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By Culturekiosque Staff

MADRID, 26 FEBRUARY 2014 — The Museo del Prado is presenting The Virgin and Child with Angels, a masterpiece by the Early Renaissance French artist Jean Fouquet. It can be seen until 25 May in Room 25. This is the right-hand panel of the famous Melun Diptych, one of the rare surviving examples of 15th-century French painting. The panel is now on display at the Prado alongside The Agony in the Garden with the Donor Louis I d’Orléans (1405-1408), recently acquired by the Museum. The loan of Fouquet’s work, from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, forms part of the Prado’s "Invited Work" programme, which has been sponsored since 2010 by the Fundación Amigos del Museo del Prado.

The Prado’s recent acquisition of The Agony in the Garden with the Donor Louis I d’Orléans, possibly painted by Colart de Laon, is now complemented with this loan of The Virgin and Child with Angels (ca.1452) from Antwerp, temporarily enriching the Museum’s collection of French paintings. This is an exceptional work of a unique nature, not just for the identity of the artist, Jean Fouquet, the leading 15th-century French painter and miniaturist, but also because this diptych is unique within the artist’s oeuvre due to the unreal effect achieved by the use of colour and treatment of the volumes.

The Virgin and Child with Angels

Etienne Chevalier, treasurer to the French monarchs Charles VII and Louis XI, commissioned a diptych from Jean Fouquet which remained in the collegiate church of Notre-Dame in Melun until it was split up in the late 18th century. The left-hand panel, now in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, depicts Chevalier kneeling and accompanied by his patron saint Stephen. The right-hand panel, belonging to the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, presents a surprisingly original representation of the Virgin within the context of French painting of this period.

Jean Fouquet: The Virgin and Child with Angels
 Oil on panel, 94.5 x 85.5cm, c. 1452, Antwerp
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

A masterpiece of French painting, The Virgin and Child with Angels reveals the original way that Fouquet gave visual form to the various influences that helped define his style. While the iconography, in particular the monochrome red and blue angels, derives from the northern European tradition, the way in which the work was devised and painted reveals the artist’s knowledge of the art of Flanders and Quattrocento Italy. The manner of conveying the different textures and effects of light, such as the reflection of the window on the polished surface of the two balls of the throne, recalls Jan van Eyck. In contrast, the geometrical construction of space and the artist’s interest in pure forms, evident in the Virgin’s oval head and her breasts, which are drawn with a compass, bring to mind the work of Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca.

Fouquet depicts the Virgin as the Madonna lactans, positioned frontally before an elaborate throne. Her crown, with its ornate pearls, precious stones and transparent veil, identifies her as the Queen of Heaven. She wears an ermine cape and a grey silk dress that emphasises her tiny waist, the open bodice revealing one of her rounded breasts. The Virgin supports her naked son on her left knee. The foreshortened position of the Christ Child, oriented towards the panel’s left side – to where he looks and points his finger – links this panel with the left-hand one of the diptych, which depicts the kneeling donor looking to his right and hence to the Infant Christ. With her ivory-white skin, Mary embodies the ideal of beauty of the day with almost no eyebrows, a very high hairline and features that are traditionally said to be those of Agnes Sorel, lover of Charles VII, a great beauty and the first officially recognised royal lover. Etienne Chevalier acted as executor of her will.

Jean Fouquet

Within his lifetime, Jean Fouquet (Tours, ca.1420-1481), the greatest 15th-century French painter and miniaturist, enjoyed the fame and reputation that he merited. In his Trattato dell’arquitectura (1460-1465) the sculptor, architect and writer on art Antonio Averlino, il Filarete (1400-1469), refers to Fouquet as one of the artists capable of creating a cycle of paintings for the palace that he was proposing to design for Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan until 1469, in his ideal city, the "Sforzinda". As Filarete expressly states in his treatise, he met Fouquet in Rome where the French artist won great fame for his portrait on canvas of Pope Eugene IV (died 1447), which was intended for the sacristy of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

Discussing Fouquet, Filarete says: È buono maestro, maxime a ritrarre del natural, which in a 15th-century context should be understood not as referring to him as a fine portraitist (which Fouquet also was) but above all to painting "from life", i.e. painting figures, objects and landscapes directly and without making use of models. Given that the greatest Italian painters of Filarete’s generation (Masaccio, Masolino, Domenico Veneziano, Fra Angelico and Andrea del Castagno) were by now dead, in his opinion it was advisable to look to northern Europe where, following the death of John of Bruges (Jan van Eyck) there possibly still remained Master Roger (Van der Weyden), or, if not, this French painter, whom Filarete refers to as "Grachetto", perhaps in error rather than in reference to a nickname.

The painters that Filarete included in his list, who were the leading names of the first generation of Italian Renaissance and Flemish artists, provide an idea of the high esteem that this Florentine writer had of Fouquet, who was greatly admired in Rome where he lived during his time in Italy. While the Italians admired his Flemish training and hence his ability to reproduce reality, on his return to his native Tours, Fouquet’s patrons must also have valued what he had learned in Italy. His highly individual stylistic synthesis, combining Flanders and Italy (in a way comparable to that of the Castilian painter Pedro Berruguete years later) as well as the French tradition in which he had trained, together with his intrinsic artistic merit, make Jean Fouquet one of the greatest painters within the history of art.

This mastery is evident in Fouquet’s greatest works. Among his paintings, they include: The Melun Diptych (ca.1456); the portraits of Charles VII (ca.1450-1455) and of Guillaume Jouvenal des Ursins (ca.1460-1465); both in Paris, Musée du Louvre; The Pietà, church of Nouans, near Tours, in situ; and among the artist’s miniatures: Les Heurs d’Etienne Chevalier (ca.1452-1460), Chantilly, Musée Condé; Les Grands Chroniques de France (ca.1455-1460); and Les Antiquités Judaiques (ca.1470), the latter two in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

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