The French court painter and manuscript illuminator Jean Fouquet (ca. 1420-ca. 1480) was the leading 15th-century artist in France and the first painter in northern Europe to be vitally influenced by the Italian Renaissance.
Acritic has aptly referred to Jean Fouquet as "a piece of France personified," so completely does his art reflect the sophisticated French temperament. Born at Tours, the illegitimate son of a priest, Fouquet probably received his early training in Paris as a manuscript illuminator. His leap to fame is attested to by the probability that he accompanied a French mission to Rome in 1446, for the Italian artist Antonio Filarete recorded that Fouquet portrayed Pope Eugenius IV with his two nephews. In Rome, Fouquet would have seen the frescoes (later destroyed) in the Vatican by Fra Angelico, and the style of the famous Florentine had a deep and lasting effect on his own.
When Fouquet returned to France, he opened a workshop in Tours. He received commissions from Charles VII and members of his court and from Louis XI, who made him official court painter in 1474. Fouquet died in Tours before Nov. 8, 1481, when a church document mentions his widow.
The earliest of Fouquet's several large panel portraits is probably Charles VII, painted about 1445 before Fouquet's trip to Rome, for it evinces no Italian influence. On the frame the monarch is described as "very victorious," probably a reference to the Truce of Arras, which was in fact one of very few victories enjoyed by the despondent Charles. The portrait is abstractly staged, objective, and unflattering. Fouquet manifested his sober clarity of vision in a self-portrait (ca. 1450; Paris), unusual in being a small, painted enamel roundel and notable as the first preserved independent self-portrait to be made north of the Alps.
About 1450 Fouquet undertook his most famous pair of pictures, the Melun Diptych (now divided between Berlin and Antwerp). On the left panel is Étienne Chevalier, treasurer of France in 1452, being presented by his name saint (Stephen) to the Virgin and Child on the right panel. The donor is placed before the variegated marble walls of a Renaissance palace, and the Madonna in three-quarter length is enthroned in an abstracted space, surrounded by nude, shining, chubby red and blue angels. Giant pearls bedeck the throne and Mary's crown. This image was surely scandalous in its own day, for the Virgin is a recognizable portrait of Agnes Sorel, the King's mistress, shown with a geometrically rounded, exposed breast. Chevalier had worked with Agnes Sorel in governing the shaky kingdom of Charles VII.
Similarly abstract and intellectualized is Fouquet's portrait Guillaume Jouvenal des Ursins (ca. 1455). This chancellor of France kneels in prayer before a highly ornamented wall, the figure placed close to the picture plane for immediacy. One other famous commission is far removed from the courtly milieu: a Descent from the Cross (ca. 1470-1475; Nouans). Monumental figures crowd the large panel, giving the effect of a sculptured frieze against a dark background. There is no overt expression of grief, and the mood of reverential dignity is conveyed in somber tones.
Fouquet was especially adept in his miniature illustrations for manuscript books. Between 1452 and 1460 the master and his shop made for Chevalier a now-dismembered Book of Hours The miniatures are notable for showing Parisian architectural monuments, and there is a unique illustration of the contemporary staging of a mystery play. The donor's name and initials are decoratively, and pridefully, used throughout the compositions. Chevalier himself attends the anointing of the body of Christ for burial, and again he is shown, as in the Melun Diptych, being presented to the Madonna by St. Stephen. Italianate ornament and marble paneling occur frequently, and there are splendid landscape backgrounds reminiscent of the Loire Valley. Flickering highlights in many miniatures are rendered in gold, a touch of elegance that is typically French. Fouquet and his shop illuminated many other books; chief among them is the Grandes chroniques de France (1458).
The best monographic study of the paintings and miniatures of Fouquet is Paul R. Wescher, Jean Fouquet and His Times (1945; trans. 1947). See also Trenchard Cox, Jehan Foucquet, Native of Tours (1931), and Klaus G. Perls, Jean Fouquet (1939; trans. 1940).