School of Tours, c. 1469, <i>Louis XI, King of France (1423 – 1483)</i> School of Tours, c. 1469, <i>Louis XI, King of France (1423 – 1483)</i>

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School of Tours, c. 1469

Louis XI, King of France (1423 – 1483)

Oil on panel: 14 ¾ x 8 ¾ in. (36.5 x 22.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1469

‘Portrait original de Louis onze/ donné par le roi à rigauld/ d'aurel seigneur et Baron/ de Villeneuve du che[r] et/ de Villefranche, qui servit/ ce prince et ses trois successeurs,/ comme chambellan ou maître/ d'hotel, ambassadeur et/homme de guerre distingué./ Ce portrait fut placé dans le [the latter two words crossed out] par rigauld d'aurel/ dans le château qu'il fit construire/ à Villeneuve-lembron lieu de sa naissance et y/ a toujours été conservé jusqu'a/ ce jour./ Il appartient à M. de féligonde/ conseiller à riom, propriétaire/ du susdit château de Villeneuve’.

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This strikingly bold profile portrait of the great Valois king, Louis XI, in extraordinary state of preservation, is one of only three known likenesses created during his lifetime – indeed it is the only known ad vivum portrait to survive in oil. Given that Louis is shown wearing the chivalric Order of Saint Michel, which he founded in August 1469, the portrait must date from that time or soon after, when the king was aged forty-six or forty-seven. Scholars argue that although other portraits of the king must have existed, they are now lost: much early French art suffered in the iconoclastic movements that followed. Due to the scarcity of surviving portraits of the king, our painting has come to define the image of Louis XI and although numerous other copies and versions are known, none of them are contemporary. Technical analysis of the panel proves incontrovertibly that it was painted during the king's lifetime, and we can therefore assume it is very likely the prime version from which all other known copies derive.

Louis is presented in profile facing right, his features in stark relief against a dark background. Plainly but regally dressed in a rich red velvet, he is depicted not as the successful military leader who at the beginning of his reign fought to unite the kingdoms of France, but as a prince worn with years. Wrinkles have marked his features and hardened his expression. The lower part of his face is heavy, and his eyes are baggy. The prominent aquiline nose, his slightly pinched mouth and the peculiar formation of the join between the bridge of the nose and his eyebrows are all characteristic of Louis XI’s features. Devoid of flattery, the simplicity and deliberate harshness of this portrait are true to the traditions of French painters at that time, ‘whose habit was to depict their sovereigns not with pomp and a display of attributes but with a disarming and intimate sincerity’.

Considered one of the first modern kings of France, Louis XI reigned for twenty-two years, forging a strong and united country, and taking France out of the medieval feudal system. Through war, political expediency and at times sheer guile and cunning, he managed to persuade the English to relinquish their claim to French territory. He also fought internal battles, transforming the governance of France into an organised, centralised monarchy. His reign was characterised by wars and unrelenting political struggle, but the ensuing period of stability that followed these reforms made it possible for trade to prosper and consequently an artistic Renaissance in France to flourish, even though Louis personally had little enthusiasm to commission art. This artistic blossoming was evident not only in the work of Jean Fouquet (1420 – 1481), the preeminent French painter of the 15th century, but also in the work of Michel Colombe (c.1430 – c.1513) the leading sculptor of his time.

It seems unusual that the chosen format of the portrait is in profile, a convention much favoured in Italy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but which further north had become outmoded by the 1420s. The artistic trend in fifteenth century France was towards greater realism and three-quarter-length portraits – notably the portrait of Louis’ father, Charles VII, circa 1450 by Jean Fouquet (Musée du Louvre). As such the profile format at first appears a conflicting and almost retrograde step. However, the most likely rationale was a decision to continue the older French tradition of depicting the royal image in profile, for example that of Louis’ famous ancestor Jean le Bon (1319 – 1364), (Musée du Louvre), in the wish to conform to an ideal of courtly decorum and princely appearance.

Well versed in humanist ideals, Louis would have fully appreciated the usefulness of princely images in promoting his legitimacy and status as king, and parallels with antique coin portraits and contemporary portrait medals can also be made. Italian numanistic traditions dictated the favoured profile format, and in 1461 on his accession to the throne, Louis did indeed commission a medal with his portrait from Francesco Laurana (d. c. 1502). Laurana worked at both the court in Naples and the court of Louis’ uncle, René d’Anjou in Aix-en-Provence. Nuttall explains that the continuing fashion for profile portraits in fifteenth century Italy may be ‘connected with the humanistic fashion for antique coins, which contained profile portraits, or with the profile’s longstanding association with regal imagery’.

Although our portrait is undoubtedly influenced by the art at the courts of Italy, it is painted on a single plank of French oak, suggesting the artist most likely painted it in France. Attention turns to the French court painters, in particular artists working within the remit of the School of Tours, in the Val-de-Loire. At this time Louis XI often visited the region, escorted by his wealthy lords who were likewise artistic patrons. Although Louis never remained long in one place, his favorite residences were Amboise and his chateau at Plessis-les-Tours, so when he finally took up his residence at Tours in 1469, this helped to concentrate artistic activity in the region.

Our portrait has traditionally been attributed to Jean Fouquet (c.1420 – 1481), the pre-eminent royal portraitist to Charles VII, also employed by Louis XI as peintre du roi for a period of five years in the 1470s, during which time he produced paintings, banners and manuscripts for the king as well as designs for stained glass and tapestries. It is within this orbit of activity that Fouquet became the major founding figure of 15th Century art in Tours. Contemporary reports and documentary evidence attest to how active Fouquet was in the service of Louis XI, which suggests that he had the resources necessary – almost certainly model books and portrait drawings – to produce a living likeness of Louis XI from which other Tourian artists may have borrowed. However, no document recording the commissioning of a portrait of Louis XI survives, and academic opinion no longer supports an attribution to Fouquet. It seems more probable that, given the dating of this painting, the artist was based at the School of Tours, and we are grateful to Professor Eric Inglis for suggesting this attribution. Indeed, recent academic research has begun to distinguish art from this region of the Val de Loire as unique to this area of France.

