Jean Pucelle
Biography of French Miniaturist Painter, Manuscript Illuminator.

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Belleville Breviary - a Gothic-style
illuminated manuscript by Pucelle.
(Paris National Library) An example of
Medieval manuscript illumination
from the Paris school.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Jean Pucelle in his
manuscript illuminations, see:
Renaissance Colour Palette.

Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334)

Jean (Jehan) Pucelle was one of the most influential Gothic art style book painters and best miniaturists in Paris of the early 14th century. Few details exist of his career, except that he built up a thriving and highly respected workshop whose artworks commanded high prices and dominated the market for both illuminated manuscripts, devotional religious art and miniature painting. A favourite of the French court, and the French nobility, his painting differed its progressive style of realism from the traditional "flat" icon painters of the time, and suggests that he had a good knowledge of contemporary developments in the Florentine Proto-Renaissance (c.1300 onwards), as well as the more conservative Siena School of painting, and Netherlandish praxis. Thus his style of Christian art may be seen as a bridge between the Gothic idiom and the new International Gothic style.

Being one of the great Medieval artists of his day, and the creator of some of the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts, Pucelle had no real successor until the emergence of the Limbourg Brothers - creators of the intricate illumination known as the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c.1413).


Note: The term "Illumination" commonly refers to the hand-painting of manuscripts - typically biblical - usually decorated with a range of motifs, historiated capitals, illustrated borders and vivid colours. Famous works in the history of illuminated manuscripts include the Book of Durrow (650-680), the Lindifarne Gospels (c.700), the Echternach Gospels (c.690-715) the Lichfield Gospels (c.730), and the Book of Kells (c.800). For details about how these books were created, see: Making of Illuminated Manuscripts.


Jean Pucelle is associated with three works of book illustration, of which two were collaborations: the Belleville Breviary and the Bible of Robert de Billyng (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris); the third, the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1328, Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum) was commissioned sometime between 1325 and 1328 by Charles IV for his wife Jeanne d'Evreux (Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The output from Pucelle's studio, however, was far greater than was formerly believed: it consisted mainly of books commissioned by rich patrons: The Breviary of Blanche of France, The Book of Hours of Jeanne of Savoy, The Psalter of Queen Bonne of Luxembourg, The Book of Hours of Jeanne II of Navarre and The Book of Hours of Yolande of Flanders.

It is interesting to note the similarity of style between Pucelle's painting and the translucent enamels decorating the base of the famous silver-gilt Virgin known as the Vierge de Jeanne d'Evreux (1339, Louvre). The Breviaire de Belleville and the Heures de Jeanne d'Evreux are the most characteristic of Pucelle's works and show him to be one of the foremost craftsmen of his day.

Painting Style

The most striking elements of Pucelle's style of French painting are the strength of his imagination and the freedom of his invention, both in his miniatures and in the marginal decorations. He fills these with grotesque figures full of exuberance and humour, which suggest an acquaintance with the 13th-century manuscripts of northern France and Flanders. Above all, he shows an awareness of the work of other Old Masters including Master Honore and his school; his concern for detail, the subtlety of his design, his careful study of anatomy and psychology - all reveal a strong Parisian influence. Moreover, Pucelle's technique surpassed that of his predecessors. In the Heures de Jeanne d'Evreux he used a black outline, dark stippling and light-red lines shaded with red chalk and vivid colours.

Italian Influence

His most important discovery, however, was tinting in grisaille enriched with colour, an innovation which, because of its greyish monochrome effect, permitted him to achieve an overall decorative unity on the page and to give a lively plasticity to his figures. The technique may have owed something to contemporary stained glass, or Pucelle may have known of the discoveries of Giotto (1267-1337). Whatever the case, Italian influence is apparent in both his iconography and his style: certain architectural details and structures, for example, are repeated. Some scenes even appear to be taken from the Maesta Altarpiece (1311, Siena Cathedral) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) and transposed into the French Gothic idiom. These new methods of creating illusion in painting by the use of perspective and chiaroscuro were much admired by Pucelle. He made an attempt to place his figures, sometimes rather clumsily and uncertainly, in three-dimensional settings resembling doll's house interiors, and to exaggerate their foreshortening.

Such new techniques would have been impossible without some knowledge of early Italian Renaissance art, and Pucelle may at some point have visited Italy. But gradually these Italian characteristics became less obvious. The manuscripts of Pucelle and his school show that the master and his most gifted pupils had assimilated even earlier stylistic elements to arrive at a rational, analytical, elegant and decorative synthesis which is wholly Parisian in its narrative ingenuity and naturalistic outlines, and which probed deeply into human experience.

Illuminations by Jean Pucelle are rare but can be seen in a few of the best art museums in Europe and America.

Note: Other important painters associated with the Late Gothic style, were: Ugolino di Nerio (active 1317-27), Simone Martini (1285-1344) Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Robert Campin (1378-1444); Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411), Masolino (1383-1440), Jacquemart de Hesdin (fl.1384-1409), Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (c.1395-1450), Pisanello (1394-1455), Stefan Lochner (1400-51) and Jean Fouquet (1425-80) - see his extraordinary Melun Diptych, a blend of French and Italian painting.

Revival of the Arts in Europe

For a guide to how European fine art recovered, after the Dark Ages, under Charlemagne, Otto the Great, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald, see: Carolingian Art (750-900); Ottonian Art (900-1050); and Romanesque Art (1000-1200).

• For more about 14th century miniature painting in France, see: History of Art.
• For details of manuscript illumination, see: Homepage.

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