Tide of Decadence: French Art from 1500-1800

By Morgan, Julian | The World and I, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Tide of Decadence: French Art from 1500-1800


Morgan, Julian, The World and I


A new exhibition in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC chronicles the development of French artistry from the French Renaissance to the Revolution, fostered by the School of Fontainebleau to the lavish indulgences of the Rococo to the intensely political and moralistic Neoclassicism in a series of drawings by French Masters who pioneered this 300 year period.

The exhibit Renaissance to Revolution: French Drawings from the National offers drawings from well-known artists such as Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Jean-Jacques David as well as an abundance of lesser known artists.

While some of the drawings present analytical models for study, the exhibition is also comprised of highly finished works in an array of styles and materials. The scope of the retrospective is indicative of France's emergence from the medieval period into the epicenter of modern culture.

The ripple effect

The late 15th century invasion of Italy exposed France to Italian Renaissance art and culture, revolutionizing French sensibilities and bringing France into the modern era. The flourishing artistic scene was exploited by Francois I who, upon ascending to the throne in 1515, became France's prominent patron of the arts, encouraging many of Italy's masters to come to France, including an elderly Leonardo da Vinci, where he later died.

Although da Vinci produced very little during his final years, he brought with him many of his most endearing works, such as the Mona Lisa. As a result, the sweeping gestures and elongated forms of Italian mannerism were then employed in French art, most notably at the king's chateau at Fontainebleau. The artists who worked at the chateau, lead by Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio, came to be known as the School of Fontainebleau--sumptuously sculpting and painting classical subjects for the king's chateau. Following the rising wave of ornamentation, artists began designing rich draperies, decorative metal-work, and stain-glass windows as well as sculpting and painting for the upper-class as well.

Characteristic ornamentation of this period is represented in the National Gallery of Art in drawings by Benvenuto Cellini and the French-born Jean Cousin the Elder. Summoned to France by the king, Cellini was asked to build an elaborate ceremonial entrance for Fontainebleau. Adhering to Renaissance themes of classical mythology, Cellini planned to construct two statues of satyrs to the right and left of the doorway; each more than ten feet tall, one holding a club and the other holding a whip with three balls attached to chains. Although construction was never completed, as Cellini suddenly returned to Italy, Cellini formalizes the satyr holding the club in a drawing that adheres to Renaissance mannerism. With a broad frame highlighting its muscular folds, Cellini evokes Michelangelo's David with awkward hand placements and distinguished precision in rendering the hair and facial features. Highly balanced, the figure's lower body matches the length and proportion of his upper body while sweeping hand gestures work to accentuate every muscle.

Jean Cousin the Elder however, exudes more of the School of Fontainebleau's sensibilities in his model for a decorative and complex helmet. While maintaining Renaissance themes of classical mythology, Cousin's model displays more fanciful and opulent decoration. With swags of fruit, strap work, and a landscape of masks, burly forms, and a visual narrative of mythic gods and goddesses the work radiates with exuberance.

Majesty of the Sun King

While ornamentation still flourished, the art of the mid 17th century came to a head during the onslaught of monarchical power, embodied by King Louis XIV, who ruled by divine right. Adopting the nickname "Le Roi Soleil" ("the Sun King"), Louis assumed to himself the position of center of the universe by declaring absolute control over all aspects of French life, even coordinating art and architecture in order to serve the state. …

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