From Court splendour to decadent glamour
Susan Jenkins admires a selection of drawn portraits, many previously unseen, that offer an intimate glimpse into French lives
The British Museum is currently exhibiting more than 65 French portrait drawings from its own collection, exploring draughtsmanship from the 16th to 19th centuries. ‘French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet’ offers a thoughtful chronological display of smallscale, intimate images, many of which have never been shown before.
The works are grouped into four sections: ‘Valois and early Bourbon France about 1550–1630’; ‘The Bourbon Kings about 1630–1760’; ‘Monarchy, Revolution and empire about 1760–1800’ and ‘New horizons about 1800–1900’. The display begins with François Clouet’s drawing of Catherine de’ Medici, of about 1547, and ends with henri de Toulouse-lautrec’s equally regal chalk portrait of cafe-concert star Marcelle Lender.
Sarah Vowles, the curator, explains that her main aim is to make visitors ‘more familiar with lesser-known parts of the collection’. her exhibition seeks to highlight the changes in technique that have occurred over the centuries and show how artists have experimented with different modes of portraiture. She also hopes that ‘by looking at these portrait images, visitors will get glimpses into the lives of the sitters and make a connection with a vanished world’.
Drawings have frequently been overlooked in comparison to paintings, being regarded as preparations for works on canvas, which they often were. We see here, however, several portrait studies that are works of art in their own right. Particularly notable are images of members of the Valois Court, which were updated during the lifetime of the sitters. Commissioned from Clouet by his royal patroness Catherine d’ Medici, they include the two earliest surviving likenesses of Catherine and her husband, henri II, dated about 1547.
updated these drawings subsequent to their commission, dressing the King in more informal attire and adding fresh wrinkles to the face of the Valois courtier François de Scepeaux, sire de Vielleville and maréchal de France.
Drawings were cheaper and easier to produce than works on canvas, allowing artists to be more experimental in their technique and informal in their treatment of sitters. This is exemplified by the exquisite portrait of the hand of Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, by chalk specialist Pierre Dumonstier II. executed when Dumonstier visited Rome in 1625, the eloquent black-and-red chalk portrait is a finished study in which the artist plays with the idea of what a portrait is.
his admiration for Gentileschi is inscribed on the back with the notes: ‘The hands of Aurora are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this one is a thousand times more worthy for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into raptures.’
As an informal medium, drawings were often presented as gifts between friends, portraying sitters in the artist’s immediate family or social circle. Nicolas de Plattemontagne’s chalk Double portrait of Jean Baptiste de Champaigne and his wife Geneviève, dated 1677, may have been an anniverclouet
Gustave Courbet as a confident 33 year old in his charcoal Self-portrait of 1852