The later Valois kings, who unified France and strengthened its power after the Hundred Years’ War, frequently engaged in diplomacy and warfare in Italy; exposure to Italian art gradually formed their taste. This trend began with Louis XI (r. 1461–83), who, at his accession, commissioned a medal with his portrait from Francesco Laurana (ca. 1420–ca. 1502), while his court painters, Jean Fouquet (ca. 1415/20–1478/81) and Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1457–1521), traveled to Italy. Louis XI’s successors, Charles VIII (r. 1483–98) and Louis XII (r. 1498–1515), led armies into the peninsula, to claim the kingdom of Naples and to conquer Lombardy, respectively. In 1494, Charles VIII attempted to purchase Donatello’s Mary Magdalene (Florence, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) from the Florentines; he also admired Hadrian’s tomb in Rome (the present-day Castel Sant’Angelo) and hired Italian artists to work in Paris and at his château of Amboise. The king nonetheless awarded important commissions to French artists. The Parisian Master of the Unicorn Hunt, named after the famed tapestry series at The Cloisters (37.80.3), designed a Flamboyant rose window with the Apocalypse for the Sainte-Chapelle, while Flemish-trained Jean Hey (active 1480–1500) painted the shimmering portrait of Charles’s first wife, Margaret of Austria (1975.1.130). Another painter apprenticed in the Low Countries, the Master of Saint Giles (Virgin and Child with a Dragonfly, 1975.1.131), must have been active in Paris around 1500, since some of his works allude to Louis XII’s accession. Louis’s capture of Lombardy in 1499 afforded him his first encounter with the works of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whom he ardently admired, referring to him as “our painter and good friend” in a document of 1506.
King at the age of eighteen, Francis I (r. 1515–47) (Bust of Francis I, 41.100.245) pursued his dynastic claim to the duchy of Milan, which he conquered in 1515. Pope Leo X met the victor at Bologna, where they negotiated a concordat, assigning the king the right to nominate French prelates (Chalice, 1996.287). Convinced of the supremacy of Italian art, Francis failed to attract Michelangelo but, in 1516, lured Leonardo to France, where the artist remained until his death at Amboise in 1519. Leonardo brought some of his most famous paintings with him, including the Mona Lisa and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (both now Paris, Musée du Louvre; Leonardo, Head of the Virgin, 51.90), and devised architectural schemes that influenced French château design.
Engaged in intermittent warfare with Charles V, whose possessions encircled France, Francis I also competed with the emperor in his patronage of all the arts. The French king spent huge sums on adding to or building châteaus at Amboise, Blois, Chambord, and especially Fontainebleau, for which he hired scores of Italian artists. Two works of art created in the last decade of Francis’s reign give a measure of the luxury of his court: Benvenuto Cellini’s (1500–1571) gold saltcellar, with personifications of the earth and the sea (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), and a grand portrait of the king by his court painter Jean Clouet (1486–1540/41) (Paris, Musée du Louvre), who also painted the likeness of Guillaume Budé, the king’s librarian (46.68). In 1546, one year before his death, Francis I commissioned Pierre Lescot (ca. 1510–1578) to transform the medieval fortress of the Louvre into a Renaissance palace. Striking for its ornamental beauty, Lescot’s Cour Carrée is the perfect framework for the reliefs of Jean Goujon (ca. 1510–ca. 1565), whose classicism is reminiscent of Greek sculpture (Descent from the Cross, 29.56). Goujon remained in royal service until he was forced into exile in 1562 for being a Protestant.
Overshadowed by his father’s reputation, Henry II (r. 1547–59) is remembered largely for his relentless persecution of Protestants (Henry II Between France and Fame, 25.2.93). Married to Catherine de Médicis in 1533, Henry soon became enamored with Diane de Poitiers, twenty years his senior, who remained his mistress until his death in 1559 (Commesso, 17.190.907). Her château at Anet, built by Philibert de l’Orme (1514–1570) between 1547 and 1552, was her favorite residence (The Drowning of Britomartis, 42.57.1). Henry II and Catherine de Médicis, who was regent of France until the early years of Henry III’s rule (r. 1574–89), left a strong stamp on French decorative arts. The king favored armors of unparalleled refinement, with embossed and gilded ornamentation (Armor for Henry II of France, 39.121).
From 1530 to 1570, the village of Saint-Porchaire in the Poitou specialized in luxury earthenware of exceptional complexity and fragility; most of the surviving pieces, whose elaborate shapes defy the limitations of their medium and recall metalwork, appear to have been commissioned by members of the court (Ewer, 17.190.1740). Having mastered the art of glazing earthenware to imitate jasper, the potter, naturalist, and philosopher Bernard Palissy (1510–1590) turned to the challenge of firing different colors simultaneously. His best known creations are oval dishes that imitate streams inhabited by frogs, fish, snakes, shells, and crustaceans; molded after actual specimens, the creatures are rendered so naturalistically as to appear alive (Platter, 53.225.52). Imprisoned in 1563 as a heretic in Bordeaux, Palissy was saved by Catherine de Médicis, who appointed him inventeur des rustiques figulines [earthenware dishes] du Roi; the inventory of the queen’s collections, drawn at her death in 1589, lists 141 pieces of ceramic by him.
The mid-sixteenth century was the golden age of painted Limoges enamel in grisaille, a technique first practiced in Paris in the early fifteenth century (“Monkey Cup,” 52.50). While still producing plaques with religious imagery, enamelers increasingly decorated vases and ornamental dishes with scenes from mythology (Dish: The Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche, 1984.195). The refined portraits by Corneille de Lyon (before 1500–1575; now often referred to as Corneille de La Haye) chronicle life at the French court from the reign of Francis I to the accession of Henry III (Portrait of a Man, 1978.301.6). Germain Pilon (1536/7–1590), who combined the plasticity of Michelangelo with the calligraphic elegance of Fontainebleau Mannerism, was the dominant sculptor of the Counter-Reformation. Employed by Catherine de Médicis as well as Henry II’s successors, he executed several funerary monuments for the Valois, including the tomb of Henry II at Saint-Denis (1563–70). The fluid, idealized modeling of the king’s nude gisant, its head thrown back over the cushion, reveals the influence of Michelangelo’s early Pietà (Rome, Saint Peter’s Basilica), a cast of which was kept at Fontainebleau (two original sculptures by Michelangelo, the Slaves now in the Louvre, were in France by 1550). Pilon’s marble Mourning Virgin of around 1585 (Paris, Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis) follows the pyramidal composition and the general pose of Michelangelo’s Virgin; indicative of the esteem in which Pilon was held in his own time, the terracotta model has survived (Paris, Musée du Louvre). The tormented drapery, which seems to reflect the Virgin’s sorrow, finds close parallels in a gilded bronze statuette in the Museum’s collection (Mourning Virgin, 1998.437).