Neither the place nor the date of François Clouet's birth is documented. It is generally agreed that he was born before 1520, most likely in Tours where his parents were recorded as living from at least 1521 until 1525/1527. In the marriage contract of his sister Catherine, dated March 13, 1545, François declared himself to be at least twenty-five years old and living on the rue Saint-Avoye in Paris. His father, Jean Clouet (1485-1540/1541), was court portraitist and was almost certainly François' first teacher. The elder Clouet was often cited in the diminutive as "Jehannet" or "Janet," and François used this latter term on his two signed paintings.
François Clouet is first documented in 1540 when he appears in the royal account books as "paintre et varlet de chambre." In an important document signed by François I and dated to November 1541, François formally inherited his father's estate, an action that may have been necessary because Jean Clouet was not a French citizen. The king praised both artists and observed that the son imitated the father very well. This document has caused some critics to set François' birth date around 1510, because in terms of experience and for legal reasons he would have to have been at least thirty years old.
Clouet was painter and valet de chambre to four successive French monarchs: François I (r. 1515-1547), Henri II (r. 1547-1559), François II (r. 1559-1560), and Charles IX (r. 1560-1574). There are no autograph extant paintings that can be associated with documents. Written sources do indicate that in addition to making paintings, his duties included producing coats-of-arms and ornamental gilding. In 1547 and again in 1559, he was involved in making death masks and fabricating decorations for the funeral ceremonies of François I and Henri II, respectively.
Clouet is mentioned in a variety of documents from 1550 onward. On September 11, 1553, and December 17, 1556, he entered into agreements to take on apprentices for several years; both men, ages fourteen and fifteen, were the sons of Parisian artists. In 1559 Clouet was made contrôleur general de la monnaie, but there are no indications of continued activity in this position. On at least one occasion Clouet worked outside the court, for in 1568 he is recorded as receiving 450 livres a year from Claude Gouffier and his wife, Claude de Beaune.
On September 21,1572, Clouet made his will. He died the following day. The artist was unmarried, but in his will he provided equal amounts of money for his illegitimate daughters, Dianne and Lucrèce (who were probably twins) and his sister Catherine. Catherine contested the will, claiming all the money for herself. The matter was not resolved until 1584, when the Parlement de Paris ruled in favor of the daughters.
Two paintings provide the starting point for reconstituting Clouet's oeuvre. The portrait of Pierre Quthe (Paris, Musée du Louvre) is signed "Fr. Janetii" and dated 1562. Quthe (1519-c. 1588) was an apothecary who lived on the rue Saint-Avoye, not far from Clouet, and is described in the inscription as "amico singulari." The second work is the National Gallery of Art's A Lady in Her Bath (1961.9.13), which is signed but not dated. To these may be added a full-length portrait of Charles IX (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). An inscription identifies the sitter as twenty years old and painted from life by "Iannet," but since Charles was born in 1550 the date of 1563 on the picture is either an alteration from 1569 or a later addition.
A small group of unsigned paintings generally is accepted as by François Clouet and includes the full-length portrait of Henri II (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), probably 1559, and the portrait of Elizabeth of Austria (Paris, Musée du Louvre), datable to 1571. A depiction of the Bath of Diana (Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts) is often considered an allegorical representation of Diane de Poitiers and Henri II and dated c. 1550/1559.
Approximately fifty chalk portrait drawings have been attributed to Clouet. Most are housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, the Musée Condé, Chantilly, or the British Museum, London. Because of variations in style, costume, and estimated age of the sitter, the drawings evidently were produced over several decades beginning around 1540.
Numerous paintings assigned to Clouet's workshop or to copyists testify to the demand for portraits of the monarchy and the nobility. Some of these works are partial copies, replicas, and reductions of known compositions. The Musée du Louvre, for example, has workshop reductions of the full-length portraits of Charles IX in Vienna and Henri II in Florence.
There is no recent or authoritative monograph on François Clouet, and since much of the basic scholarship on the artist dates to the 1920s, a serious reexamination of the documents and the paintings would be welcome. Obviously, a primary influence on François was the training and the example of his father, Jean Clouet. The dividing line between them is not always clear; in his 1971 monograph on Jean Clouet, Peter Mellen observed that certain drawings from around 1540 might be assigned to father or son. On the other hand, Charles Sterling's proposal that the portrait of François I (Paris, Musée du Louvre) represents a collaboration between Jean and François is rejected by Mellen but accepted by others. While the combination of Netherlandish and Italian influences seen in François' work already occurs in that of Jean, there are additional influences from Bronzino, Salviati, and Titian, as well as from the indigenous School of Fontainebleau. There is no indication that François traveled to Italy, but there would have been ample opportunity to see Italian art in France.
During his lifetime François Clouet was extravagantly praised by such writers as Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), poet and member of the Pléiade. Not long after his death, however, knowledge of the artist was obscured and the works of both father and son were subsumed and lumped together under the name of "Janet." It was not until 1850 that the comte de Laborde rehabilitated and differentiated the work of Jean and François Clouet. Since then François has taken his place as one of the greatest French artists of the sixteenth century whose works are in the mainstream of international mannerism. The portrait style and types created by the Clouets were dominant throughout the second half of the sixteenth century.
[John Oliver Hand, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 113-114.]
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 113-114.