Fontainebleau, the Loire and the Valois

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IN the fifteenth century the art of the Gothic image maker was not entirely extinct, but outside of the conquered provinces it could not survive unless it abandoned the disrupted architectural symphony never to return. As the Commune was finished, as the monarchy had neither the time nor the leisure nor the resources to complete the cathedrals, sculpture took refuge in the only place near which war passed without entering. Rather than disappear, it peopled the silent naves and the darkness of the burial vaults with great recumbent figures which, with their symbolism the more moving because it was involuntary, participated both in the death struggle of that dream of a social order which had arisen in the mind of the crowd that had vanished two centuries before, and in the crisis of that dream of the monarchy which was threatening to miscarry. The French sculptors who had covered their country with workmen, with peasants, with animals, with leaves, and with flowers of stone now made nothing except tombs, and tombs of kings. They stretched out man and woman side by side, strong and grave, and not doubting in death any more than they had in life; in them they formulated their own strength, their own gravity, and the hope of consolation which they no longer expected upon earth. Technical questions increase rapidly, it is true, in the admirable clasped hands, in the beautiful, pure faces with the closed eyes, in the head-dresses, the draperies, the robes, the escutcheons, and the armor. But although its faith becomes less strong each day, although it is besieged by the increasing influence of Italy, the tradition of the Gothic image maker still guides the sculptor of the tombs down to the time of Barthélémy Prieur, passing through André Beauneveu, Guillaume Regnault, and Germain Pilon himself. It was along an imperceptible slope that he glided from the profound sentiment for righteousness and for death to the anatomical science which led Germain Pilon to stretch out his queen and his king nude upon the slab of the tomb.

The art of the tombs is the connecting link between the French artist and the French monarchy. There is no more communal frankness, there are no longer any well-defined provinces, there is no longer a national territory in formation. The great vassals divide up the lands which are not occupied by the English. Henceforth, France is the king, until the time when monarchical centralization shall, through the king, have remade France. Where the king goes the artist goes, and the fate and the life of the king will decide, if not the nature of the artist, at least his pretext for manifesting it.

Outside the limits of the English invasion, in Burgundy and in Flanders, one gets the tufty, materialistic, and exuberant art of the industrial cities, of well-filled barns and generous stores of wine. In the occupied provinces we see the flamboyant death struggle of the churches, the miserable image maker seeking his mystic paradises, and Jean Malouel, the artist who remained faithful to the Paris which was ruined by the great wars, weeping with the mothers over their little ones, seeing nothing more than a sick people, adoring the martyrs, and hating the executioners. All the health of France, a precarious and tottering health, to tell the truth, threatened at every moment, clings to the uncertain fortune of the Valois. It is an art of poverty, thin and threadbare like themselves, but it is alive and that is the essential thing. Despite everything, the hope of the people sustains and accompanies the wandering princes. Jean Foucquet is of the same age as Joan of Arc, and the French idea perpetuates itself in the pages of the missals which he illuminates for King Charles the Seventh, even as it was affirmed under the walls of Orleans, at Patay, at Rheims, and at Rouen. The voice is weak because it is isolated, but it is pure. Before Charles the Seventh, Jean le Bon had heard that of Girard d'Orléans. After him Louis XI will hear that of Villon; Francis I will hear that of Rabelais; Henri II, that of Jean Goujon; and Charles the Ninth that of Ronsard. This race, in its decomposition and the weakness of its spirit, still managed to entwine the royal lily grown blue with poison and the laurel steeped in blood with the oak leaves which the wind of national or civil wars tore from the Gothic forest. Half Italian, they never entirely misread the meaning of French thought.

Our old painting, in that peaceful Touraine where the kings, driven from the basin of the Seine, had taken refuge, came forth, as in other places, from the Books of Hours which had grown too narrow to contain it. But the flames of hell and the burning paradises did not attract it very strongly. It had the good sense of our men of central France, their purity of accent, and their wisdom with its hint of raillery. It came from the country of the good Agnès Sorel, of the broad and healthy Rabelais, of the methodical Descartes, and of Honoré de Balzac who says such rich things in such bare language. It was happy to be alive, and in its thought there was no fatigue. No one was more capable than Foucquet of combining great lines on a background of gold, of quietly building up portraits of sick and ungainly kings, of solid chancellors, of charming young women with bare breast and eyes lowered under their veils, an imponderable spirit of tenderness and intelligence floating all about them, in the discreet and reasoned harmony of a painting as limpid as a spring morning. Father and master of French painting, he had, to the highest degree, its structural virtues, a little bit dry, they say, because the lyricism of the color is lacking or reveals itself only little by little—modestly, like a spring that hides among the grasses instead of rushing forth like a torrent. They are powerful virtues, the common property of all our arts—literature, the theater, sculpture, painting, drawing, and music; and they carry along without interruption our eight centuries of architecture in their definite order, their measured cadence, their sensibility which is contained within the outlines of the framework, their depths without shadows and their emotion without shrieking. Father and master of the great sober portrait, in its probity, in its fullness as of a block, never was he more at his ease, however, than when, quite forgetting the magnificent realism of Flanders which he knew through the manuscripts, and the nervous idealism of the Italians whom he studied during a journey to the peninsula in the time of his youth, he set himself to tell, with secret tenderness, of the intimate and peaceful poetry of the fields, the familiar detail of domestic life, and of the neat and active labor of the housewives of Touraine, attending to their linen, embroidering their bed covers, arranging their wardrobes, and watching their soup and their fires. He had a feeling for nature scarcely to be found outside of a people of husbandmen, and which is peculiarly French. His idylls are those of peasants; he spoke as one familiar with the herds that belong to men, and the workers of the soil. All things accepted the life that was theirs. There had to be a rapid trend toward aristocracy before painting could follow the hard, proud, and prophetic style of the Italian artists and give to French art its brief spurt toward a lyrical interpretation of form which was to be realized for a moment in Jean Goujon. Foucquet had neither the desire nor the feeling for drama, and when it passed before him he took more interest in its psychological structure than in the passion manifested in it. Almost always, he was more attentive than enthusiastic and more interested than moved, or rather, he never allowed his emotion to overstep the bounds of his irreproachable sense of measure. A man witty and tender, with a bit of roguery, penetrating even though ingenuous, and much pleased with his own Ingenuousness. When he paints the circles of azure and of fire which protect his paradise, he knows full well that they can be of no other red and no other blue than the trees of Judea and the cornflowers of his Touraine. And the acid greens of the meadows and the vinous pinks of the chestnut flowers invariably appear under the impalpable bloom of gold which gives the event of daily life its religious significance.

We shall scarcely find this conscious simplicity, this precise vigor, and this malicious candor again in our history until two or three centuries after Foucquet, with La Fontaine, with Molière, with Chardin. They are clearly of this country and of this period; in places they prolong the diminishing murmur of the crowds. Oftentimes they are still anonymous, as if France were trying to resist as long as she could that tempting individualism in which Italy is instructing her. In these beautiful hands so calmly poised, in these amused faces, tender eyes, and mischievous mouths, the old image makers and the psychological storytellers continue their art, just as they will find themselves again by way of the moralists and so reach the short stones of Voltaire. It is certain that through the mingling of ingenuousness, mischievousness, and the power of penetration, French portraiture reaches its proudest moment here, and it is first among all the schools of portraiture by reason of its value as psychology. During these two centuries of suffering, of observation, and of conquest, from Malouel to Lagneau, with Foucquet, Colin d'Amiens, the painters of Avignon, Perréal, the Clouets, Corneille de Lyon, and a dozen unknown men, the school presents a continuity without weakness. But in the rising flood of Italianism, these voices are unheard by their contemporaries. In his church pictures, the master of Moulins, whose name perhaps was Jean Perréal, conceals his delicate French faces, the pure features of his children, and his stately gentleness which he gives forth with discretion as if it might offend the tastes of the court and the new fashions. As for the Clouets, it is in vain that they possess the almost exclusive privilege of reproducing the lineaments of the kings, the queens, the princes, and the great vassals; their importance at the court of the last Valois is really a slight one. Their sitters posed but briefly before them, as if before a lens whose pitiless testimony is to be shown to a few intimates only. Their probity, their observation, and their penetration are such, it is true, that in a few lines, a few lights, and a few shadows barely indicated, they fix forever in their sketches, so devoid of all pomp and even of irony, the profound spirit which each fleeting moment reveals to him who can seize it. Their portraits seem almost to be traced directly from the contours of the face, the slit of the eyelids, the network of the veins as they appear on the surface, and each separate hair. They show us bad and sickly faces, the scars of broken abscesses, chlorosis and the festered ears that belong to this poisoned race of Italian bigots. D'Aubigné, more passionate but less cruel, must have got the feeling of these effigies, even as Brantôme must have known the sly faces and the quaint grace of Corneille de Lyon—one of the best qualified of his time to notice the pervasiveness and the furtiveness of life and to seize its spirit in the light of the eyes and the smile of the mouth; Corneille de Lyon, setting his people against blue or green backgrounds, follows the same processes as the writers. These artists are historians above all. We have not known how to use their talent for minuteness, the continuing curves, the pure ovals, the enamel and jewels of their carefully and closely worked pigment, and their hard and tense harmonies. The princes whom they painted with wasplike waists stand before limpid backgrounds and their horses caparisoned with purple bear the kings to the fields of the cloth of gold; they make us forget the ugliness of their masters by installing them most elaborately in jewel boxes of crystalline fire.

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