Fontainebleau School №1

To say about this painting that hangs in the Louvre something more intelligible than just “some naked woman with a mirror sits in the center, surrounded by other naked figures”, I have to tell a rather long story about – an art direction? a style? a group of artists? – in short, about the School of Fontainebleau (further on, SoF),

The SoF was not a self-description, none artists whom we now assign to this ‘movement’  would described himself in this way. I do not know who exactly coined this term, my feeling that this is an invention of early 19th century. Over time the term, or rather the phenomenon behind it, got wrapped into all sorts of misinterpretations and confusions, and by now refers to a bag of diverse and often incompatible things. I don’t have any intentions to sort out all the mess that surround this concept, but need to clarify at least a few basic things, to be able to comment on a few paintings with mirrors that are attributed to the SoF.   

These days Google Image Search provides a pretty accurate representation of any phenomena in public mind: and if follow this method, that SoF №1 would be seen today as something like this:

Apart from a large number of the works with mirrors (I encircled them), we also see that the works of this school is very, well, ‘exposed’; there is unusually high proportion of naked women in these paintings, compared to many other art schools.

Moreover, this GIS selection is dominated by one particular work, controversially beautiful La Belle Gabrielle (with her supposed sister) (in green frame in my collage). I wrote about this enigmatic painting, in fact, already long ago, before even my engagement with all these mirror things. The story was not so much about the mirror in this work, but of the work itself, and its enigma (and its apparent resolution).  It’s still an interesting story, but I’d need to seriously edit that posting and elaborate more its mirror, to include it in this blog.

Interestingly enough, the second (red) and third (yellow) place in this ‘mind share’ are also occupied by the paintings with mirrors in them.

My story today will be eventually about the first work, Venus with a Mirror (marked red in my scheme), but before to tell it, I will need a short introduction in the SF N1 and its origin.  The second painting will have to wait even more, until I will manage to write about the second wave of the school (by the way, Gabrielle also belongs to the second wave, what I call SoF №2). 

As often happens with my stories, I will have to start quite far away, from the general  geopolitical situation at this time (16th century) and in this place (what we now call Western Europe). To begin with, I will throw a very strong thesis about French art of XVI century; the thesis is that, basically, it didn’t exist.

I’m talking here about “visual art”, even in a more narrow sense, of what we call ‘paintings’ today (although back then they could take form of church altars, for example). Some forms of visual art (for instance, production of illuminated manuscripts) was apparently very advanced (illuminators of Dijon and Avignon had been considered among the best in Europe).

An average person usually easily recalls the names of Italian, Spanish or Flemish masers of that period  (end of 15th – beginning of 16th century), but most likely will have troubles to remember any big names of the French painters.

I found this map, of ‘creative tours’ of various masters of this period (they fact travelled from one location to another pretty often, to both study and do commissioned works); it looks like the painters migrated along the “art triangle” (or “art square”) of Spain, Flanders, Germany, and Italy, leaving the void in the place of modern-day France.

I don’t know exactly why it happened that way; or rather I know too many versions, each too long to elaborate on here, and besides it would move too far from the main thread.

But I would like to show just one example. Or rather two, the two ost famous portraits of Francis I, King of France from 1515 to 1547 years.

The first is painted by Jean Clouet around 1533, the second, in 1530 by Joos van Cleve.

Van Cleve is a famous master from Antwerp, but he actually emigrated there from Germany. And Clouet – despite his French-sounding name – was also a foreigners, he came from Flanders.

His real name was, most likely, something like Jan Klovet, or Klavet, and the style of his works indicates that he was trained in one of the guilds of Ghent, Leuven or the same Antwerp as Van Cleve). At at some point he was invited (summoned?) to the court of Francis to do some commissions  and eventually became the court painter. It basically means that there was no local masters good enough to make the paintings of the kings and his noblemen, so they had to import the representatives of creative class from other lands to do the job.

In this case these lands happened to the the neighboring Flanders, but the most advanced art of those times was produced mainly in Italy (a small remark here that when I talk about ‘France’ or ‘Italy’ we need to undersand that those were not modern nation-states, but rather complex aggregates of small kingdoms, duchies, cities and so on).

I don’t think that the desire to bring more advanced art to from Italy to France was the main reason of the half-a-century long military conflict between these two (and may other) countries, known as the Italian Wars (sometimes also called Renaissance Wars). But massive redirection of the art flows was one of its major consequences.

