From "Curious" to Canonical: Jehan Roy De France and the Origins of the French School

Article excerpt

In his 1928 discussion of the origins of the art of painting in France, Louis Gillet proclaimed, "It is very noteworthy that French painting begins with a portrait."1 The image that Gillet referred to as the progenitor of French painting hangs today in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (Fig. 1).2 It depicts a man's face and shoulders in profile set against a gold ground.3 An inscription above the head informs the viewer that the figure represents "Jehan Roy de France"; this provides us with perhaps the most apt title for the image. There have been only two French kings named John, and because the first died in 1316 just four days after his birth, it seems clear that the image was intended to represent John II. Also known as John the Good, he was born in 1319 and reigned from 1350 until his death in 1364. John is best known today for having spent much of his reign in captivity in London, following his defeat by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.

At present the panel hangs at the entrance to the recently reinstalled northern painting galleries on the second floor of the Richelieu wing of the Louvre. Visitors entering the wing from the vast admissions area beneath the Pyramid are directed to a set of escalators that convey them to the upper level of the wing. As they rise through a majestic space designed by I. M. Pei, the panel comes into view (Figs. 2, 3). Framed by twin signs announcing the beginning of the painting collection, it hangs alone inside a large protective case. In the galleries behind this display, "Peinture" continues with a select number of works from the French court of the late fourteenth century and then branches off into other regional and national "schools"-southern France, Flanders, Germany, and so on. This dramatic display situates the panel at the starting point of early modern painting in northern Europe, distinctly apart from the Louvre's medieval collection (located on the floors below in the decorative arts and sculpture galleries). Accordingly, the installation echoes (and indeed broadens) Gillet's bold claim that "French painting begins with a portrait."

The wall text beside the panel reinforces the subtle cues provided by its installation, pointing viewers toward the reigning account of the piece's art historical significance. In addition to assigning the panel a date of "before 1350," the text informs the viewer that the work constitutes "the first surviving example since Antiquity of an independent painted portrait."4 The label thus signals a decisive taxonomic move: it assigns the panel to the category of images known as "portraits." The text furthermore suggests that an interest in "portraits" was shared by antiquity and modernity but neglected in the intervening years, that is, the Middle Ages. It thereby invests "portraits" with profound cultural significance, implying that they collectively stand as one element of the broader rebirth of classical culture taken as characteristic of the Renaissance.

Identifying the panel as a portrait also leads present-day visitors to the Louvre to assume that it offers an unmediated view of its subject's facial features-that through it they see "what John really looked like." As a corollary, viewers are encouraged to believe that "seeing John" in this way allows us to begin to know something about him as a person, granting them access to an individual identity presumed to exist independently of its representation in the panel.'' Even sophisticated scholarly discussions of portraiture tend to take it as axiomatic that external appearances are a necessary component of human beings' sense of self. For instance, in a stimulating book-length essay on the portrait genre, Richard Brilliant listed "a recognized or recognizable appearance" as one of the "essential constituents of a person's identity."6

Jehan Roy de France and the History of Portraiture

Physiognomic likeness has become enmeshed within art historical approaches to periodization, as it has come to be understood as the visual symptom of a postmedieval mentality. …