The French painters Jean (ca. 1485-ca. 1541) and François (ca. 1516-ca. 1572) Clouet were masters of an elegantly mannered, aristocratic style of portrait painting and of colored chalk portrait drawing.
Jean Clouet was court painter to King Francis I. His son, François, succeeded him as court painter and maintained that position under Henry II, Francis II, and Charles IX.
Jean, or Janet, Clouet was the son either of Michel Clouet, known to have painted in Valenciennes, or of the Brussels painter Jan Clouet. In any case, Jean's early training must have exposed him to the formal, cool, and detached Flemish mannerist portrait type as seen in the works of Jan Gossart and Joos van Cleve.
Jean was appointed painter to the court of Francis I in 1516, the year of the monarch's accession to the throne. Though Jean was never naturalized, he became the chief court painter in 1523, a position he held until his death. In France he developed his own courtly style to comply with the French preference for decorative elegance and sophistication. The problem of attribution of his works is difficult, but it seems likely that eight oil portraits and nine miniatures known today are by him. He is recorded as having painted altarpieces at Tours, but these have disappeared, probably destroyed during the religious struggles of the mid-16th century.
Jean's chief claim to fame lies in his establishment as a medium in its own right of chalk (or hard crayon) drawing in hues of red, white, and black. About 130 examples are attributed to him. Typical is the drawing of Admiral Bonnivet (1516), with its fine feeling for the placement of the head in the usual quarter-turn to the right and the delicate system of shading in diagonal lines that he learned from Leonardo da Vinci, whom Jean would have met at Francis I's château of Amboise, where the great Italian died in 1519.
One of Jean's oils is a half-length portrait of the French humanist Guillaume Budé (ca. 1535). Restrained and nearly monochrome in color, the portrait reflects the drawings in its stress on a patterned silhouette.
Of greatest inherent interest are two portraits of Francis I (both ca. 1525). The one in Florence, which has been questioned as a work by Jean himself, depicts the monarch in monumental fashion, regally erect upon a static, caparisoned horse which fills the space of the tiny panel. The setting is in the Italian mode, with a hint of architecture at the right and a generalized landscape with low horizon to enhance the grandeur of the sitter. The portrait in Paris is a half-length, nearly life-sized presentation of Francis I in dazzling robes, before a tapestried background. There is the trace of a supercilious smile on the face of this unscrupulous and dissolute Renaissance ruler. It is Jean's best-known painting, not because of its quality, which is not great, but because of the historical importance of the subject.
François Clouet, also called Janet, was born at Tours and was active as a painter by 1536. He succeeded his father as chief court painter and maintained that position until his death in 1572.
More gifted than his father, the son continued the conventions of the international portrait style prevalent throughout the courts of Europe. Under the influence of such supreme Italian mannerist portraitists as Bronzino and of the Netherlander Anthonis Mor van Dahorst (Antonio Moro), François introduced into French court painting a greater naturalism with more emphasis on modeling. This may be seen in the portrait of the apothecary Pierre Quthe (signed and dated 1562). Now posed in the newly fashionable three-quarter-length view, which permits full extension of the arms and a more natural placement of the hands, the sitter's courtly station in life and his calling are indicated by an opened herbal and by a portion of a velvet drape, a space-creating device invented by Titian. François may be fairly said to have surpassed his father in imbuing his subjects with a more natural air; yet they remain restrained and very dignified.
The most interesting painting by François that has survived is ostensibly a genre scene, Lady in Her Bath (perhaps painted ca. 1550). It features in outspoken fashion a half-length, bejeweled nude lady seated in her "bath" before a still life of assorted fruits. Immediately behind her are a lad who reaches for the fruit and a nursemaid who suckles a baby swaddled in the Italian fashion. Drapes are drawn to reveal, in a manneristic plunge into deep space, a kitchen maid at a fireplace in an elegant room and, beside her, a pictorial representation of a unicorn, the fabled beast that symbolized virginity. Quite possibly the lady represented is Diane de Poitiers, famous mistress of Henry II. The beautifully rendered nude torso was surely derived from the undraped version of Leonardo's Mona Lisa (now lost), but the principal inspiration of the composition was taken from contemporary Flemish interior genre scenes, such as those by Pieter Aertsen, which often have symbolic overtones that are obscure in meaning.
François continued the portrait drawing technique established by his father, with whose works François's are sometimes confused.
The only monograph on the Clouets is in French, but there is a detailed discussion of them in Louis Dimier, French Painting in the Sixteenth Century (trans. 1904). See also H. W. Janson, History of Art (1962). □