Life trajectory of Leonardo da Vinci manifests most vividly these new developments, when one of the most famous artist and scientists of its time had to accept the royal invitation by Francis I to move to France in 1516. Leonardo was 62 by then; he will die three years later in château Clos Lucé, allegedly with the king accepting his last breath (at least it’s what Ingres is trying to make us believe in):

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – Francis I receiving the last breath of Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 (1818)

Some other, equally brilliant masters – Michelangelo, Raphael – had been also invited,  but managed to evade the invitation. Here again it is necessary to add that these ‘invitations’ frequently were often not so voluntary; it was not, of course, a case of hostage or enslavement of some sort, but still, too many artists went to France as a result of complex negotiations between the authorities, and often as a condition of  truce deals.

The fall of Rome in 1527 is of course is one of the most pivotal moment in this story (the fall in the hands (and swords and spears) of the Spanish army, it should be noted, not the French one). It so happened that at that moment Rome (together with the Papal power in it) was in alliance with France against the Emperor Charles V (and therefore, against Spain, but also Flanders and all other members of the Holy Roman Empire).

The city was completely ravaged and mercilessly looted (see Sacco di Roma for details), and as a result the major part of its ‘creative class’, so to speak, fled the area. Many of them relocated to other Italian (mostly Northern) cities, but some ventured to move even further North.

The was the case of Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, better known as Rosso (=red-haired) Fiorentino.  In many senses the very origin of the School of Fontainebleau (at least its first wave) is connected to this name.

As his nickname suggests, Giovanni Battista was from Florence (and apparently he was indeed a red-haired guy – which lead some critics to believe that one of his earlier works, “Portrait of a Young Man”, is in fact a self-portrait):

Portrait of a Young Man (1517)

Giovanni was born in 1494, i.e., by the time this work was created he was about 23 years old. Looks plausible, yet the size of the work suggests that it was already commissioned portrait (of yet unknown patron).

The color of his own hair is perhaps of less importance for us that the color (or color palette and general style) of his paintings (although there’s perhaps a connection between these two variables.) It is important that as an artist he was shaped in Florence (he moved to Rome only in 1523, when he was almost 30 years old, being already quite a famous master by then).

But before I will show his works (before and after Rome), I would like to quickly show the works of another master, his contemporary, co-learner, and, most likely, a friend too – Jacopo Carucci, also better known by his nickname, Pontormo.

Similar to Fiorentino, Pontormo also started with a totally realistic works. Here is his early “Portrait of the Musician” (I am not sure, however, that this is a very accurate color reproduction, but that’s what I have):

Portrait of a Musician (1518)

And here is the portrait of Cosimo de’Medici, made two years later:

Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder (1520)

Madonna with the Child Jesus and Saint John the Baptist, of about same time:

These are all nice works; not superb, perhaps, but really good.

But then how on earth we get this feast of colors and shapes? Only a year later?

Madonna and Child with young St. John the Baptist (1524)

Virgin Mary and Child (1526)

Madonna and Child with St Joseph and Saint John the Baptist (1527)

These are all the examples of fundamentally different degree of stylization (or de-formation, as it would be called by Botero). What is even more amazing that this radical shift occurred quickly.

I bumped into a few of the Pontormo’s work last year, in the Uffizi Gallery. To be honestly, I was completely unprepared for such a beauty; this is what they call mind-blowing! Indeed, it’s like to take the splendid, but still totally static, Byzantine Giotto and blow the air of Chagall into his works; ‘blow’ here means literally, because the result is an amazing lightness, aridness of these figures, defying all the gravity laws:

The Deposition from the Cross (1528)

We didn’t manage to get to Carmignano, a small town where you can see his Visitation (St. Mary’s Visit to St. Elizabeth, 1529), so I have a reproduction only of so-so a quality:

The above painting is not by Pontormo, neither it is of the sixteenth century; this is a still from the video installation by Bill Viola, The Greeting (currently in the Tilburg’s DePont Museum). And I don’t need to say ‘Oh, it looks like then’.  No, it’s ‘them’ looks like now, it’s painting of the sixteenth century strikingly resembles todays video (sic! moving!) installation!

Madonna with Baby (c. 1527)

Such was a color cocktail that Rosso Fiorentino was soaked in; which also implies that his own late colorful style was influenced by his native Florence, and not by the Roman schools.

