FRANÇOIS, Guy
(b. 1578/79, Le Puy, d. 1650, Le Puy)

Holy Family with St Bruno and St Elisabeth

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Oil on canvas, 210 x 153 cm
Musée de l'Ain, Bourg-en-Bresse

St Bruno was canonised in 1623, and so appeared frequently at that time in paintings from throughout southern Europe.

Le Puy is the capital of the Haute Loire, part of a large upland area, the Massif central, in the southern central region of France. The large number of Romanesque churches in and around the town bear testimony to the fact that it flourished in the Middle ages. It was never an area noted for painting activity, and the return of Guy François from Rome to his native region was therefore to be of great significance in local terms, much more so than similar events in other centres where there was more than one painter active. Guy François was to work in isolation for more than thirty years, gradually diluting his art as memories of what he had learned in Rome faded. The pictures that he painted in France nearly all remain in and around Le Puy.

It is only in recent years that the Italian period of Guy François has been reconstructed and his Italian pictures disentangled from the work of Carlo Saraceni. Saraceni, a difficult artist to define, was essentially eclectic, with an unusual skill in brushwork almost akin to that of a northerner. He assimilated many influences, ranging from Caravaggio to the German ERlsheimer.

The picture by François that most shows the influence of Saraceni is the Holy Family with St Bruno and St Elisabeth, now in the Musée de l'Ain at Bourg-en-Bresse. Like much of François's work, it was intended as a large altarpiece. His altarpieces that survived in the Le Puy area, in the churches for which they were painted, are often surrounded by a provincial version of a sculptured and stuccoed framework in the Italian Baroque style. Although commonplace in Italy, such pictures in situ are rare in France; most seventeenth century altarpieces by the major painters are now in museums. The Holy Family altarpiece has the simplified forms sometimes found in works by Saraceni and also the strong lighting suitable for a prominent position in a church, where the picture would normally be seen from a distance.

The strength of some of Guy François' compositions has led some authorities to suggest that he was influenced by Nicolas Tournier, but the most likely explanations for their superficial similarity are that both artists brought back from Italy similar Caravaggesque influences, and that both of them were forced to rely on what they had experienced and learned without renewed contact with their sources. Both painter had a predilection for monumental scale, although François never achieved Tournier's dramatic intensity. Instead he provided, in an area isolated from all artistic contact, a whole group of soundly painted and striking altarpieces.