Through the fifteenth century French art and architecture still retained many Gothic characteristics, although an
important change took place under the reign of Francis I in the sixteenth century. That monarch succeeded in
establishing France’s political power, and he saw leadership in the visual arts as an important way to reinforce his
influence. In order to develop a more modern style, Francis I looked to Italy, importing the best artists he could find.
Leonardo da Vinci came to the French court in 1517 and remained there until he died two years later. Italian
mannerist artists like Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Benvenuto Cellini, created elaborate decorations
for Francis I’s palace at Fontainebleau. The style favored there shows figures that are elongated and given complex
poses, but they are more languid than most Italian mannerist figures.
Other foreign influences entered French art in the early seventeenth century. We have already seen that Marie de’
Medici, the widow of King Henri IV, turned to the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens for her series of paintings for
the Luxembourg Palace. The influence of Caravaggio’s painting came to France by way of Dutch genre painters and
is best seen in the quiet, candlelit religious paintings of Georges de la Tour or in the paintings of dignified peasant
families by the Le Nain brothers. Although the Dutch artists from whom they learned often poked fun at lower class
people, these French artists instilled their scenes with a sense of simplicity and order.
The Reformation brought deep conflicts to France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although religious
tolerance was officially declared at the end of the sixteenth century, French Protestants (called Huguenots) were
seen as a threat to the state and were eventually expelled. In spite of the dominance of the Catholic Church,
however, it was the state rather than the church that provided the most important artistic commissions in France.
Especially during the reign of Louis XIV, the control of all artistic commissions was in the hands of the king who
exercised his power by establishing the French academy in 1648—the institution that trained young artists,
maintained high standards, and determined whose work would be displayed in official salons. Classicism was chosen
as a style that suitably expressed the king’s desire for order and control.
The Sun King Louis XIV was by far the most powerful monarch in Europe, and his ambitions and centralized authority
are embodied in the vast Palais de Versailles, which was begun in 1668. The complex includes formal gardens,
informal wooded areas, enormous reflecting pools, sculptures, dozens of fountains, and, of course, the enormous
palace, with hundreds of rooms all exquisitely decorated. Versailles occupied hundreds of architects, artists, and
craftspeople. Only the most important will be mentioned here.
André Le Nôtre was responsible for the overall plan of Versailles, which transformed a natural wooded area into a
masterpiece of landscape design. The plan can be seen as a series of points surrounded by radiating lines. The lines,
which are actually vast avenues, allow the visitor to see a monument—a fountain or the palace itself—at the
avenue’s end. The most important axis in the park and the three main roads of the town outside the grounds
converge at Louis XIV’s bedroom in the center of the palace (where the Sun King, like the sun, rose in the morning).
The gardens around the palace are tightly controlled formal plantings, and more natural areas are set further from
the palace. Some of these densely forested areas hide grottoes—man-made rock formations like the Grotto of
Thetis, which shelters a sculpture of Apollo attended by nymphs.
The palace itself was designed by Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart. The general form of the palace is a
rectangular block with a heavy, unornamented lower story and a main story above that uses classical columns and
sculptural decoration around the arched windows. The entire building is topped with an attic story, and more
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