Look, for example, at one of his very early, pre-Roman works, The Descent from the Cross, or Deposition (1521):

Although I have also encountered very different reproductions, with a completely different range of colors; doing art research is still very problematic in the internet:

Few more works by Fiorentino:

Madonna Enthroned between Two Saints (1921)

Altarpiece of Santa Maria Nuova (1518)

A fragment with the hyper-emotional faces (and the eyes with make-up à la Van Dongen)


The Dead Christ with Angels (about 1524 – 1527)

Ans also a fragment, with no less emotional faces, and the curls:

Worth adding that many of these works are huge, like this wall-size mural:

Also, one has to imagine that these colorful beasts were not caged into the tiny framed paintings, but rather overloaded, overwhelmed the viewers from all sides, and literally soared above their heads.

Such was the ‘luggage’ that Rosso Fiorentino took with him when he came to France in 1531, invited to restore (or rather, to renovate) the very Palace of Fontainebleau (which then gave the name to the ‘school’).

We don’t have any good picture of the Palace itself of that time (mid 16th century); there are all sorts of drawings and architectural plans, but there was no one comprehensive painting till at least 1720 when the French maser called Pierre-Denis Martin made this semi-aerial panorama.

The palace was built long ago, it was a royal residence already in the 12th century, but Francis I decided to create a Palace of New Type ™, the Palace 2.0, as we say today.

And the new type it was! Even today its interiors looks strikingly beautiful, by then they had to blow ones’ mind, if to use this metaphor again. 

Reproductions are often of bad quality, and the internet one are notoriously bad (the exceptions, like Google Art Project, are rare).  But in such cases even GAP wouldn’t be able to covey the beauty of the place, and what really happens in the minds (and hearts) of the visitors.

I hope that in the very near future somebody wil develop a working 3D world model, so that we could fly over all these murals, relieves, sculptures etc, and explored their beauty in details!

Fontainebleau Interior

And a special beauty of these places is that all these elements are not ‘just pictures’, or even frescos – they are a complex web of sculptural groups, mosaics, architectural  elements, relieves; and all that by square kilometers!

The Royal Elephant (1533-39)

I first thought it’s a dragon of some sort, and wondered of its relevant to the place; but omniscient i_shmael told me that it’s not a dragon, but a salamander, (not) burning in the fire; a symbol of Francis I and therefore omnipresent in the palace.

But he painted not only these frescos and relives, but ‘just paintings’ too; only now aht was hovered in the air was not only multi-colored fabric, but the bodies themselves.

Bachus, Venus and Amour (1531)

The majority of his works (in the palace, at least) is similar to the above, content-wise, so to speak: mythological, allegorical (and mostly naked). But Fiorentino produced Biblical works, too (I highly recommend to look at the larger version of the work below):

Rosso Fiorentino – Pieta (1537)

That would be a nice theory, that the late Florentine School created Rosso Fiorentino, who so spectacularly brought the virus of these ‘flying clouds of color’ ™ to France, which sedimented as the School of Fontainebleau. It would be nice and simple, but it wouldn’t be true.

Reality was more complex, and the epidemic had a least few more strains.  One of them was Francesco Primaticcio, from Mantua. But the Florentine trail is traceable here too: they say that Francesco was a pupil of the master with complex and difficult to pronounce a name Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola, who was actually trained in Florence.

But even more interesting is the fact that Primaticcio studied and later collaborated with Giulio Romano (I wrote him already, and plan to write more). They worked together on the (highly erotic) frescoes in the same Palazzo Te I mentioned then. Here is just one example of the frescoes (Giants) from one of the rooms there:

Francesco was also invited to work at the Palace of Fontainebleau, where he arrived in 1532 and where he, similar to Fiorentino, created a large of masterpieces, all in a very characteristic style:

Francesco Primaticcio – Danae Receiving the Shower of Gold (1534)

Francesco Primaticcio – Alexander the Great taming Bucephalus (1541-44)

The Rape of Helena (1536-1539)

When I write about this “very characteristic style”, I feel that it’s clear what I mean (“Look, it’s seen everywhere!”), yet it is in fact not so easy to explain. Tremendous dynamism of these works? Their brightest, sharpest – and completely unnatural – color palette? These ecstatic postures and exalted emotions on their faces?

