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( Originally Published 1913 )
During the early centuries of the Christian era, art was not unknown in France. Tapestries of various kinds, mural decorations and panels were made and illuminations giving evidence of considerable skill were executed. The mosaic work, so popular in Italy, found its way westward for church decoration. Later, Byzantine types appeared in French paintings. A law was made during the reign of Charlemagne requiring the churches to be adorned by sacred pictures and when the Gothic style of architecture superseded the Norman -thus breaking the expanse of wall-glass windows were painted, as well as such portions of the walls as seemed advantageous to the artist. Two art centers early grew up in France: Tours, which lay open to Italian influences; and Paris, in close touch with Flanders and the principles of Flemish painting. For a considerable time, the native art of France was modified by these two foreign influences.
The Italian wars, prosecuted by Charles VIII and Louis XII in the latter part of the fifteenth century, brought a still closer social contact between France and Italy. This was maintained and intensified by Francis I after the establishment of his court at Fontainebleau, in the neighborhood of Paris. A keen rivalry with the Emperor, Charles V, caused Francis to offer patronage to scholars and men of genius, especially to artists. He gathered a whole colony of Italian painters around him. Leonardo da Vinci was induced to spend the last three years of his life at the court of the French king; Andrea del Sarto began commissions which his faithless wife, upon his return home, induced him to basely abandon. Many lesser artists migrated thence and the Italian school in France was quite distinct from the French school, and much more important. The new palace erected by Francis I gave opportunity for the originality of artists to display itself, and the king gave commissions not alone to the recognized painters among the Italians but to the less known painters of France.
Of the French school of this period the Clouet family and Jean Cousin deserve special mention. Jean Clouet came to Paris from Brussels, bringing with him the secret of mixing oils which had recently been discovered by the Van Eyck brothers. His son, Jean Clouet, became first painter to the king. Two other members of this family won distinction by their brushes. Attention to detail, simplicity, truthful imitation of nature and fine finish, all characteristics of Flemish painting of the age, were distinctive of their style. Jean Cousin was the last great painter of glass. There are still preserved in the Louvre several windows painted by him for the Chateau d'Anet. The boldness of his conceptions gained for him the name "the Michael Angelo of France."
Civil struggles that waged for many years between Catholic and Protestant put an end to the brilliancy of this first great epoch of French art. In 1648 the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded and in 1667 the first exhibition of paintings was held.
During the first half of the seventeenth century Flemish predominance was given to painting in France, the particular circumstance being that Marie de Medici, wife of Henry IV and queen of France, commissioned Rubens to paint twentyfour scenes from her life for her Luxembourg palace, and these were eagerly studied by native artists. On the whole this influence at this particular period was very wholesome. In the second half of the century the spirit of Louis XIV dominated art as it dominated all phases of life and expression. The art of this age is generally known as the "art of Louis XIV." Unfortunately the excessive vanity of the king required constant and unstinted praise and his influence in painting led to an abandonment of truth, simplicity and sincerity for the superficial, elaborate and insincere.
The classical landscape was given prominence by Poussin and Claude Lorrain who attained renown during the earlier years of the seventeenth century. Nicholas Poussin-1593-1665-was born in Normandy but the greater portion of his life was spent in Italy. Indeed, his son is classified with Italian artists. He loved the classical and frequently created a landscape merely as a setting for his mythological figures. He was skillful in his use of color, which was often rather strong but not unpleasing; his drawing was excellent.
The classical school of art was firmly established during this century; for this reason the following criticism by Hazlitt has particular interest, setting forth as it does certain char acteristics which distinguished it throughout: "The Poussinesque landscape is characterized by something of the pedantry, the same stiffness, the same elevation, the same grandeur, the same mixture of art and nature, as Milton's poetry. In it Poussin, too, turned backward, away from the richness of coloring, the charming effects of light and air, the characteristics of vegetation as given in the contemporaneous Flemish school, notably by Rubens, to `heroic' landscape or classical scenes fit for the abode of a race of heroes. The primitive methods of pasturing sheep form the chief traces of nature. There are no fields; the houses are of the simplest form, as those of pastoral life, or he gives a classical pile in the centre of his composition. The figures are those of fable or history, but always producing an effect of tranquil repose."
