18th Century, 19th Century, 20th Century and Contemporary, Medieval & Renaissance History

Invention and Reinvention in the French Renaissance

For hundreds of years, discourses on new trends in culture, art, or style usually have involved France in some manner. From 18th-century London ladies importing French fashion to 20th-century American ex-pats imbibing French bohemianism, the nation has become a symbol of all things high class and cutting-edge. The culture-conscious nation, however, was not always seen as an innovator in cultural expression even while its cultural production flourished. Many early perceptions of French culture saw France as “a secondary player or latecomer” to the Renaissance. Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France, edited by Martha Wolff, asserts that French aristocrats and artists formed their artistic identity “by means of selective assimilation” and deserves a place as an originator of the Renaissance.

As we noted yesterday, the French national identity began to solidify in an artistic format around the second half of the fifteenth century. Jean Fouquet’s paintings helped create a firmly French style, which was then continued by other artists of the French court. In France circa 1500, the French court did not necessarily create new forms of the arts, but through reimagining current forms, it became a model for other nations. Even in 1400, Paris was a source of luxury goods for the king, the royal princes, and the nobility.

Fittingly for people living in an era which would eventually be self-consciously named the Renaissance (“rebirth”), the French remade foreign ideas as their own. In its economy and diplomacy, it combined Burgundian and Italian models. French painters adapted the volume and space of Flemish painters into more conservative mediums. It could be said that the French—along with most other European nations—imported the Renaissance from beyond the Alps. But by remaking and even French-ifying techniques of others, the French did in fact innovate.

Along with Fouquet, artists such as Jean Bourdichon, Michel Colombe, Jean Poyer, and Jean Hey were commissioned by the court to create images that showcased the nobility. The resulting art remained the standard even for the opulent Italian courts. The lives of the courtiers themselves were a form of art, inspiring replication from the ceremonial entries of the monarchs into their kingdom’s cities to the elaborate processions for funerals and coronations. While French artists may have initially learned from northern and Italian artists, they quickly established themselves as creators of the Renaissance.

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