We sometimes joke with each other in the family that the notoriously known  hyperactive gesticulation of the Italians in fact comes from their deep autism; basically  they are emotionally dumb and can’t detect emotional signals (not can they accurately convey them), and therefore are forced to gesticulate and grimace as mad, escalating their message to the max. This artistic style can be also defined as art for autistic folks:  all colors here are smashing, all gestures here are hummer and tongs.

Odysseus and Penelope (1563)

There is no place for gentle sfumato, semi-enigmatic half-smiles and nuanced half-turns; of the head is to be turned, then it should be nearly torned apart.

Similar to Fiorentino, Primaticcio also painted religious as well. This is his Mary with Jesus and John (who would later become the Baptist), and his mother, St.Elizabeth. But, as Alice rightly noticed, if you have such a long neck, then you are a serpent, and don’t even try pretend you are something else:

The Holy Family with St Elizabeth and John the Baptist (1546)

Many artists, sculptors and decorators also worked in the Palace, but these two – Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio – did more than anyone else. They both stayed in France, and eventually shaped this novel and original style, the one we now know as the ‘French’ School of Fontainebleau.

It’s hard to imagine for is now, but they were something similar to the Impressionists who stirred up the hive of Academics, or as Malevich with suprematism vis a vis realist, representational art.

To be complete (as one blog posting can be complete) I’d like to show another Italian master, who is also related to this first wave of the SoF n.1, Niccolo dell’Abbate.

He moved to France much later, in 1552, when the work in the Palace of Fontainebleau was largely completed (but on the other hand, it has never been completed, similar to the palaces of Chinese emperors, there was always restoration or renovation of some sort one of its numerous rooms). This was already different France: Francis I died in 1547, and Henri II, his son, although also patronized art, loved hunting and tournaments much more (he ended badly very because of that, proving that art > sport).

But the momentum was still there, and new artists were coming. On one hand, they  had to follow already established style of the Place of Fontainebleau. For example, one of the first works by Niccolo in France is basically a homage to the very Odysseus and Penelope by Primaticcio (only now it’s Eros and Psyche):

Many of his other works in the palace are also virtually indistinguishable from the two first masters of the “first wave”. I guess, the style was already established, and now endorsed by the newcomers:Niccolò dell’Abbate – Clemency of Scipio

On the other hand, after the “first wave” migrated from Italy to France, the art-life and didn’t stop in Italy, quite the contrary. It was the time when whole new style, Mannerism, has evolved and flourished Mannerism, with its Parmigianino, Bronzino, Vasari and many other famous masters. Although Niccolo del Abatte could not personally meet Parmigianino (the latter died in 1540 in Bologna, where del Abatte moved to only a few years later), he was seemingly influenced by his works, and this impact is still visible after many years, already in France.

For example, his late Rescue of Moses (1563) can be easily attributed to the same Parmigianino:Niccolò dell’Abbate – Baby Moses Rescued from the Water (1563)

And this newly brought Mannerism manifested not only in the paintings, but also in many other forms too, such as sculptures and relieves – look at this fireplace rondel, for example.

It’s interesting to know that there are no mirrors yet in this place (they will come there later); I also didn’t know that they called such rondels, or medallions, the ‘breasts of the fireplaces’.

Niccolo dell’Abbate –  Chimney breast (1552)

And final note I have to make is that to be completely fair, we must also remember, and commemorate, many, many nameless individual masters who also contributed to the splendor of the Palace, and to the formation of this unique art movement.

Even when we talk about clearly attributed works of the known master, it worth to remember that their creation was, shall we say, very collaborative. Each master worked with a whole workshop of this students, and of different levels – some were capable to perform simple tasks, yet others were very accomplished masters themselves, who just couldn’t leave their names on the works. As a result, we have so many anonymous works of that period with a strange attribution, Master of the School of Fontainebleau.

In the collage of the SoF works that I started this posting with most of the works are exactly category, made by the anonymous masters. This is, for example, the famous Diana the Huntress:

Master of the School of Fontainebleau – Diana The Huntress (с.1550)

Master of the School of Fontainebleau – Allegory of Charity (c.1560)

Maser of School of Fontainebleau (aka Master of Flora) – The Birth of Cupid (c.1540)

I’d love to learn about all these flowers, and their meaning/symbolism in this context – even if to better understand the meaning of the flowers in (also anonymous!) painting of ErotoMagic!

