Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio: these are the names are traditionally associated with the patronage of Francis I, who is chiefly remembered by art historians for stamping the French Renaissance with an distinctive Italian imprint. In this monumental exhibition François Ier et l’art des Pays-Bas, Cécile Scailliérez challenges this well-trodden narrative. Over the course of his 32-year reign (1515-1547), Francis I invited Netherlandish artists to his court. Joos van Cleve, who briefly sojourned in France in 1532, while Jan van Scorel, according to Van Mander, politely declined the honor. Likely in search of a royal appointment, Hans Holbein journeyed through France in 1524. Jean Clouet, probably from Valenciennes, was commemorated as ‘PICTOR FRANC[ORUM] REGIS’ in his portrait medal, attributed to Jacques Gauvain. In Lyon, Corneille de La Haye was described in 1534 as ‘painctre de la reine Héliénor’, Francis’s Habsburg queen, whose taste and familiarity with early Netherlandish painting probably informed her husband’s patronage of Northern artists. The king’s powerful mother Louise de Savoie, beloved sister Marguerite d’Alençon, and chaplain François Demoulins all owned books decorated by Godefroy le Batave. From 1528 to 1541, the entrepreneurial Antwerp goldsmith Josse Vezeler provided Francis with a steady influx of precious metalwork and tapestries from the Low Countries. As testament to a broader cultural affinity with Northern Europe, in addition to artists and objects, the king also tried to import Netherlandish humanists to France, most famously Erasmus, who was approached by Guillaume Budé in 1517 to head the future Collège de France. In this auspicious context, a great number of Northern artists flocked to France during Francis’s reign, even without official invitations or direct connection to the king, such as the Master of Amiens, Grégoire Guérard, and the Master of Dinteville; their work constitutes the most revealing part of this ambitious and erudite exhibition.
Indeed, the title of Cécile Scailliérez’s show undersells the scope of her project, certainly the most important and necessary exhibition at the Louvre in years, which extends well beyond Francis I’s own tastes, patronage, and collecting to encompass the wider community of Netherlandish artists active in France during his reign. The exhibition’s focuses on painting, understood expansively to include manuscript miniatures, drawings, stained glass, and tapestry, plus occasional sculpture and metalwork. Building on decades of her own research and buttressed by important advances in scholarship made by Frédéric Elsig, Guy-Michel Leproux, and Peter van den Brink, among others, Scailliérez illuminates artists still being identified, and whose names remain widely unknown beyond specialists.
After a short introduction on the elusive figure of the Paris-based painter-cartonnier Gauthier de Campes, loosely identified with the Master of St-Gilles, the exhibition begins in earnest with a rich survey of the ‘Antwerp-Leyden mannerists’ active in France. Their tutelary figure, the Master of Amiens, is one of the show’s outstanding stars. An associate of Jan de Beer, for whom he painted the side panels of the Milan Adoration Triptych (cat. 5), this anonymous master moved to Amiens, where from 1519 to 1521 (new style) he was entrusted with the annual altarpiece for the local confraternity of the Puy-de-Notre-Dame. Two of the puys are on view; and the more spectacular, Au juste pois véritable balance (from 1519; [cat. 7), newly cleaned, reveals a vibrant palette and imagination combined with attentive portraiture. Unfortunately, neither puys had its original frame of intricate gothic tracery, undermining its multimedia qualities. The artist’s nervous, graphic brushwork and deft highlights invite fruitful comparison with the drawings displayed nearby, some newly attributed to the master. Amiens group drawings, widely copied and circulated, formed a major vector in the dissemination of mannerist motifs from the Low Countries to France in the 1520s.
Some of these drawings (or copies) reached Noël Bellemare, (the formerly known as the Master of the Hours of 1520 workshop); his rediscovery is owed to Guy-Michel Leproux. Active primarily as an illuminator, his corpus currently assigned to him is heterogeneous, ranging from the extremely refined Rosenwald Hours (cat. 41) to the weaker, serial Dutuit and Mauléons Hours (cats. 48, 52). The same range applies to his activity as a panel paintings; from the remarkable, recently rediscovered Adoration of the Magi with Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam [from Basel; not shown], to panels, such as the Passion Altarpiece (cat. 42), with substantial workshop intervention that indicates an artist more comfortable on a small scale. The virtuosity and savoir-faire of a maître-verrier like Jean Chastelain to translated Bellemare’s designs to a monumental scale. The inclusion in the exhibition of Chastelain’s splendid window of the Judgment of Salomon (cat. 59), usually in the South transept of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais in Paris, is an exhibition highlight.
