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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Sixteenth-Century Portrait of a Courtier at the French Court of Charles IX, King of France (1550–1574)

Follower of François Clouet (1510–1572)
Portrait of a bearded young man at the age of 34, bust length, wearing a black cap
Oil on oack panel, in a carved and gilt wood cassetta frame
Panel size: 14 3/4” x 11”
Frame size: 23 1/2” x 20”
Inscribed upper center and dated upper right: ANNO. ÆTAT s SVÆ. XXXIIII 1564
Brushed with old inventory number verso: 48
Provenance: With Galerie Pardo, Paris: Alberto Bruni Tedeschi.

In portraiture, as in life, likeness and expression seem lodged in the visage. Gazing at the meticulously rendered faces of long-dead sitters in sixteenth-century portraits, we seem to detect qualities often associated with Renaissance art: individualism and psychological presence. In this painting the artist’s sense of naturalism, combined with a characteristically Northern Renaissance flair for line and precision, is clearly demonstrated. The work offers a subtle blend of smooth precision, the psychological realism of the French portrait, and an approach to light and facial contour reflecting the recent influence of the Italian Renaissance painters. Typical of French court portraits of the mid-sixteenth century, the subject's facial features are precisely recorded with exactitude and without flattery, and the sitter seems withdrawn into a world of his own thoughts.

The half length figure of the young man is painted in front of an emerald green background. His cap is encircled with a band of delicate embroidery and studded with seed pearls. His magnificent white doublet is lavishly embroidered and fastened with elegant buttons. The sitter’s brown eyes, his vacant stare, his dark moustache and beard lend his face a singular attraction and the whole is a telling portrait of the confident personality and aristocratic charm of a courtier at the court of Charles IX, King of France (1550–1574).

At the time this portrait was completed, France was in turmoil. In 1560, Catherine de Medici became regent for her young son Charles IX. Her inexperience and lack of financial support created a "political vacuum" and Catherine felt that she had to steer the throne carefully between the powerful and conflicting interests that surrounded it. Although she was a sincere Roman Catholic, she was prepared to deal favorably with the Huguenot House of Bourbon in order to have a counterweight against the overmighty House of Guise. Catherine therefore was led to support religious toleration in the shape of the Edict of Saint-Germain (1562), which allowed the Huguenots to worship publicly outside of towns and privately in towns. On March 1, however, a Guise-led faction attacked a Huguenot service at Wassy-sur-Blaise in Champagne massacring the innocent worshippers there. The Edict was revoked, under pressure from the Guise faction. This provoked the First War of Religion and set off a series of conflicts that did not end until 1598 and the Edict of Nantes.

François Clouet was arguably the most influential French Renaissance portrait painter of the sixteenth century, immortalizing in his paintings the society of the court of the royal house of Valois. He and his father, Jean, held the position of chief court painter to the King of France, Jean under Francis I and François under Henry II, Francis II and Charles IX. Born at Tours, François was active by 1536 and succeeded his father as Premier Peintre upon the latter’s death. He was also named magistrate in 1551, and his success was largely due to the protection of Catherine de Medici, who collected his drawings. He designed the funerary decorations for the obsequies of Francis I and in 1552 executed the death mask of Henry II. François continued his father’s practice of chalk-drawn portraits, but his only signed painted portrait (Pierre Quthe, 1562, Paris, Louvre) shows the influence on him of the new international portrait style. The only other signed painting, the enigmatic Lady in her Bath (c. 1550, Washington, National) demonstrates his interest in both the new Flemish painting and Italian motifs. Running a studio that employed his three sons, the painter was very influential, in France as well as abroad. The credit belongs to him for the creation of the great French tradition of the drawn portrait, following in a genre begun by his father.

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