(b. 1608, Langres, d. 1667, Langres)

Portrait of Catherine de Montholon

Oil on canvas, 54 x 40 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon

Of all the French provinces, Burgundy had the most significant cultural history in the late Middle Ages. The capital, Dijon, had been the centre of a glittering court which ruled over what had become, by the middle of the fifteenth century, an empire that included much of the Netherlands. The stability of the region came to an abrupt end with the death of Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, when Burgundy was immediately absorbed into France. Artistic activity ended equally abruptly, and in the sixteenth century there were no painters of significance in Dijon. In the first half of the seventeenth century only one painter of significance emerged in the whole of Burgundy - the mysterious Jean Tassel of Langres. He appears to have been influenced by his father Richard Tassel, and until the 1950s the two painters were totally confused with one another.

Jean Tassel's art is characterized by bold expressions, cold colour schemes and a generally 'provincial' air which is difficult to define, but in modern terms akin to the wearing of out-of-date garments away from the centre of fashion. Tassel has been left out of anthologies of French painting because his work is so unlike that of his contemporaries, and he is not yet appreciated as a painter of ability in his own right.

Tassel produced one masterpiece which must come from the time he spent in Dijon, the Portrait of Catherine de Montholon (the widow of René le Beau, Seigneur de Sanzette; the founder of the Ursulines of Dijon, died in 1650). The sense of grave austerity which pervades the portrait is usually interpreted by French writers as 'classicism' in the broadest sense of the term. What is most striking about the picture is its lack of reference to contemporary fashions, both in art and life. There is an uncompromising power of observation unadorned by artistic clichés.