Master of the School of Fontainebleau – Allegory of the Birth of the Dauphin (c.1560)

As I wrote, there are really ‘tons’ of such works there (or rather square kilometers); below are not my pictures, I just found them online (we still have our way to the Fontainebleau):


This is all great, but what about mirrors, you may ask?

I’d actually love to ask this question myself. There are a few reflections (and reflectors) in some of the paintings. For example, we see a helmet with a light blink in the Birth of the Dauphin already shown above:

To my slight disappointment, I didn’t see that many mirrors in all these numerous works; to be precise, I found only one ‘real’ mirror so far. Maybe if they would let me to explore these art garden, and better with a pair of binoculars, I would fine (many) more, but so far one is what we have.

But what a famous mirror it is! It is also a part of the “hall of fame” of the SoF (in the above GIS-collage it is present three times!)

This painting is generally referred as Venus with a Mirror (another name – Toilet of  Venus); it’s made around 1550, and by an anonymous master.

The painting is now in the collection of Louvre, so I have a relatively large picture (see below, with the link to a bigger version) – although it is not of a very good quality, the light in the museum is horrible).

What is exactly shown here by the anonymous author? We see a completely naked woman, and a pretty relaxed (yet also risque) pose, and in fairly intimate context (most likely, after bathing. To simply portray a woman after the bath would be a bit too much for the time, so the theme of “Venus” emerges (and we see a little Cupid added to the scene, with his funny color wings).

marinni has recently made an interesting posting, about the ‘bathing’ in the Middle Ages (it’s in Russian, but its major content is images, collected from all the web). Of course, the comments there are also interesting, yet another reincarnation of the  familiar holy war over whether people washed themselves during the Middle Ages (and later Renaissance) or not.  Holy wars aside, many pictures there show typical bathrooms of the wealthy aristocrats of mid-16th, made of marble – and very similar to what we see in this painting. Since the stone was cold and hard, it was covered by a blanket, sometimes several.

The painting may be related to the bathrooms in another way – most likely it was hanging in one of them.  Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen, the authors of the Masterpieces in Detaails, write that the most risque paintings, similar to such one, were kept at least somewhat hidden from the public eye, and often placed in the boudoirs or bathrooms.

Venus is holding her attribute, the mirror. Yet she holds it not very comfortably, as we see, and no wonder – the mirror does not actually have a good handle, it’s a table mirror, even if quite small:

It has quite a rich frame, decorated with a small group of sculptures (two dolphins and head – perhaps again of the the very same Venus?). This is seemingly not a convex mirror, but a flat mirror. It does not have a clear reflection of a person/face on its surface, but there some kind of reflection there there still, more like a light blick.

From the ‘mirror at work’ point of view it’s a fairly weak work. Not only no reflection here, but also Venus doesn’t even look at it. The whole work is quite emotion-less, in fact;  the bodies are ample, but they lack any emotions.

There are few interesting artifacts in the picture, like this vessel (a pitcher?) It doesn’t have any reelections but depicts, for example, a female satyr.

The poverty of the ‘mirror work’ can be also attributed to the relatively mediocre level of this work in general. Of course, today the work is presented as a masterpiece-and-stuff (if only because of its age), but really good artists of the time were already doing much better works – look, for example, on the mistakes made with her anatomy:

The feet are also problematic, looks like she got both left ones:

And that’s basically it! I am done with all the mirrors of the SoF times, by showing just one. As I said before, there many more, hiding in the art thickets of the Palace. For example, when Primaticcio worked with Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Te, they also made some frescoes with the mirrors (I mentioned them briefly when telling the story of Bathsheba and mirrors). May be France is also such a case… .. but that will be another story.

In general, the complete absence of the mirrors in these works look strange for me, and a pity. I’d love to see the mirrors of Rosso Fiorentino, for example: would they also float tin the air? Would their surface be dazzlingly purple, anticipating pointillists? Sweet dreams.

PS: Francis I, as I wrote already, died in 1547, and his own portrait in the style of the SoF 1 n.1 has not been painted. His last famous portrait (double, with Suleiman I) was also painted by a foreigner – Titian (it is only necessary to add that this is an “imaginary duo”, they never met in real life, and had been brought together only by the artist).

Titian – Francois I and Suleiman the Magnificient (c.1530)


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