The artists of France were in this epoch superior to her poets, but they too suffered from her bitter impoverishment. No lavish patronage supported them, of city, Church, or king. The communes, which had expressed the pride of their guilds through majestic temples to an unquestioned faith, had been weakened or destroyed by the extension of royal authority, and the enlargement of the economy from a local to a national frame. The French Church could no longer finance or inspire such stupendous structures as had risen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from the soil of France. Faith as well as wealth had declined; the hope that in those centuries had undertaken at once the Crusades and the cathedrals—the enterprise and its prayer—had lost its generative ecstasy. It was more than the fourteenth century could do to finish, in architecture, what a more sanguine era had begun. Even so, Jean Ravi completed Notre Dame in Paris (1351), Rouen added a “Lady Chapel” (1302) to a cathedral already dedicated to Our Lady, and Poitiers gave her cathedral its proud west front (1379).
The Rayonnant style of Gothic design was now (1275 f.) gradually yielding to a Geometrical Gothic that stressed Euclidean figures instead of radiating lines. In this manner Bordeaux built her cathedral (1320–25), Caen raised a handsome spire (shattered in the second World War) on the church of St. Pierre (1308), Auxerre gave her cathedral a new nave (1335), Coutances (1371–86) and Amiens (1375) added lovely chapels to their historic shrines, and Rouen enhanced her architectural glory with the noble church of St. Ouen (1318–1545).
In the final quarter of the fourteenth century, when France thought herself victorious, her architects displayed a new Gothic, joyous in spirit, exuberant in carved detail, fancifully intricate in tracery, reveling recklessly in ornament. The ogive, or pointed arch of a continued curve, became now an ogee, or tapered arch of a reversed curve, like the tongue of flame that gave the style its Flamboyant name. Capitals fell into disuse; columns were fluted or spiraled; choir stalls were profusely carved, and were closed with iron screens of delicate lacery; pendentives became stalactites; vaults were a wilderness of intertwined, disappearing, reappearing ribs; the mullions of the windows shunned the old solid geometrical forms, and flowed in charming frailty and incalculable willfulness; spires seemed built of decoration; structure vanished behind ornament. The new style made its debut in the chapel of St. Jean-Baptiste (1375) in the cathedral of Amiens; by 1425 it had captured France; in 1436 it began one of its fragile miracles, the church of St. Maclou at Rouen. Perhaps the revival of French courage and arms by Joan of Arc and Charles VII, the growth of mercantile wealth as instanced by Jacques Cœur, and the inclination of the rising bourgeoisie to luxurious ornament helped the Flamboyant style to its triumph in the first half of the fifteenth century. In that feminine form Gothic survived till French kings and nobles brought back from their wars in Italy the classical architectural ideas of the Renaissance.
The growth of civil architecture revealed the rising secularism of the time. Kings and dukes thought there were churches enough, and built themselves palaces to impress the people and house their mistresses; rich burghers spent fortunes on their homes; municipalities announced their wealth through splendid hotels-de-ville, or city halls. Some hospitals, like Beaune’s, were designed with a fresh and airy beauty that must have lulled the ill to health. At Avignon the popes and cardinals gathered and nourished a diversity of artists; but the builders, painters, and sculptors of France were now usually grouped about a noble or a king. Charles V built the chateau of Vincennes (1364–73) and the Bastille (1369), and commissioned the versatile André Beauneveû to carve figures of Philip VI, John II, and Charles himself for the imposing array of royal tombs that crowd the ambulatory and crypt of St. Denis (1364). Louis of Orléans raised the chateau of Pierrefonds, and John, Duke of Berry, though hard on his peasants, was one of the great art patrons of history.
For him Beauneveû illustrated a Psalter in 1402. It was but one in a series of illuminated manuscripts that stand near the top in what might be called the chamber music of the graphic arts. For the same discriminating lord, Jacquemart de Hesdin painted Les petites heures, Les belles heures, and Les grandes heures, all illustrating books of “hours” for the canonical daily prayers. Again for Duke John the brothers Pol, Jehannequin, and Herman Malouel of Limburg produced Les tres riches heures (1416)—sixty-five delicately beautiful miniatures picturing the life and scenery of France: nobles hunting, peasants working, a countryside purified with snow. These Very Rich Hours, now hidden even from tourist eyes in the Condé Museum at Chantilly, and the miniatures made for Le bon roi, René of Anjou, were almost the last triumphs of illumination; for in the fifteenth century that art was challenged both by wood-block engraving and by the development of thriving schools of mural and easel painting at Fontainebleau, Amiens, Bourges, Tours, Moulins, Avignon, and Dijon, not to speak of the masters who worked for the dukes of Burgundy. Beauneveû and the Van Eycks brought Flemish styles of painting to France; and through Simone Martini and other Italians at Avignon, and the Angevin rule in Naples (1268–1435), Italian art influenced the French long before French arms invaded Italy. By 1450 French painting stood on its own feet, and marked its coming of age with the anonymous Pietà of Villeneuve, now in the Louvre.
Jean Fouquet is the first clear personality in French painting. Born at Tours (1416), he studied for seven years in Italy (1440–47), and returned to France with that predilection for classical architectural backgrounds which in the seventeenth century would become a mania with Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. Nevertheless he painted several portraits that are powerful revelations of character: Archbishop Juvénal des Ursins, Chancellor of France—stout and stern and resolute, and not too pious for statesmanship; Etienne Chevalier, treasurer of the realm—a melancholy man troubled by the impossibility of raising money as fast as a government can spend it; Charles VII himself, after Agnès Sorel had made a man of him; and Agnès in the rosy flesh, transformed by Fouquet into a cold and stately Virgin with downcast eyes and uplifted breast. For Chevalier, Jean illuminated a Book of Hours, brightening the tedium of ritual prayer with almost fragrant scenes from the valley of the Loire. An enameled medallion in the Louvre preserves Fouquet as he saw himself—no princely Raphael riding high, but a simple artisan of the brush, dressed for work, eager and diffident, worried and resolved, bearing the mark of a century of poverty on his brow. However, he passed without mishap from one reign to another, and rose at last to be peintre du roi for the incalculable Louis XI. After many years of labor comes success, and soon thereafter death.