Returning to his throne as king of France in 1527 after two years of captivity under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Francis I (r. 1515–47) launched an aggressive campaign to restore a small, dilapidated hunting lodge in the Forest of Bièvre, forty miles southeast of Paris. Due to the sack of Rome by imperial armies in 1527, Francis was able to lure an unprecedented number of talented artists, architects, and artisans from Italy, and collectively they transformed a ruined country château into the king’s primary royal residence, a palace of grandeur and great embellishment known today as Fontainebleau. These artists brought with them the prevailing Mannerist style developed by painters such as Pontormo (1494–1556), and influenced by Michelangelo (1475–1564).
The first to arrive at Fontainebleau, in 1530, was Rosso Fiorentino (1494–1540). The Florentine artist had already established himself by working with important painters such as Perino del Vaga (1501–1547) in Rome. Shortly thereafter, the Bolognese painter Francesco Primaticcio (1504/5–1570) arrived in France from Mantua. Under the direction of Rosso and Primaticcio, a style evolved, known today as the School of Fontainebleau, which sought to create a harmonic confluence between painting and decoration in the interior apartments of the Château. The Museum’s Nymph of Fontainebleau (42.150.12) is painted after an engraving of a composition by Rosso.
Following Rosso’s premature death in 1540, Primaticcio assumed the lead. Under his direction, a style developed that is characterized by exaggerated lines, brilliant colors, and elongated figures with sometimes awkward poses, often set in classical and mythological landscapes. In addition, a revealing sensuousness in the nude figure, largely absent in French art before this time, evolved at Fontainebleau. Primaticcio subsequently invited Niccolò dell’Abbate (1509–1571) from Modena to assist him. Niccolò introduced deeply recessed landscapes spotted with figures, as seen in the decorations for the Galerie François I, the Galerie d’Ulisse, and the Salle de Bal. The decorations for the Galerie François I demonstrate the collaborative spirit fostered at Fontainebleau, which integrated architecture, craftsmanship, and painting. The gallery’s highly ornate design features twelve narrative frescoes, numerous sculptural relief borders, and carved walnut wainscoting, as well as other decorations extant today only in prints.
In the 1540s, a group of artists, perhaps directed by Primaticcio, began to produce prints after drawings by Rosso, Primaticcio, and others in the relatively new medium of etching, a faster and more fluent technique than engraving. Among the most important printmakers associated with Fontainebleau are the Bolognese painter Antonio Fantuzzi, an assistant to Primaticcio; the French painter Jean Mignon, who also assisted with the decoration; and the professional engraver Léon Davent, who soon switched to etching. As a result, a significant number of designs are preserved through etchings and engravings that record abandoned plans or destroyed decorations. The use of the print also proved helpful to Niccolò, Primaticcio, and others who accepted private commissions in Paris, and throughout France, for spreading the artistic ideas and processes practiced at the Château. The Metropolitan’s Dispute between Neptune and Athena (49.97.589) by Fantuzzi after Rosso, and Venus and Mars (49.95.180) by Davent after Luca Penni beautifully demonstrate the kind of fluid and graceful line produced in prints at Fontainebleau, which were collected in their own right as precious works of art.
Following the death of Francis I in 1547, royal patronage at Fontainebleau subsided until the ascension of Henry IV (r. 1589–1610). Although originally made up of Italian artists, the second School of Fontainebleau—from about 1595 to the early 1610s—emerged largely dominated by Flemish and French artists.
The artists dictating the style of this second school were Ambroise Dubois (1563–1614) from Antwerp, and Toussaint Dubreuil (ca. 1561–1602) and Martin Fréminet (1567–1619) from Paris. During this later period, the decoration is characterized by a greater solidity of figures and depth of composition, as seen in the Metropolitan’s Birth of Cupid (41.48). The use of contrasting light and shadow, synthesized with strong gradations of bold, rich color, distinguishes it from the earlier decoration and alludes to the emergence of the Baroque style in the seventeenth century.