A little break from contemporary discourse–A renaissance portrait

Andrew Odlin

Francois 1, Le Premier Rois De France by Jean Clouet

            In the midst of all this contemporary dialogue in class, I thought it would be interesting to explain a Renaissance work that captivated me to a degree that few contemporary works do. Thousands upon thousands of art historians since the Italian Renaissance have analyzed the masterworks of the period, and surely their comprehension and knowledge outstrips my own. This fact is not bothersome to me given that I am not an art historian, they will not read this analysis and in fact it is not written for them. It is written for the sole purpose of expressing and exploring the reasons that the portrait of Francois 1, Premiere rois de France leaped from its surface and held my gaze for no less than ten consecutive minutes.

Of all the standard portraits in the Louvre’s gargantuan collection, it was this one by Jean Clouet at a modest size of 96 x 74 cm that captivated me most. As with any artwork that possesses an unexpected degree of control and authority over the eye, the reason for its unmistakable presence is not easily identified. To be sure, the source of this works’ surprising authority is a product of a combination of visual attributes; the precise figural framing, the luminescent intricacy of the kingly attire, the bold red monolithic background, the calm assurance present in the king’s gaze. But it is more than this. The above ingredients for this epic portrait would fail to retain their vivacity without the sly inclusion of narrative presented by the king’s hands.

But I will get to the hands in a while, I must first recount the elements which announced their presence most immediately. Francois’ gaze was the first. Benefitting from the brilliant contrast provided by the meaty juxtaposition of fair skin and deep velvet red, the king’s eyes cut effortlessly through their surface and latched onto my own, permitting my affronted stare to wander only after it was clear that he knew much more than I. His smile informed me that he controlled much more than I. Naturally, it was his weighty olive and royal green chest garb that commanded my attention next. Somewhere between his unreasonably broad shoulders, the lofty silk folds and hard vertical striping of his clothing was suggested a capacity for both desirable decadence and unwavering fortitude. As the eye follows lines naturally, downward went my focus to the base of the portrait and the significance of the figure.

His sword handle is subtle. It is obscured mostly by delicate fingers and prevented from any pompous gleam by deepening shadow. Under the complete control of its master, the weapon assumes the role of fear-bringer. But the fear is not of the weapon itself, it is of my ability to deserve its retribution. All that I must do to avoid any business with the blade is remain on the good side of its bearer. If this were not enough to ensure my servitude outright, then the fact of his gloves literally having come off, placed readily beneath the right hand, is the final queue not to attract any unfavorable attention from this, my King. Having realized the severity of his character, I look back to his face to make sure we are still in good standing. The velvet red backing now takes on a completely different effect. Before I became acquainted with my superior, it seemed to be a monolithic barricade preventing any atmospheric distraction. Now I am keen to the blocky ornamentation that adorns and animates our interaction. A more telling metaphor for the cunning assertion of power evident in the portrait is the deepened red–not velvet anymore but blood red—that indicates Francois’ shadow.

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