446 he painted a portrait of Pope Eugenius IV in Rome, which excited the admiration of the Italians. It is not certain whether, as was earlier supposed, he was back in Tours by 1448. In 1461 he was commissioned to paint the mortuary effigy of Charles VII and to prepare the solemn entry of Louis XI into Tours. The will of Bishop Jean Bernard (1463) stipulated that Fouquet should be given the commission for an altarpiece of the Assumption for the church of Candes (Indre-et-Loire). In 1470 Fouquet received payment for paintings for the newly created Order of St Michael, and in 1472 and 1474 for two prayerbooks for Marie de Cleves and Philippe de Commines. In 1474 he presented Louis XI with a model for his future tomb and in 1475 bore the title of King's Painter. In 1476 he contributed to the decorations for the entry of the King of Portugal, Alfonso V, into Tours. He is mentioned as being still alive in 1477 and as dead in 1481. We know that he had two sons, Louis and Francois, who, like him, were painters.

 

 

It is not known where or how Fouquet was trained; perhaps in the studio of the Master of Bedford in Paris, or else at Bourges in the tradition of the Limbourg brothers; at all events it was in an atmosphere that was still Gothic in spirit. He was the first painter to bring Renaissance art into France. All efforts to identify his early works have failed. He appears suddenly as a painter of repute with the portrait of Pope Eugenius IV and of two of his kinsmen, painted in Rome (known from an engraving showing the Pope alone). The importance of this commission, given to a foreign painter, suggests that Fouquet already held an official appointment as painter. It therefore seems reasonable to set the portrait of Charles VII, King of France (c.1443-5, Louvre), in the period before his journey to Italy; its archaic arrangement in a small space and its style, which shows no signs of Italian influence, all seem to suggest the early period.

These first two works show that Fouquet was aware of artistic developments occurring in the Netherlandish Renaissance: he knew about contemporary Netherlandish portraits by the likes of Jan van Eyck (c.1385-1441), Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (1375-1444), Hugo van der Goes (1440-82) and others; he used their three-quarter presentation and imitated their analytical realism. But as well as the living and sensitive interpretation of the portrait, there was already a concern for rounded volumes and a monumental authority, which throughout his career was to be characteristic of him and which, it has been suggested, he must have acquired through contact with the great French tradition of Gothic sculpture, notably statuary.

On his return from Italy, Fouquet settled in Tours where he was in future to work for the town, the court and the royal officials. His first major patron was Etienne Chevalier, the Royal Secretary and Lord Treasurer, for whom he created a Book of Hours (Les Heures d'Etienne Chevalier, 1450-60), a masterpiece of book illustration, whose pictures show in a striking way the effect of his experience in Italy. The book has now been taken to pieces, and 47 separate pages remain (40 of them in the Musee Conde at Chantilly and two in the Louvre); half of these are arranged in an original way on two levels, the lower one serving as an anecdotal or decorative complement to the main story.

Italian Renaissance Ideas

From Italy, Fouquet brought not only the new ornamental motifs being pioneered by Early Renaissance artists, but above all a passion, unusual in France, for three dimensional space and for the play of volumes in this space. He shows a profound understanding of the Florentine art of the time - that is, that of Tommaso Masaccio (1401-1428), Domenico Veneziano (1400-61) and Fra Angelico (c.1400-55), examples of whose work could have been seen in Rome, but whom he must have studied in Florence itself. These studies suited Fouquet's own taste: in Italy he learned linear perspective, which he was not, however, to apply scientifically. These intellectual discoveries did not run counter to his liking for reality: he chose as the backgrounds to his paintings places in Tours or buildings in Paris, and was at pains to depict exactly everyday life, the intimate atmosphere of interiors, and aerial views of landscapes. These qualities were to become more emphatic as the exact memory of his Italian visit faded.

Les Heures d'Etienne Chevalier must have been very well known, because its compositions were copied in many books of hours from Fouquet's studio (New York, Pierpoint Morgan Library), or of artists who were influenced by him, such as Jean Colombe (Heures de Laval, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).

Altarpieces

From the same period comes the Diptych of Melun (c.1452, divided between Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp, and Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) a votive diptych ordered by the same Etienne Chevalier for the church in his birthplace. The figure of the Virgin in the panel in the Koninklijk Museum is reportedly a portrait of Agnes Sorel (d.1450), Charles VII's mistress, whom Chevalier (also featured in the Diptych) also loved. The frame of the diptych was decorated with medallions of gilt enamel: the Portrait of the Artist (Louvre), the first known self portrait of a French painter and the first example in France of a new Italian technique, was probably one of them.

