Fontainebleau School of Art (c.1528-1610)
What is the
In French painting, the term "Fontainebleau School" (Ecole de Fontainebleau) describes the Mannerist painting and decorative sculpture, as well as the Italianate architecture, produced for the French court - under the patronage of Francis I (1494-1547) and his successors - at the royal Chateau of Fontainebleau (c.1528-1610). From the beginning, the School was inspired by Renaissance art from Italy, which Francis held in especially high regard. As a result, the leading participants in this renaissance of French decorative art were the Italian artists Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70) and Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540): French designers and artists would not demonstrate their full potential until the Palace of Versailles was built in the 17th century.
In a broader sense, the term "Fontainebleau School" encompasses any French art of this period which derived from, or was influenced by, the distinctive style created at the chateau, which in fact became the dominant idiom in France. The later and less important Second School of Fontainebleau was established after the Wars of Religion (1562-98), when the decoration of royal palaces was revived under Henry IV (reigned 1589-1610). Members of this group included Antonio Fantuzzi (1510-50), Ambrose Dubois (1542-1614), Toussaint Dubreuil (1561-1602), and Martin Freminet (1567-1619).
The Fontainebleau School may be said to have originated as a result of the French invasion of Italy during the late 1490s. The invasion and conquest of Milan by the French in 1499, under Louis XII (1462-1515), had far-reaching repercussions on French art. In a nutshell, it opened the eyes of French noblemen and artists to the beauty of the Italian Renaissance, and made it a highly coveted commodity. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), for instance, was in Milan at the time and every effort was made to attract him to France.
However, it wasn't until the reign of King Francis I (1515-47) that royal patronage was fully committed to the serious task of establishing France as an important artistic centre. The French King had advanced tastes and hoped to glorify the French crown by emulating the artistic activities of the great humanistic Princes (Medici, Gonzaga, Rovere, Farnese, Borghese) of Italy. To this end - and given the fact that France lacked an indigenous tradition of mural painting - he issued invitations to a number of Italian High Renaissance artists to come and work at the French royal court. At first only second-rate artists accepted his invitations. It was not until he began rebuilding the royal hunting lodge at Fontainebleau that he successfully attracted leading Italian artists for its decoration.
Two Italian artists were, above all, responsible for the work: first, the Mannerist painter/sculptor Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) who arrived in 1530, and the painter/sculptor Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70) who came to Fontainebleau in 1532. With the assistance of a number of French and Flemish artists, these two created a distinctive style of French Mannerism - sensual, and sophisticated - expressed in a unique blending of mythological painting combined with intricate stucco ornament (nudes, garlands, and other more complex forms). The mural picture panels occupied the lower walls, while stucco decoration covered the upper walls. The pictures are of allegorical and mythological subjects with figures distinguished by long limbs and sharply defined elegant profiles. The stucco work is partly figurative relief sculpture and partly decorative, with swags, cartouches and above all strap-work - in which the stucco is cut into leather-like strips, rolled at the ends then intertwined to form fantastic shapes. This stucco art was to be copied all over Europe. (Many artists who were unable to visit Fontainebleau were nevertheless familiar with the work as a result of seeing engravings of the chateau interior.) In any event, the Fontainebleau style was widely copied in France - see, for instance, the work of sculptors Jean Goujon (c.1510-68) and Germain Pilon (1529-1590) - and at several European courts, and established France as an important centre of both fine and decorative art. (Interestingly, the overall style of Fontainebleau interior decoration can in some ways be seen an early precursor of the 18th-century style of Rococo art, associated with Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV.) Sadly, a great deal of the work at Fontainebleau has been destroyed or radically altered, but some of the chateau's most characteristic sculpture and painting can still be seen in the Gallery of Francis I (c.1533-39), the Chambre de la Duchesse d'Etampes, and the Salle de Ball.
The Fontainebleau style reached its height in the Galerie Francois I, where Fiorentino and Primaticcio employed stuccoes and painting to annul every sense of the architectural structure. Their work marks the first time that stucco framing had been given so much projection, so much in fact that it seems to detach itself from the wall, thus assuming so much importance that it becomes one of the major elements in the decoration. There is no doubt that the precedents for this were all Italian - from the Sala di Constantino in the Vatican to the Sala degli Stucchi in Palazzo del Te at Mantua, both works by Giulio Romano (1499-1546) (who taught Primaticcio). The result achieved at Fontainebleau is exceptional: the elegantly slender female nudes, the spiralling forms of the frames, and the strapwork represent the height of the inventiveness and the complexity of Italian mannerist art, inserted directly in the figurative culture of France.
As described above, Fiorentino and Primaticcio were the key artists of the school, although their precise contribution during the period (1532-40), remains unclear. After the former's death in 1540, however, Primaticcio became the dominant artist at the chateau. He went on to decorate the Queen's Room, as well as his masterpiece the Salle d'Hercule. Francis I had great faith in his judgment and despatched him to Italy on buying trips in 1540 and 1545. After Francis's death Primaticcio retained his position as chief court painter to Henry II (reigned 1547-59) and Francis II (1559-60), and also assumed control over the architectural work at the chateau, including garden design.
Other Mannerist artists from Italy who worked at the Chateau de Fontainebleau included the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) - noted for his Salt Cellar of Francis I (ebony and gold, 1540; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and Nymph of Fontainebleau (bronze, 1544, Louvre, Paris) - and Niccolo dell'Abate (1510-71), famous for his mythological landscapes. One of the top French painters of the day who worked at Fontainebleau was Antoine Caron (1521-99) - later the court painter to Henry II's wife Catherine de Medici - who went on to exemplify the style of the Valois court during the Wars of Religion (1562-98).