Godefroy le Batave’s name has endured thanks to inscriptions found in two deluxe manuscripts (cats. 34, 37), but his biography is otherwise virtually unknown. The exhibition reunites the four manuscripts unanimously attributed to him, and all connected to Francis I’s inner circle, testifying to Godefroy’s status as a court painter. They display extremely refined demi-grisailles, ambitious compositions, calligraphic handling, and lively, elegant poses informed by the Amiens legacy. A fifth manuscript, the Carcer d’amour (cat. 39), which combines Godefroy’s sophisticated grisailles with Bellemare’s more painterly manner, is provisionally ascribed by Scailliérez to a separate, anonymous ‘Master of the Carcer d’Amour.’.
The exhibition’s central section more directly addresses Francis I’s patronage. Unfortunately, next to nothing survives from the king’s collection of Northern art. Thus, relying on royal inventories and accounts, Scailliérez gathered objects that evoke lost items: later weavings of tapestries documented in the royal collection (cat. 121), a ceremonial cup (cat. 119) akin to the Saint Michael cup produced by Vezeler for the king (now in Vienna), and Joos van Cleve’s Christ Child and John the Baptist Embracing, and Lucretia (cats. 117-118), whose subject matters are mentioned in royal inventories. Joos’s activity during his brief stay in France remains unclear, but three royal portraits – Henry VIII, Francis I and Eleanor of Austria (cats. 93-94b-95) – date to that period, possibly connected to the diplomatic proceedings at Boulogne.
However, the chief portraitist of the reign was Jean Clouet. While studies usually emphasize his Chantilly drawings, this exhibition offers a rare panorama of the artist’s work on panel. From his small corpus of about ten paintings, eight works were included, notably excellent examples from Saint Louis (cat. 72) and Windsor (cat. 88). This display also highlighted Clouet’s activity as a miniature painter, including collaboration with other illuminators in the impressive Livre du Fort Chandio (cat. 71), in the equestrian portrait of Francis I (cat. 86), or in medallions, such as the unpublished portrait from Yale, previously attributed to Holbein but correctly identified here (cat. 84).
The installation of the room devoted to Corneille de Lyon was especially successful, with . many Renaissance frames removed. Key to the entire attributional edifice is the Portrait of Pierre Aymeric, Corneille’s only documented work, inscribed on the reverse. Scailliérez’s attributions include two male portraits from the former Benson group (cats. 99, 103), and the lively Marie de Batarnay (cat. 108). Opposite them were workshop productions (cats. 102-111) and portraits too large, fine, or inventive to fit Corneille’s formula (cats. 113, 115, 116). A more systematic technical survey of the Corneille group would certainly strengthen attributions.
The show’s final section focused on two Northern Netherlandish artists active in Burgundy. Their monumental, sculptural style offers a powerful contrast to the Antwerp mannerists’ sinuous figures and bustling compositions. Frédéric Elsig has linked the Transfiguration and Martyrdom of St. Lawrence dated 1522 (cat. 134) to the wings of an altarpiece for Saint-Laurent-lès-Chalons mentioned in a contract involving the painter Grégoire Guérard. Described in 1581 as ‘a compatriot and a relative of Erasmus,’ he was active in both Champagne and Burgundy between 1512 and 1538. All subsequent attributions were made through comparison with these panels, including two monumental triptychs generously lent to the exhibition: the Eucharist altarpiece of the Eucharist from Autun (1515, cat. 128) and that of St. Jerome from Bourg-en-Bresse (1518, cat. 132). Other panels are less convincingly attached to the artist (cats. 136, 137).
Documentary evidence is still too scarce to identify Bartholomeus Pons, a Haarlem-born painter who stayed with Guérard on his way back from Rome, to the Master of Dinteville. The latter, was named after his powerful aristocratic patrons from Polisy, and he is responsible for two outstanding works: the Varzy altarpiece of St. Eugenia; Allegory with Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh (Metropolitan Museum; not shown). Both display the same compositional complexity, talent for ‘disguised’ portraiture, muscular male anatomies, and elaborate inscriptions. While the Frankfurt and Louvre panels (cats. 141-142) fit well within this ensemble, the recent proposition to attribute to the master a pair of organ shutters bearing Dinteville arms (cat. 140) offers less convincing in terms of facial types.
The exhibition closes on landscape engravings produced at Fontainebleau in the 1540s that testify to the presence of Netherlandish designers and printmakers, even in what is usually considered the epicentre of Italian art.
Rather than a definitive story, this unprecedented reunion of objects intends to test attributions. The voluminous, and thoroughly researched catalogue will remain a touchstone for future scholarship in the field. Renewed emphasis on patronage (especially female), function, and reception, along with technical examination and other methodologies might be fruitfully applied to this corpus. Far from exhausting its subject, Scailliérez’s formidable exhibition has opened a new chapter in the study of French Renaissance painting.
The Frick Collection