Provenance: Said to have been presented by Louis XI (the sitter) to his maître d'hôtel, Rigauld d'Aureille (or Rigault d’Oureille), Seigneur and Baron de Villeneuve (1455-1517), Château de Villeneuvre-Lembron (Puy de-Dôme), Auvergne;
By descent to his son, Maximilien d'Aureille (d. 1572);
By descent to N*** d'Aureille and sold along with the Château de Villeneuve-Lembron to Isaac Dufour (d. 1655), treasurer of France;
By descent to his son Lieutenant-General David Dufour (d. c. 1716);
By descent to his son Jean Dufour (d. 1753);
By descent to his son Jean-François Dufour de Villeneuve (d. 1781);
By descent to his son Jean-Baptiste Claude Dufour de Villeneuve who dies without issue November 1797;
By descent to his sister Catherine-Elisabeth Dufour de Villeneuve (d. 1814) who married Michel Pellissier de Féligonde;
By descent to their son Michel Pellissier de Féligonde, deputé du Puy-du-Dôme;
By descent to his 2nd son Jacques-Michel Pellissier de Féligonde, advisor to the Court at Riom (who wrote the an inscription on the reverse of the panel;
Passion collection;
With Wildenstein, from circa 1935 until at least 1963;
Private collection USA.

Exhibited
New York, World's Fair (Pavillon de la France), Five Centuries of History Mirrored in Five Centuries of French Art, 1939, no. 36 (as Jean Fouquet).
New York, Wildenstein, The Great Tradition of French Painting, June - October 1939, no. 4.
New York, Wildenstein, Fashion in Headdress, 27 April - 27 May 1943, no. 4.
New York, Wildenstein, French Art Benefit for American Aid to France, December 1946.
Denver, The Denver Art Museum, Art of the Middle Ages, 10 December 1950 - 11 February 1951.
São Paulo, Museo de Arte, O retrato na França, January 1952, no. 1.
Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, Six Centuries of Headdress, 3 April - 1 May 1955, no. 1.
New York, Wildenstein, The Painter as Historian, 15 November - 31 December 1962, no. 22.

Exhibition: New York, World's Fair (Pavillon de la France), Five Centuries of History Mirrored in Five Centuries of French Art, 1939, no. 36 (as Jean Fouquet). New York, Wildenstein, The Great Tradition of French Painting , June - October 1939, no. 4. New York, Wildenstein, Fashion in Headdress, 27 April - 27 May 1943, no. 4. New York, Wildenstein, French Art Benefit for American Aid to France, December 1946. Denver, The Denver Art Museum, Art of the Middle Ages, 10 December 1950 - 11 February 1951. São Paulo, Museo de Arte, O retrato na França, January 1952, no. 1. Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, Six Centuries of Headdress, 3 April - 1 May 1955, no. 1. New York, Wildenstein, The Painter as Historian, 15 November - 31 December 1962, no. 22.

Literature: G. Ruprich-Robert, ‘Rigault d'Oureille, Sénéchal de Gascogne et de l'Agenais, et son château de Villeneuve-Lembron’, in L'Auvergne Littéraire, Artistique et Historique, 2ème cahier, 1935.
F. Mercier, Le Portrait de Louis XI de Villeneuve-Lembron, Paris, n.d., pp. 3-6.
Five Centuries of History Mirrored in Five Centuries of French Art , exhibition catalogue, New York, World's Fair (Pavillon de la France), 1939, cat. no. 36, reproduced plate VIII (as Jean Fouquet).
G. Wildenstein, ‘Cinq siècles d'art français’, in La Renaissance, XX II, May 1939, pp.14 and 18, reproduced (as Jean Fouquet).
A. Frankfurter, ‘The French Tradition: Festival Show’, in Art News, vol. XXXVII, 10 June 1939, p. 14.
M. Vaughan, ‘Eight Exhibitions: Wildenstein & Company’, in Parnassus, XI, no. 6, October 1939, p. 21, reproduced pp.16 & 20 (as Jean Fouquet).
R. Frost, ‘Fashion in Headdress’, in Art News, XLII, 15-31 May, 1943, p. 9, reproduced (as Jean Fouquet, and dated to 1472).
Town and Country, July 1947, reproduced (colour).
O.K Bach, ‘Art of the Middle Ages’, in Denver Art Museum Quarterly, Winter 1950, reproduced p. 10.
The Painter as Historian, exhibition catalogue, New York, Wildenstein, 15 November - 31 December 1962, cat. no. 22, reproduced p. 49.
‘Amerika, Austellungen Ausserhalb New York City’, in Pantheon, XXI, no. 1, January - February 1963, p. 53 (as French School, 15th Century).
L.B. Smith, The Horizon Book of the Elizabethan World, New York 1967, reproduced in colour on p. 26 (as attributed to Fouquet).
P.M. Kendall, Warwick the Kingmaker, New York 1968, reproduced in the plate between pp. 206 and 207.
E. Le Roy Ladurie, L'État Royal de Louis XI à Henri IV, 1460-1610, Paris 1987, a detail reproduced in colour on the dust jacket.
C. Gauvard, ed., Il était une fois la France: vingt siècles d'histoire, Paris, Brussels, Montreal and Zurich 1987, pp. 114-115, a detail reproduced in colour on p.114.
C. Weightman, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, 1446-1503, Gloucester and New York 1989, reproduced p.32.


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