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French classicism: 17th century

Three painters, born in France within a span of seven years from 1593, are profoundly influenced by the traditions of ancient and modern Rome. They transform them into a classicism which is unmistakably French.

The oldest of the three is Georges de la Tour, who uses as his main stylistic device the strong contrast between light and shade pioneered by Caravaggio. He takes this to far greater lengths than his predecessor, often limiting the source of light in his paintings to a single candle. The result is a startlingly beautiful severity, with simple outlines of light picking out the contours of flesh or fabric. Where the Italians transform the example of Caravaggio into baroque, a French artist takes it towards classicism.

It is not known whether La Tour visits Italy, but the style of Caravaggio is anyway familiar through the master's northern followers in the Netherlands. The other two French classical painters spend nearly all their working lives in Rome.

Nicolas Poussin moves to Italy in his twenties, in 1624. He makes an intense study of classical sculpture and finds himself increasingly out of sympathy with the baroque style prevailing in Rome. His response is to devise his own alternative. Where baroque painters engage in flamboyant visual gestures, carried along on a flood of emotion, Poussin develops a rational pictorial grammar to express the inner meaning of a scene and the attitudes of the participants.

His belief that the intellect can be a prime force in shaping pictorial art acquires immense influence as his own fame grows among the connoisseurs of his day. His theories become the cornerstone of the academies of art founded in the 17th and 18th centuries.

His own paintings divide viewers more decisively than those of any other great master. Enthusiasts rate them among the highest achievements of European painting. Others see only stilted exercises, revealing the effect of the wax figures which Poussin poses and groups on a miniature stage to help in perfecting his compositions.

The third French classicist of the 17th century is altogether more gentle in his appeal. Like Poussin, Claude Lorrain moves to Rome in his twenties and hardly ever leaves the region. Like Poussin, he is much taken with the evocative traces of the classical world in the city and the surrounding countryside. But what entrances Claude most of all is the Roman landscape itself, and the light which suffuses it.

Claude invents his own very original form of landscape painting. His countryside is beautifully calm and composed (no wind shakes a leaf in a Claude painting). Classical buildings frame striking vistas. Small figures, often mythological, move discreetly among them.

But what makes Claude's landscapes unmistakable is the light spreading through them from the large expanse of sky. Often it comes from a sun shining from the centre of the canvas, straight towards the viewer. The rays bounce off the surface of stone facades or permeate the leaves of graceful trees, infiltrating every corner of the scene.

Claude's seductive images appeal greatly to English aristocrats on the Grand Tour (there are more of his paintings in Britain than in any other country). English landscape gardening of the 18th century is much influenced by these idealized French views of a classical Italian scene.

French delicacies: 1713-1789

There is a sudden lightening of the tone in French society in the second decade of the 18th century. The treaty of Utrecht, concluding the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, seems to promise the end of the almost continuous warfare which has characterized the long reign of Louis XIV. And the death of the king himself, in 1715, offers possible liberation from the stifling formality which has been the mark of his court.

In these same years a young artist, Antoine Watteau, is producing paintings which suggest a new social mood.

The people whom Watteau depicts are rich and glamorous in their silks and satins, but they seem extremely relaxed as they busy themselves with social pleasures in romantic woodland settings. They chat with the clowns and guitarists who entertain them in these fêtes galantes (amorous festivities) as freely as one would in an open-air party today.

The painterly skill with which Watteau captures such fragile moments is seen at its best in his last work, the large Enseigne de Gersaint. Painted as a shop sign for his friend Gersaint (in just eight mornings in 1721, when Watteau is mortally ill), it shows elegant Parisians inspecting the dealer's paintings and mirrors.

These people are all set to enjoy themselves and for the rest of the century, in Europe's most sophisticated kingdom, they do just that - until the shock of 1789.

Two younger artists reflect and satisfy this mood. François Boucher is born in 1703, Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a generation younger. Both produce the romantic landscapes and the titillating boudoir scenes which suit the market of the day. Boucher is at the erotic end of the spectrum in his portrayal of the young Louise O'Murphy sprawling naked on a sofa. Fragonard provides the sentimental touch in an image such as Le Souvenir, showing a slender girl in exquisite silks who carves an initial on the trunk of a tree, closely observed by her spaniel.

Fragonard lives on into the stern days of the French Revolution, when his frivolously elegant art becomes politically incorrect. He dies in poverty in 1806. But there is one French artist, of equal delicacy in his use of paint, who would have been warmly welcomed by the revolutionaries if he had not died (at the age of eighty) in 1779. He is Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

Chardin's subjects are unfashionable - most often just domestic servants going quietly about their business, among gleaming copper utensils. But his treatment of them has a profound honesty. And the paint sings. Chardin is one of those rare geniuses where the art is itself both the mystery and the joy.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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