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Seventeenth-Century French Painting

We look slightly down onto a group of people gathered along the bank of a river that winds around a copse of tall trees to our left, past a hill to our right, and into the deep distance in this horizontal landscape painting. The horizon line comes about a third of the way up the painting. More than a dozen people gather to converse in pairs or trios, or work loading a ship in the lower right corner of the composition. Most of the people seem to be men, except for two women who stand near a man who gestures to our left at the lower center of the painting. The people we can see have light or tanned skin. The men loading the boat to our right wear pants and shirts in navy blue, gray, tan, or crimson red. Men wearing hats and capes over suits near the lower center, and the women wear clothing in olive green, butter yellow, petal pink, coral red, or gray. Goods are strewn along the riverbank closest to us, including potted flowering plants to our left, a jumble of chairs, tables, and musical instruments nearby, and collections of wooden barrels to our right and in the lower left corner. Two more boats are moored at the shore in front of the grove of tall, dark green, leafy trees that take up the left third of the composition. The sage-green surface of the river curves to our right, to a tree-covered hill with a watermill at its base. A stone structure with a large, central, round tower sits along the top of that hill. The river continues to wind into the deep distance, where towns nestle along the bases of rolling, slate-blue mountains along the horizon. The sky above is pale yellow along the horizon and deepens to pale blue above. Smoke-gray clouds sweeping in from the right are lit bright cream-white where the sun catches the edges. The artist signed and dated the painting as if he had written his name on the side of the boat in the lower left corner, though the inscription appears to be incomplete: “CLAVDIO o I Vo 16 9 OM.”


The pictures on this tour date from about 1626 to 1653. Leading French painters of the period traveled to Rome, where they were influenced by contemporary Italian artists as well as High Renaissance masters and classical antiquity. In this age of the absolute monarchs Louis XIII and Louis XIV, French tastes stressed rationality, order, and idealization rather than realism or natural life. Such discipline led to the establishment, in 1648, of a royal art academy in Paris.

Claude Lorrain, French, 1604/1605 - 1682, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1629, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.44

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Nine women and girls create a procession leading to a blond, smiling infant lying in a basket being held by a man next to a riverbank that runs across this horizontal landscape painting. The tallest woman, near the center of the retinue, wears a gold, crown-like diadem, and a toga-like gown of golden yellow over a pale, slate-blue, short-sleeved dress. She stands facing our left in profile, and looks toward the baby with dark eyes under dark, arched eyebrows. Her nose is long and straight, her pink lips are closed in a faint smile, and she has a rounded chin and jawline. Her wavy, dark blond hair is braided and pulled back, and she wears a gold earring on the ear we can see. She reaches her right arm, farther from us, straight in front of her with her palm facing the ground. Three women and three girls trail behind her in a row to our right. They wear brightly colored wraps and robes in rose pink, topaz or cobalt blue, plum purple, butter yellow, or ivory white. Most look toward the baby but the girl at the back offers the woman in front of her a tiny bouquet of flowers. Two women to our left of the standing woman stoop to reach out to the basket, held by a muscular, bare-chested, bearded man. Gray, stone blocks of a wall create steps to our left and behind it, a younger, cleanshaven man, also bare-chested, and with shoulder-length, strawberry-blond hair, reaches for his marigold-orange clothing. Trees lining the far riverbank and the brilliant blue sky with steel-gray clouds are reflected in the water’s surface. Across the river to our left, beyond a ruined stone abutment, a man in a red toga, and one in yellow, look on. More people work along the opposite bank. A city built of light gray stone stretches into the deep distance beyond.

Bourdon, one of the twelve founding members of the French art academy, had spent the years 1634-1637 studying in Rome. In 1652-1654 he served as court painter to Queen Christina of Sweden. An extremely eclectic artist, Bourdon borrowed motifs and styles from a wide variety of sources and at least once sold one of his own landscapes as a work by Claude Lorrain.

Seeking to provide an accurate setting in biblical Egypt, Bourdon included palm trees in the fanciful landscape. He adapted a few elements from two different treatments of this subject by Poussin. The composition, though, is more severely geometric than any of Poussin's works. Pharaoh's daughter and her retinue of handmaidens, for instance, are grouped into the silhouette of a perfect square. Moreover, the translucent colors are unique to Bourdon and foretell the pastel hues of early eighteenth-century art.

Sébastien Bourdon, French, 1616 - 1671, The Finding of Moses, c. 1655/1660, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.65

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Shown from the hips up, a woman with pale skin, wearing a sapphire-blue gown, looks over her left shoulder at us in this vertical portrait painting. Her body faces our left in profile, and she looks at us from the corners of her large, hooded, gray eyes. She has an oval face with a straight nose, rosy cheeks, and her full, pink lips are closed. Wisps of brown hair fall across her forehead, and her face and neck are framed by a cloud of soft curls tied with a royal-blue bow over the ear on the side we can see. Around her neck is a cream-white pearl choker necklace. Her low-cut bodice is lined with transparent parchment-white fabric, which she holds at her chest with her right hand, farther from us. We see one blousy sleeve of her blue, satin dress, and the sleeve is tied at the elbow. Equally blousy white sleeves cover her forearms. With her left hand, closer to us, she holds a wreath of orange, pale blue, deep pink, and white flowers down by her waist. She is lit from the upper left, and the background behind her is dark in shadow. A patterned curtain hangs along the left edge of the painting.

While at Stockholm, Bourdon painted Ebba Sparre (1626-1662), a lady-in-waiting to and intimate companion of Sweden's Queen Christina. The animated portrayal of the countess and the bold lighting derive from portraits by the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck.

Sébastien Bourdon, French, 1616 - 1671, Countess Ebba Sparre, 1652/1653, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.34

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Champaigne, the only artist represented in this tour who never visited Italy, was born and trained in Brussels. Arriving in Paris in 1621, he adapted the French decorative style but retained his Flemish realism and interest in minute details. A founder of the academy in France, by the 1640s Champaigne converted to Jansenism, a particularly severe branch of Catholicism, and his subsequent works reveal an ascetic tendency toward grays and browns.

Omer Talon (1595–1652), a liberal attorney general of the French parliament, fought against the tyranny of Louis XIV's ministers. The somber tonality of judicial robes in blood red and ash black typifies Champaigne's later work. The artist's Flemish heritage explains the candid face with its stern gaze and the attention to detailed textures, but French influence accounts for the formal composition, such as the open robe creating a diagonal line that rises toward the head.

Philippe de Champaigne, French, 1602 - 1674, Omer Talon, 1649, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.35

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Three women, one man, and a winged child gather near a cave opening within a vast, distant landscape in this horizontal painting. The people are small in scale, taking up the lower left quadrant of the composition, and all have pale skin. Near the lower left corner, the man sits on a rock with his back mostly to us, so we see him in profile. Red cloth drapes around his hips and legs, and his chest and arms are bare. He braces a long staff in his far hand, and raises his right hand, closer to us, and points at the women. He is cleanshaven with a straight nose, closed lips, and brown, shoulder-length hair. To our right, two women stand and one sits on a cloth-covered rock. All three have brown hair that has been pulled back. They also have straight noses, and their lips are parted. The woman at the center of this trio wears a coral-red dress under lapis-blue cloth that drapes across her legs and is held in one hand. Smoke-blue fabric billows behind her. She stands with her body angled to our left, and she looks down at the man in profile. The back of one hand, to our right, rests near that hip, holding the fabric, and she points up with the index finger of her other hand. A peacock with its tail fanned open stands next to her, to our left. The other two women are nude except for a white cloth that partially covers the soft, rounded contours of their bodies. To our left of the peacock and close to it, the second woman holds her drapery so it covers her breasts and her groin. Her body faces us, and she turns her face to look at the central woman. A nude, winged child holding an arrow stands between her and the man. A blue ribbon across the child’s chest holds a quiver of arrows on his back. The third woman is to our right, sitting on a rock draped with a goldenrod-yellow cloth. A white cloth covers her hips, and she leans forward, touching her sandal. A long lance rests under the yellow cloth, and a metal helmet with a red feather sits next to the rock. Six sheep lie or graze along the grassy ground, closer to us. The rocky outcropping with the cave opening rises steeply along the left edge of the composition. A waterfall is tucked into shadows just beyond the cave, and tall trees enclose the left half of the scene. Nearly reaching the top of the canvas, the cluster of trees near the center have dark green canopies. A rocky bank is shown nearly in silhouette in the lower right corner, in front of a deep landscape with a body of water winding through low, marshy areas and a flat-topped formation. Mountains are hazy purple in the deep distance. The horizon comes about halfway up the composition, and the sky above has mauve-pink and lavender-gray clouds sweeping across a vivid blue sky.

The foremost landscape painter of the seventeenth century, Claude Gellée took the name Lorrain from his birthplace in the French-speaking duchy of Lorraine. After he arrived in Rome in 1613, the artist refined the exacting technique for blending translucent layers of oil paints in order to convey subtle atmospheric effects. Infused with the pastoral beauty of the Roman countryside, his harmonious landscapes -- classically designed and yet romantic in feeling -- had an enormous impact on later European attitudes toward nature as an ideal paradise.

Paris, a shepherd prince of ancient Troy, was called on to judge the most beautiful of three goddesses. The rival contestants, however, attempted to bribe him. Juno, queen of the Olympian deities who is attended by her regal peacock, promises Paris a great empire. Minerva, goddess of warfare with helmet and spear, waits to offer him victory in battle. Venus, goddess of love accompanied by her son Cupid, won the contest by proposing the most desirable woman as Paris' reward. With Venus' help he abducted a Greek beauty -- soon to be known as Helen of Troy -- and thereby started the Trojan War. In the distance is the citadel of Troy, behind which a setting sun may allude to the city's impending doom. Paris and Minerva, seated in opposite and symmetrical poses, enclose the standing goddesses, while the middle grove of trees divides the design in half. In a final adjustment, Claude moved one of the two sheep in the lower center; its original position, slightly farther up, can be detected. (Such alterations are called "pentimenti.")

Claude Lorrain, French, 1604/1605 - 1682, The Judgment of Paris, 1645/1646, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1969.1.1

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A woman floats among billowing clouds over a rectangular stone coffin in this vertical painting. Ten nude, baby-like putti support her body, float alongside her, or scatter flowers, while more winged baby heads are tucked among the parchment-brown clouds. The woman and all the babies have pale, peachy skin. The woman rises with her body facing our left, almost in profile. She looks up with dark eyes so we see the underside of her straight nose, and her coral-pink lips are parted. Her chestnut-brown hair is pulled back, and a scarf of the same color wraps across her shoulders. Her rose-pink dress is belted under her bust. It has puffy long sleeves, and the bottom hem flutters around her bare feet. Her lower torso and legs are wrapped with a voluminous, azure-blue cloak. She reaches her hands slightly forward, palms facing up. All the babyish putti have short blond or light brown hair, chubby bodies, and rosy cheeks. Four hold up or support the woman's legs, and many of them reach, point, or look upward. Another floats near her right arm, farther from us. Below, a white cloth is bunched and draped over the side of the stone coffin closer to us. Three child-like putti scatter white flowers into the coffin, and more are on the ground around it. Two of those putti have wings, one in golden yellow and the other slate blue. The clouds around the woman seem to emanate from behind the coffin to swirl up and around her. Two more putti hold up the clouds along the top edge of the composition. The scene is flanked to either side by peanut-brown, fluted stone columns, which extend off the top edge of the composition. The sky beyond is streaked with apricot peach near the horizon and shifts to topaz blue above.

Poussin, among the most important of all European painters, worked in France and traveled through Venice before reaching Rome in 1624. Shortly thereafter, he began seeking rigorously composed interpretations of philosophical themes. Except for a royal summons to return to Paris in 1640-1642, Poussin remained in Rome. By staying in Italy, France's two leading seventeenth-century artists, Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who sometimes sketched together in the country, did not join the royal art academy in Paris.

The scene celebrates the Christian belief that after Mary's death her body was raised from her tomb into heaven. Executed about two years after Poussin's arrival in Rome, this canvas is among his first known paintings. In contrast to the severity of the artist's later classical works, a joyful exuberance emanates from the billowing clouds, swirling draperies, and flying cherubs. This dynamic movement, off-center composition, and rich color come directly from Poussin's knowledge of Venetian Renaissance painting and of Titian in particular.

Nicolas Poussin, French, 1594 - 1665, The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1630/1632, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1963.5.1

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According to Roman mythology, the infant Jupiter was concealed from his murderous father on the island of Crete. The princess Amalthea uses a goat's horn, or cornucopia, to give him milk to drink, while her sister Melissa holds a honeycomb for him to eat. Thus nurtured in secret, Jupiter grew to manhood and overthrew his father to become king of the Olympian deities. In the otherwise muted color scheme, the princess holding Jupiter wears pure yellow and blue, attracting attention to the main character. Poussin's coherent compositions and lucid color contrasts were in accord with a belief that painting, like mathematics, was governed by absolute logic. To obtain these calculated effects, Poussin often constructed a theatrical shadow box which, filled with movable wax manikins, served as a model for his final picture.

Follower of Nicolas Poussin, Nymphs Feeding the Child Jupiter, c. 1650, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.21

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Twelve people and one child stand, sit, or kneel along a riverbank in this horizontal painting. All the people have pale or tanned skin, and are muscular. They are in various stages of undress, wearing robes of golden yellow, ruby red, petal pink, azure blue, or cream white. To our right of center, a man, Jesus, stands facing us with his arms crossed over his chest. He wears a blue robe wrapped loosely across his shoulders and across his hips. He looks down, his blond hair falling alongside his face, as another man, wearing red, pours water from a shallow dish onto his head. A white dove flies with wings spread overhead. To our right of Jesus, one kneeling person wearing white holds up Jesus’s blue robes and another looks on, wearing a sage green robe and holding a voluminous rose-pink cloth. To our left, a group of five men react by throwing up hands, pointing upward, or looking up. One man with a gray beard and hair stands and bows his head over praying hands. A young boy wraps the arm we can see across the praying man's hips. Three more men to the left of this group pause as they undress to look toward Jesus. All the men stand or sit among puddles as a river spans the width of the painting behind the group and winds into the distance to our right. At the center of the composition, three men stand or recline on a grassy mound on the far side of the river. Tucked under trees at the peak of the mound, a smudge of white could be another kneeling person. Two more people walk along a path that crests the mound to our left. Mountains in the distance are slate blue beneath a vivid blue sky streaked with white clouds.

This canvas, from a series of the Seven Sacraments, was commissioned by Cassiano dal Pozzo, an influential Roman patron. Although the six other pictures were painted in Rome, the Baptism was completed in Paris after Poussin had been called to the French court. Now dispersed, the set formed the first instance in Christian art in which the sacraments were depicted in separate paintings. The exact center of the austere design is occupied by a bearded man who points upward, indicating the divine voice, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." The tallest tree in the landscape stands behind John the Baptist, accenting him, while Jesus bows his head beneath the hovering dove of the Holy Spirit.

Nicolas Poussin, French, 1594 - 1665, The Baptism of Christ, 1641/1642, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.14

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Two pale-skinned women wearing jewel-toned blue, pink, and yellow togas sit on the ground at the foot of a stone building, with three, winged, child-like putti flying nearby in this horizontal painting. The women take up most of the left half of the painting while the building behind them spans nearly three-quarters of the composition. A sliver of landscape is visible beyond the building to our right. Both women have dark, ash-brown hair wrapped back around diadems, long, straight noses, dark eyes, and smooth skin. Their cheeks are flushed, and their dark pink lips are parted. To our left, the first woman sits with her body facing our right in profile, and she turns to look at us from the corners of her eyes. Six silver stars line the sky-blue diadem in her hair. Her voluminous white shift falls off the shoulder closer to us, and she wears a swath of sapphire-blue drapery over her other arm and lap. One foot, wearing a yellow sandal, emerges from under the hem of her robe. She leans the elbow closer to us on a silver sphere, which comes a bit higher than her waist. Her other hand rests on the shoulder of the woman next to her. The second woman sits with her legs angled to our right, and she turns her face back to look at the first woman. She wears a butter-yellow garment under a rose-pink toga, and one foot, wearing a blue sandal, rests on the dirt ground. A baby-blue ribbon is tied through her hair, around a gold coronet. Her hands rest on a book in her lap. The partial word “odiss” is written along the edges of the pages facing us. Three pudgy angels with small blue wings flutter near the second woman, to our right. The putti have short, brown or blond, curly hair. Sashes in golden yellow, pink, or blue are tied around one shoulder and their opposite hips. They hold up three crowns of leaves. The building immediately behind the women and putti is parchment white streaked with brown. A tall foundation supports two columns, the base of which are near the top edge of the painting. A few plants grow out of the crevices, and a bush with white and light blue flowers grows behind the woman in blue, to our left. A landscape extends into the distance to our right, with rolling green hills, trees, and far-off, ice-blue mountains along the horizon. The sky above has apricot-peach and gray clouds against a pale blue sky.

Precocious and widely traveled, Vouet already had worked in London, Constantinople, and Venice before reaching Rome in 1614. Louis XIII summoned him back to Paris in 1627 to become chief court artist. Training many French painters, Vouet exercised his power by brashly setting up a rival institution to the royal academy of art.

Resting beside a temple to Apollo, the god of creativity, two muses personify aspects of human knowledge. Urania, the muse of astronomy, wears a diadem of stars and leans against a celestial globe. The patroness of epic poetry and history, Calliope is crowned with gold and holds a volume of Homer's Odyssey. Winged infants or putti carry trophies of achievement - Apollo's laurel wreaths. The viewpoint from below suggests that this work was meant to be installed high up in a wall. The wooden panel probably graced a private library, honoring the goddesses of the arts and sciences.

Simon Vouet's earlier Roman manner differs greatly from the restrained taste he adopted in France. His Saint Jerome and the Angel, painted ten to twelve years before this picture of muses, is also part of the Gallery's collection. His Roman phase, with its vigorous naturalism and dramatic spotlighting -- influenced by Caravaggio -- contrasts with his mature, courtly style that emphasized idealized forms and soft illumination.

Simon Vouet, French, 1590 - 1649, The Muses Urania and Calliope, c. 1634 oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.61

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