Renaissance to Revolution
French Drawings from the National Gallery of Art, 1500–1800
Much of early French draftsmanship is associated with the medieval tradition of book illumination and the production of miniatures on vellum for luxury manuscripts. It was not until paper mills sprang up around Europe in the fifteenth century and paper became both plentiful and cheap that drawing and sketching became regular activities for artists. This biblical scene is one of the earliest French drawings on paper by a known artist. Closely connected to the French court and its queen, Anne de Bretagne, Poyet likely drew this delicate work for a manuscript of stories from the Old Testament. Here three men crown Solomon, youngest son of the ailing King David, as the new king of Israel.
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Cellini was one of several Italian artists who came to work in France during the rule of François I (reigned 1515–1547). According to the Italian inscription at lower right, this imposing figure was intended to be cast in bronze, more than twice life-size, for the grand new entrance to the château at Fontainebleau, the king's favorite residence. Work on the project began in 1542 but was left incomplete when Cellini returned to Italy in 1545. He probably made this drawing as a portable record of the full-scale model, finished before his departure but never cast.
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Cousin was the leading French-born proponent of the highly inventive mannered style that flourished in Fontainebleau and Paris in the mid-sixteenth century. The extravagant ornament that covers every surface of this helmet is typical of Fontainebleau designs—in particular, details such as the interlaced strapwork, swags of fruit, and a host of mythological figures. The intricate decoration suggests the finished helmet would have been worn only on ceremonial occasions by a member of the royal family or a wealthy nobleman.
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Creusa, wife of the ancient Trojan hero Aeneas, died in the conflagration of Troy after the city was attacked by the Greeks. According to Virgil's Aeneid, before she disappeared amid the chaos of war, Creusa wrapped up the household idols for her father-in-law Anchises so that he might carry them to safety. This sketch of her with the bundle was made as a study for a painting of Aeneas and his family preparing to flee their home.
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Shortly after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary brought the newborn to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to God. They were greeted by Simeon, a just and devout man who took the baby in his arms and recognized him as the Messiah (Luke 2:25–2:35). The statuelike figures in ancient draperies and the linear architectural setting in this drawing reflect a classicizing style known as "Parisian Atticism" (for Attica, a region of Greece) that evolved in France during the 1640s.
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Claude spent his entire career in Rome, where he perfected an influential form of landscape painting based on close observation of the Italian countryside but ennobled with the spirit of classical antiquity. The scene here includes many of the elements found in the idealized landscapes for which he is famous: lush trees in full leaf, the remains of an ancient temple, goatherds and their charges, and a horizon luminous with the fading light of day.
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As a draftsman, Watteau is best known for his brilliant use of the trois-crayons (three chalks) drawing technique shown here, in which he combined red, black, and white chalks to render figures of extraordinary richness and beauty. He was not the first to use this technique, but he is generally regarded as its greatest practitioner.
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This design for a ceiling decoration—never executed—belongs to a long tradition in France of extolling the kings' virtues and accomplishments by likening them to the gods of antiquity. Here Boucher shows the modern Apollo—Louis XV—as the morning sun in his chariot bringing enlightenment to the world. Next to him, the goddess Aurora scatters flowers to announce his arrival.
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Pastel portraiture became fashionable in the first half of the eighteenth century, led in large part by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, who was renowned for the remarkable spirit of his likenesses and his exceptional sense of color. The artist depicted here, Claude Dupouch, was La Tour's master.
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This kind of rapid oil sketch on paper was highly regarded in the eighteenth century for the brilliance and immediacy of the execution and for the swift, unstudied way it expresses a moment of inspiration.
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The original frame for this painting bore the title "What does not poverty compel one to do?" In accordance with that theme, a modest young woman has been posing nude to earn her bread and is overcome by shame at her circumstances. Highly finished gouaches like this, which have the appearance of miniature paintings, were very popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. Baudouin was one of the acknowledged masters of the medium.
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The gardens of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, a small town in the hills outside of Rome, had been designed in the 1560s. By the end of the seventeenth century they had fallen into neglect and had reverted to a half-tamed wilderness that held special appeal for the young artists at the French Academy in Rome. The Oval Fountain was one of the many water features for which the gardens were known.
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When he was a young art student in Rome, Fragonard spent some weeks at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli during the summer of 1760 and made an important series of red chalk drawings in the gardens. By rights, however, those drawings belonged to the patron who paid for the trip. In order to keep some of the images for himself, Fragonard took counterproofs of them by passing each drawing through a press together with another sheet of moistened paper. In this way he created single prints of the original drawings, in reverse, which he could then enhance and alter later on with brown ink and wash, as he did here.
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This is a preparatory study for the title figure in Greuze's painting The Well-Loved Mother (private collection, Madrid), in which the mother of a large family is both pleased and overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attentions of her adoring children. When the drawing was exhibited in 1765, it was praised by the critic Denis Diderot for its fidelity to nature and the "almost incredible gradations of tone in the forehead, and from the forehead to the cheeks, and from the cheeks to the throat."
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Vincent perfected his use of the wash drawing technique under the guidance of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who visited Rome when Vincent was a student at the French Academy there in 1774. The two artists are known to have worked together during Fragonard's visit, and Vincent apparently learned his lessons so well that until recently a number of his unsigned wash drawings were mistaken for the work of the older master.
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Labille-Guiard was one of the few women in the eighteenth century who managed, against considerable odds, to carve out a successful career and a lasting reputation as an artist.
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Boullée was a visionary architect who exerted a profound influence on the course of French architecture, even though few of his structures were built. An inspired teacher and theorist, he aligned himself with the neoclassical movement that dominated French aesthetics in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Neoclassical artists and architects rejected the exuberant ornamentation of the rococo style in favor of an austere eloquence and clarity of line inspired by ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and ruins. Boullée's striking design for a monumental church is marked by symmetry, harmonious proportions, and a beautifully ordered interior. The magnificence of the space was meant to enhance the spirit of exaltation aroused during a religious ceremony. Cloud-borne hosts hovering inside the dome add an unexpected touch of whimsy.
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