Claude Lorrain-1600-1682-belonged to the same age. He, too, loved classical stories. He created ideal gardens with artistic nooks, temples with Greek columns, and in these charming spots he placed beings of an earlier world-all in a holiday happiness and contentment. Sometimes the scene was so refined and finished as to bear but little resemblance to the natural. The term "idealized landscapes" applies admirably to many of his pictures. By clever use of soft vapors Claude produced the impression of distance with plenty of space and paths that lead far beyond the opening of the scene. The outlines of objects were softened by atmospheric effects; splendid results were attained by brilliant light over portions of the scene. Turner, who was jealous of any artist, living or dead, whom he thought to in any way rival himself, was keenly jealous of Claude's popularity years after the French artists's work was ended. Like Turner he was never successful in delineating figures, saying that he charged merely for the landscape and threw in the people.
The art of Louis XIV was in a great measure the creation of Charles Lebrun, 1619-1690. He flattered the great monarch by representing him as a Caesar or an Alexander and won his life-long favor. For fourteen years he labored at the new palace of Versailles, making up in quantity what was lacking in quality. His chief merit lay in his originality of composition. All honors were heaped upon him and when in the latter years of the king's life he built another palace of Marly, Lebrun not only planned its interior decorations but designed the tapestries, furniture, mosaics, jewelry and bronzes as well. His capacity for work was wellnigh limitless during these years, and for various purposes many of his designs have been popular ever since.
When Louis XV succeeded Louis XIV a firm control gave way to revelry. His reign was at court a prolonged holiday. The king himself was not unconscious of the storm slowly gathering in France, for his expression "After me the deluge" proved to be literally true. Art reflected the life of the people.
The great exponent of the frivolous court life was Jean Antoine Watteau-1684-1721. He has been called the first genuine French artist who ever painted French scenes as seen by a Frenchman. Confining himself to portraying a condition of life that was unstable and transitory, his pictures appealed only to the nobility. The courtiers who toyed with life, who affected a studied simplicity and talked of Arcadian ways, found his productions altogether satisfying.
While the trifling love-making of the court was being set forth in all its airy lightness by Watteau, Jean Baptiste Chardin-1699-1779-was studying another condition of society which he later painted with earnest fidelity. Domestic scenes from the middle class attracted him and without imagination, but with painstaking detail, he painted the tradesman with his family gathered around the evening board; the children at their play; the mother about her daily cares. Possessing the rare art of enhancing humble things, clumsy furniture, heavy dishes, pots and kettles and common vegetables were painted in a charming light that made them at once attractive to the beholder. Daily labor was ennobled; humble homes glorified. Less gifted painters copied his scenes and to possess them was the pride of the citizen.
As a consequence of a growing feeling for art on the part of the common people, in 1765 Jean Jacques Bachelier established a public school wherein drawing was taught to classes of working boys without cost. When the experiment had proved successful the king endowed it as the Royal Free School of Drawing. It is maintained to-day, affording opportunity to those who otherwise would be unable to profit by such instruction.
Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun should be mentioned in connection with eighteenth century art. As a child she evinced a remarkable gift far drawing and when fifteen years of age her portraits attracted orders from the royal family. An unfortunate marriage clouded her life but she was a great favorite among the brilliant coterie of geniuses who gathered for friendly interchange of ideas. A prolific portrait painter, Madame Lebrun made several paintings of Marie Antoinette, and probably painted more pictures of royalty than any other European artist.
New impulses manifested themselves in the French art of the nineteenth century. The period of the Revolution had wrought changes in some particulars. For a time the art treasures were threatened when the mobs hesitated whether it would not be best to eliminate all traces of royalty. Fortunately the great mass of paintings were spared, but several hundred are known to have perished. During the Napoleonic wars many works of art were plundered from ' other lands. Napoleon on one occasion reminded his soldiers that they had caused hundreds of works of art to find their way to France. In 1805 operations were begun to make the Louvre a national museum. Here were accumulated rare and often priceless possessions, soon exhibited to the public two days each week. Napoleon called into being a "personal" art which pictured his military campaigns, his public deeds and his family.
Jean Louis David-1748-1825-belongs to this period, since his greatest work was done in the later years of his life. Setting aside the superficial art of the past century, he revived the classical influences. Several years he spent in Italy and returned to find France in the turmoil of the Revolution. He sympathized with the new order of things and became a great friend of Napoleon. One of his greatest paintings was his "Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine."
David believed absolutely in the abiding greatness of classical art. He was blind to the faults of the ancients and infatuated with the power of line and form. If only the outlines were correct, he repeatedly told his students, the rest mattered but little. For almost a quarter of a century his conception of art's fitting expression held the country fettered, yet far-reaching tendencies were silently operating to break the bonds of classicism.