National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 26, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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The Monumental Style of Fontainebleau and 
its Consequences: Antoine Caron and
"The Submission of Milan"

by W. McAllister Johnson

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4 

In the normal course of events, study of a newly-discovered painting is apt more to concern its attribution than its method of pictorial representation, however unusual this may be. When such a painting is the first of its kind known and acquired by a national collection, an unusual occasion is afforded scholar and public to consider its subject matter and "visual syntax" or collocation of motifs. All this is the more refreshing when the received title distorts somewhat the subject actually given, and when the manner of presentation has several different levels of reality incidentally alluding to a series of historical developments which find their illustration in artistic monuments.

Thus it is that the Surrender of Milan (fig. 9), attributed to Antoine Caron and first exhibited upon the occasion of the School of Fontainebleau exhibition at Ottawa in 1973, (1) is in reality a Submission of Milan. Despite its relatively small format, the panel is a virtual anthology of the diverse events leading up to the Submission whose formal organization can be related to prior developments in monumental decorative schemes of royal origin in France during the 1530s and 1540s - and thence to their Roman antecedents earlier in the century.

It was said at the time, it has been repeated ever after, that the art of Fontainebleau is the art of the cartouche - without, however, retaining the full weight of the term as it appears in the mind's eye rather than to the eye itself.

As a "regularly irregular" form for which sixteenth...century France and Italy had a special predilection, (2) the oval is the only geometrical figure to permit - even to invite - inherent ambiguities of centrality and axiality without exception to modifications occasioned in its use. (3) Its ambivalent quality is at once intellectual and visual in nature: the spectator must experience not only the relation of the surround to what it enframes (the "first level" of identification of motif) but simultaneously the possible levels of signification of apparent motifs in or towards some guiding scheme.

At least three distinct treatments of the individual oval surround may be determined, most notably that in which the figures are densely compacted around the cartouche, manifestly directing their attention and gestures - and thus, those of the viewer - to some central motif (fig. 2). An alternative conception relies for emphasis upon an exceptional variety of figures and materials and represents a derivation in illusionistic painting of the Francis I Gallery at Fontainebleau (fig. 3). (4) Finally, there are those instances in which the pictorial surround is an historiated one in the strict sense, which is to say that all figures present correspond in an emblematic way to an idea while the cartouche field is of little or no importance (fig. 4). In as much as the oval field is almost invariably integrated within some other, more regular geometrical shape(s) (fig. 5), a certain tension may exist between the implications of the original motif and its realisation in three dimensions in some larger context (5) - not to say its free adaptation afterwards, whether with or without knowledge of the prototype. (6)

The "historiated" or, if one will, "emblemated" picture frame so peculiar to sixteenth-century art in general can only suppose interchange or correspondence at various levels once the written texts have been translated into visual elements which put forth in some effective way a concept or illustrate an event. Some sense of the evolution of the monumental style of Fontainebleau and its consequences in decoration, illustration, and the minor arts may be had by a wider public in a study of selected examples.

The explosion in number and kind of imagery had characteristic results during the later Renaissance. Not the least of these is the appearance and wide diffusion of loosely agglomerated or serial publications commonly known as suites. At a usual level of application, these concern some category of interest in a real or abstract sense - the Senses, the Seasons, the Occupations of the Months, the Virtues and Vices - all of which may be circumscribed in number. The more complex and innovative series possess a highly developed pictorial sense in respect of subjects of more esoteric nature which could be indefinitely extended, assuming the will of the artist or patron to be sufficiently engaged. Then as now, it is likely that suites were thought of in graphic form, as these could be widely circulated and influential, regardless of origin, in the international commerce. By extension, the suite necessarily included programmed or integrated ensembles of a higher sort that were unique in number: chambers, palaces, landscape gardening and urbanism on the one hand, and commemorative projects (particularly those of dynastic intent) such as drawings and tapestries on the other. Such a series is the Histoire françoyse de nostre temps, a retrospective of the considerable events of the French monarchy begun in the early years of the reign of Charles IX (1561- 1574). (7) Its drawings are ascribed to Antoine Caron of Beauvais (c. 1521-1599) -"distinguished or uncommon painter" according to the posthumously engraved portrait by his son-in-law Thomas de Leu (fig. 1). (8)

A text to this may have existed in manuscript, but it is typical of the period that the Histoire françoyse is perfectly comprehensible in its synoptical form as a drawings suite and has always been referred to as such. A companion suite also ascribed to Caron, the Histoire de la Reine Arthémise, forms the counterpoint to the purely historical Histoire françoyse. Presenting in allegorical guise events from the widowhood of Catherine de' Medici and the early reign of Charles IX, it is known to have been "reduced" to pure pictorial form from a still extant manuscript. Both suites seem to have been "extended" in aleatory fashion as the need was felt, and the sometime discovery of new drawings reveals that our knowledge may as yet be incomplete.

As a general rule, the drawings maintain the narrative thread by virtue of sonnets inscribed on the back of one sheet which explicate the scene to follow. (Not all drawings possess sonnets; it is assumed that the verse is posterior to the image, when present.) In such case, the comparison of the abbreviated poetic history and the image should prove consonant in essentials.

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