The Pieta de Nouans (Church of Nouans, Indre-et-Loire), a large altarpiece, possibly painted with the help of his studio, probably comes from the same period; the date is unverified but the smooth, sculptural aspect of the volumes sets the Pieta in the same period as the Diptych. The portrait of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins, Chancellor of France (Louvre), at once a sensitively modelled portrait and, against the gilt armorial background, a symbolic effigy of social success, was probably painted in about 1460 on account of its less deliberately sculptural style, and the age and style of dress of the model.

Book Painting

The rest of Fouquet's work consists mainly of Medieval manuscript illumination, in which his studio sometimes helped him. Des Cas des Nobles Hommes et Femmes Malheureuses by Boccaccio (Munich Library), copied in 1458 and painted for Laurent Girard, Controller-General of Finance, was made with the collaboration of his studio, except for the large frontispiece showing the judicial bench at Vendome in 1458, which is one of Fouquet's masterpieces of layout. The Grandes Chroniques de France (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) bears no indication of date and no dedication; it was perhaps made for Charles VII in 1458. The style of the illustrations places the work close to the Boccaccio, that is, around 1460. The small historical pictures, often treated in two juxtaposed episodes, show a less subtle atmosphere than those of the Heures d'Etienne Chevalier, but affirm a sense of history that foreshadows the great works of the end of Fouquet's career. About 1470 Fouquet painted for Louis XI the frontispiece of the Statuts de l'ordre de Saint-Michel (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris), a masterpiece of delicacy in the way colour is used in the service of a profound feeling for official grandeur. For more about Fouquet's book painting, see: International Gothic illuminations.

In his final years, between 1470 and 1475, Fouquet illustrated four pages of an Histoire Ancienne, for an unknown customer (Louvre), and the Antiquites Judaiques (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris), a manuscript of the Duc de Berry which had been left incomplete and which Fouquet finished for Jacques d' Armagnac before 1475.

Miniatures

Many miniature panel paintings are attributed to Fouquet. Some, of lower quality or showing a different spirit, are more likely to be the work of his studio or of unknown artists who were trained through contact with him, or perhaps of his sons (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, and Bibliotheque Mazarine; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; Sheffield Art Gallery; Hague Library). However, apart from this immediate influence, which can be seen in the roundness of volume, the gold hatchings, the choice of decor, the type of arrangement on the page in two rows or the borrowing from his compositions, Fouquet had no real disciples or followers: it was still too early for the lesson of the Renaissance, which he was the first to bring to France, to be learned. His successors, Jean Bourdichon and Jean Colombe, far from understanding the broad rhythm of compositions in which man and nature were balanced, took from his art nothing but an image without substance, and Fouquet remains the only classical painter of the 15th century north of the Alps.

Paintings and illuminated manuscripts by Jean Fouquet can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

 

French Art During the International Gothic Era (c.1375-1450)

French painting during the International Gothic era reached its zenith at the hands of French book illuminators working at the courts of Paris and Bourges, many of them of Flemish or Dutch origin. In addition to Jean Fouquet, outstanding exponents of this form of miniature painting included the pioneer Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334), Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414), The Boucicaut Master, the Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416), and later Jean Bourdichon (c.1457-1521). Leading panel painters in France included the Flemish Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411), official painter to Philip the Bold, who produced the Dijon Altarpiece (1390s, Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon). Religious art was still the dominant genre - altarpieces for the Church (diptychs, triptychs, polyptychs), and smaller household altar-panels for domestic use. Popular subject matter for such devotional pictures included drastic depictions of the Passion and martyrdom of Jesus, the Saints and the Apostles. French sculptors were less busy with architectural sculpture than they were during the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Smaller scale works however were in great demand. The main sculptor to the French King Charles V in the second half of the 14th century was Andre Beauneveu (c.1335-1400). His contemporary was Claus Sluter (c.1340-1406), who worked for Charles V's brother - Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. They were followed by the 15th century master Michel Colombe (c.1430-1512), brother of Jean Colombe (c.1435-95) who finished off the Limbourg Brothers' masterpiece, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (begun 1413).

• For more about early 15th century French painting, see: History of Art.
• For more about the International Gothic style, see: Homepage.


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