However, a significant amount of the art at Fontainebleau was created by unknown hands, including the famous painting Diana the Huntress (c.1550, Louvre). Its mythological narrative, elegant elongated forms, idyllic landscape, and air of contrived sophistication are entirely typical of the Fontainebleau School.
Portrait art remained an important genre during the era of the Fontainebleau School, although it was generally overshadowed by artistic developments at the chateau. Sixteenth century French portraiture was dominated by two painters, father and son. The father, Jean Clouet (d.1541), was probably of Netherlandish origin and was never a nationalized Frenchman. By 1509 he was well known in France and by 1516 was working for the royal court. Poems of the day compare him to the greatest Italian artists including the genius Michelangelo (1475-1564). Today only a handful of portraits can be attributed to him, one of which, a splendid likeness of Francis I, clearly shows his links with Flemish painting. Jean Clouet was succeeded as Court Painter by his son Francois (d.1572). He too is best known for his portrait paintings, which - unlike those of his father - show strong links with Italian and German Mannerism. Very different from his life-size full-length portrait of Charles IX is the so-called Lady in Her Bath (1550, National Gallery, Washington DC), generally identified as a portrait of Diane de Poitiers. Here the half-length nude figure is Leonardoesque in origin. It was a popular work and frequently copied.
Francis I's favourite residence, this former medieval hunting lodge had been used by the Kings of France since the 12th century. King Francis I, however, wanted to make it the focus of his vision of a new French Renaissance, based on the Italian model, with all the grandeur the term implies. Francis's Italianate transformation of the palace combined Renaissance architecture with French artistic traditions. The leading architects involved included Gilles Le Breton (1528-48), Philibert de l'Orme (c.1548 onwards), Primaticcio (1553 onwards).
It all began in 1528 when Francis I asked the architect Gilles Le Breton (d.1553) to begin transforming the hunting lodge of Fontainebleau into his ceremonial residence. Le Breton was responsible for the construction of the Porte Doree and the long gallery that connected the old medieval tower with the new buildings arranged at the end of the Cour du Cheval Blanc. Although Le Breton's style makes use of a predictable mixture of traditional forms and 'modern' elements, his use of what might be called Mannerist features seems coincidental.
Only with the arrival on the scene of Fiorentino and Primaticcio was there a radical change in the design process. From then on, the ongoing worksite at Fontainebleau, in which architecture, decoration, and furnishings were closely integrated, became one of the most creative and interesting centres of international Mannerism. The first phase of the 'Fontainebleau School' was really a period of Italian history transplanted to French soil: Rosso and Primaticcio enriched and renewed the formal repertory of the Roman school to create an entirely new harmony, with the perfect fusion of figural and decorative elements. (The Italian Mannerist architect Vignola (1507-73) also worked at the Chateau.) When, in 1541, Sebastiano Serlio, author of a famous treatise on art, was nominated Architecte Ordinaire, it marked a break with the rhythmic regularity and symmetry of the plans for the palace until then. The most purely classical citation in the chateau, the Porte Doree, presents superimposed loggias inserted amid wide pilasters, with a clear sign of Mannerism in the continuous sequence of the windows. As the house became more self-consciously artistic, the role of architect after Le Breton's death in 1553 was taken on by Primaticcio. In the 1560s, the Aile de la Belle Cheminee was completed, making use of a language that was by then totally French.
Attracted by the more luxurious way of living in Italy, French aristocrats re-modelled and enlarged their chateaux. The builders were still master stone masons with craftsman status. When in the 16th century Italian architects, notably Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) in 1540, came to France, the French Renaissance began in earnest. Serlio, who actually built very little, was influential mainly through his richly illustrated treatise on architecture, L'Architettura (1537-51). By the middle of the century professional architects, men of culture who understood the new ideas, began to replace the master masons. The two leaders were Pierre Lescot (c.1500-78), best known for his work at the Louvre in Paris, and Philibert de l'Orme (c.1510-70).
Pierre Lescot was commissioned by Francis I in 1546 to rebuild the Louvre Palace in Paris. Lescot's structure (a small part of today's huge building, which is now the southwestern part of the Cour Carree) incorporated a combination of traditional French elements and classical motifs which created a distinctive style of French classicism.
Philibert de l'Orme was the leading artistic personality of his day and shared the universality of the Italian Old Masters. Born at Lyons he spent three years in Rome. There he met the Cardinal du Bellay, who later introduced him to the circle of the Dauphin and Diane de Poitiers, who became his most distinguished and influential patrons. When the Dauphin became King Henry II, he made De l'Orme Superintendent of Buildings. After a brief fall from favour following Henry's death, during which time he wrote two works on architecture, he was reinstated and continued working for Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother. His best known work is the Chateau of Anet (1548-55) which he built for Diane de Poitiers. Most of the building has been destroyed but the entrance survives. Apart from the Doric columns on either side of the entrance, the building is entirely French in its massive simplicity, enlivened by the pierced balustrade at the top. Cellini's bronze nymph, now replaced by a plaster copy, adorns the tympanum.
Works by painters and sculptors of the Fontainebleau School can be seen in situ at the National Museum of the Chateau of Fontainebleau, in several of the other best art museums in France, and around the world.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY