French Art in the 16th Century

Painting Sculpture
Historical background


The stay of the Lombard painter Andrea Solario at Gaillon (about 1505-1507), the activity in Albi of a group of Italian fresco painters (1513), the arrival at Amboise of Leonardo da Vinci with his pupils (1516-1517) followed by Andrea del Sarto's brief stay at court, did not influence French painting until after 1530, when François I and Henry II began their patronage of Fontainebleau. Under the direction of Rosso from Florence and Primaticcio of Bologna with whom was associated in 1552 his follower Niccolò dell' Abbate (d. 1571; ballroom, 1556), Italian, Flemish and local painters, the most eminent of whom was Antoine Caron (c. 1520-1599), formed the first school of Fontainebleau, making it one of the centres of international Mannerism.

In Paris, masters who derived from local traditions, Jean Cousin the Elder (d. about 1560) and his son (d. about 1595) and the painter of the Ladies in a Bath (Louvre); followed the aesthetic of the Renaissance though they also retained personal qualities. Under Henry III and Henry IV, a new generation of painter-decorators constituted the second Fontainebleau school; Toussaint-Dubreuil (1561-1602), Jacob Bunel, the naturalised Flemish artist Amboise Dubois, and Martin Fréminet (1567-1619) were its leaders. With them and the Netherlands artists Jean de Joey, grandson of Lucas van Leyden, Jérôme Franck, influenced by Floris, the Mannerist style became ponderous, while in Nancy, Jacques Bellange (d. 1616) successfully preserved its elegance. Portrait painting, very much in fashion during the Valois period, retained northern realism under Jean Clouet (about 1485-1541), his son François (about 1516-1572), a brilliant draughtsman, and Corneille de Lyon (d. after 1574). The Quesnel, the Dumonstier and Lagneau extended into the 17th century the art of the portrait-drawing in three colours. The Antwerp painter Frans Pourbus II (d. 1622), painter to Marie de' Medici, gave a more official character to his portraits.

See the list of French painters of the 16th century and browse their paintings.


The first third of the century was a period of adaptation to the ornamental grammar and to the fuller, calmer forms of the Renaissance, introduced by the Italians in the service of the king in Touraine (Amboise, Blois) and afterwards employed by the Cardinal d'Amboise (d. 1510) at Gaillon. To this direct action may be added that of the works in Genoese marble imported about 1505-1510. Teams of Franco-Italian decorators deriving from Gaillon made the first two great mausoleums of the French Renaissance: the wall tomb of the Cardinals d'Amboise (Rouen cathedral, 1518-1525) after a design by Rolland Leroux, the architect of the cathedral, and the monumental sepulchre of Louis XII (St Denis, 1517-1531), the work of the Juste, naturalised Florentines. Italian influence can be discerned in other sculptures in marble created in the workshops of Tours, works of serene grandeur (tomb of the Poncher, 1521, Louvre, by Guillaume Regnault, nephew of Colombe; Virgins of Ecouen and of Olivet, Louvre; Virgin of St Galmier, with more studied grace).

From 1527 the arrival of the Florentines, attracted by François I, confirmed the success of the Italian manner. When they arrived in 1530 the most eminent of them, Rosso (d. 1540) and Primaticcio of Bologna, combined painting and sculpture in the decoration of Fontainebleau (stuccoes in full and low relief; the François I Gallery, 1531-1539). Primaticcio (d. 1570) who became the head of the school of Fontainebleau in 1541, and created the new canon of form, more elongated, which was subsequently adopted by French artists (room of the Duchesse d'Etampes). Bronzes cast from antique moulds which Primaticcio had gone to Italy to fetch (1540) allowed French artists to absorb Graeco-Roman statuary. Benvenuto Cellini's stay in France (1540-1545) does not seem to have had any profound effect. Henry II favoured French artists over Italian decorators, whose lessons the Frenchmen had assimilated.

Paris, a centre of humanism, became the artistic capital and, alongside the Ile-de-France, was the centre of the French Renaissance. In his low reliefs Jean Goujon from Normandy (about 1510-about 1566) combined the nobility of the purest classic style with the sinuous elegance of Mannerism: nymphs in the Fountain of the Innocents, in Paris, 1549. Bontemps (1507-about 1570), Primaticcio's assistant at Fontainebleau, rediscovered intuitively the virility of Gothic sculptors: bas-reliefs on the tomb of Francois I at St Denis. The effigies and religious sculptures of Germain Pilon (1535-1590), a pupil of Bontemps and the favourite sculptor of Catherine de' Medici (monument for the heart of Henry II, Louvre), formed the connection between the art of the Gothic masters and that of the Baroque period: Virgin of Pity, Chancellor Birague (Louvre). In Paris, under Henry IV, B. Prieur and Biard represented the classicising tendency of the second Mannerist school, represented in Italy by Giambologna and his collaborator Pietro Francavilla.

See the list of French sculptors of the 16th century and browse their works.