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Friday, February 21, 2014

Jean Fouquet

The Melun Diptych, 1450-54, Jean Fouquet
Jean Fouquet Self-portrait, 1452-55,
said to be the first signed artist's
self-portrait in history.
For the past hundred years or more it has been the custom for people to carry with them,--men in their wallets, women in their purses--what we've come to call "wallet-size" photos of our loved ones. Today, of course, such photos are often digital, stored on cell phones. And before such photos were readily available, there were paintings of family members called "miniatures." Often such images were encased in tiny folding frames or lockets worn close to their hearts by ladies of sufficient financial standing to afford such things...and they were expensive. Members of the early-American Peale family of Philadelphia made something of a cottage industry producing such painted keepsakes...until their vision failed them, which often happened to such painters. Art history suggests that the first painter to produce such portable portraits was the French artist, Jean Fouquet (rhymes with bouquet).

Charles VII of France, 1450,
Jean Fouquet
Jean Fouquet was born around 1420 in Tours, France. As is often the case, little is known about his early life, though one source suggests his father was a priest who had an illicit love affair with "a woman of the people," whatever that means. The same source claims that as a young boy, he drew pictures of both his father and mother, which, if true, must have been a bit awkward for the ecclesiastical side of the family. In any case, by 1447 the young artist was in Rome painting a portrait of Pope Eugene IV, who died the same year. The painting is lost but the image survives in etched copies. He may have earlier trained with the Flemish van Eyck brothers or at least been strongly influenced by them. In returning to France around 1450 Fouquet managed to merge his Dutch and the Italian influences into a new style all his own, which came to form the basis of the French style of painting during the centuries to come. His self-portrait (above, right) may have been the first miniature portrait ever painted. In any case, Fouquet painted numerous others during his career.

King Charles VII, 1445-50, Jean Fouquet

Portrait of Agnes Sorel, ca. 1450,
Jean Fouquet
Around 1450, Fouquet came to the attention of the King of France, Charles VII, for whom he painted a miniature portrait (above, left, a novelty at the time). A short time later, having been appointed the "king's painter" Fouquet was commissioned to do an official portrait of the king (above, the order of these, may be reversed, though the king looks younger in the more informal miniature). Later, Fouquet also painted the king's mistress, Agnes Sorel (left), said to have been the most beautiful woman in France. If the exposed breast seems strange to us today, it was no less so in 1450. In any case, this is where the story gets interesting.

The wife of the king's treasurer, √Čtienne Chevalier, died. The wealthy government official commissioned Fouquet to create a diptych (two panels) to be placed over her tomb in the Melun Cathedral. Fouquet painted the Melun Diptych (top). The left panel depicts Etienne Chevalier and his patron saint, St. Stephen, in a surprisingly natural, Italian-style setting (though the perspective is a bit inept). The right panel (below) is a different matter.

The Virgin and Infant, 1450-54, Melun Diptych (right panel), Jean Fouquet.
The Crucifixion, 1460, Jean Fouquet
Even a cursory glance in comparing it and Fouquet's Portrait of Agnes Sorel (above, left) leaves no doubt who the model was. Beyond that though, never in the history of diptychs were two panels ever so mismatched. The panel depicting the "virgin" and child presents both figures in deathly pale flesh tones. The throne and crown are highly stylized, the flattened background decorated with red puti of no apparent significance. Also, while we're being sticklers for details, the Christ-child is not circumcised. And though one or two other artists of the Northern Renaissance have depicted a nursing Madonna, Fouquet's version is more erotic than motherly. The child seems not to be hungry. One might easily guess the two panels were done by two different artists, except for Fouquet's earlier portrait of Agnes Sorel. Beyond that, however, the self-portrait image of the artist (top, right) was affixed to the diptych frame, making this work one of the earliest paintings to be signed by any artist and the only one ever signed by this artist.

God Introducing Adam and Eve,
1470, Jean Fouquet
In highly Catholic Italy, such a painting might have gotten the artist crucified (if not in fact, then in essence). Actually Fouquet's star seems to have soared following the Melun Diptych, including a very respectable 1460 version of The Crucifixion (above, left, Northern Renaissance artist loved this subject). And if you've ever pondered the question of who first introduced Adam and Eve (probably not), Fouquet fills in the visual blanks with his God Introducing Adam and Eve (right) from 1470. Fouquet's Building of the Temple in Jerusalem (bottom) is fascinating as well, if you can get past his assumption that the Old Testament Jews were familiar with Gothic church architecture. Fouquet died in 1481. And though we may find his work strange in context, humorous, perhaps even blasphemous, it's important to remember in appraising the work of Jean Fouquet, that most of these images were page-size, painted on parchment as illustrations for prayer books--private, rather than public art.

The Building of the Temple in Jerusalem, 1470, Jean Fouquet.
(Is that Quasimodo in the bell tower? No, probably not.)


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