Tours 1500. Art Capital

Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 17 March to 17 June 2012.

1. Tours, around 1470
Dais from the central portal of the cathedral
Limestone and glass - 81 x 70 x 50 cm
Tours, collection de la Société
Archéologique de Touraine
Photo : D. R.

The School of Tours, art in the Val-de-Loire, the art of leisure, Flemish influence, Italian presence... The theoretical discussions concerning French art during the early Renaissance carried out in the 20th century resulted in a rich vocabulary and multiple interpretations. Art history saw itself mixed in with, at times, nationalist overtones, whether open or tacit, which tended to either assert the originality of French art compared to the Northern European or Italian models, or else to defend the supremacy of the north over the south.
The current status of all the above questions is the subject of one of the excellent essays provided in the catalogue of this exhibition. This one, on the heels of other recent shows devoted to art around 1500, now takes stock of the events happening in Tours and in the Val-de-Loire, at a time when the kings often visited the region, escorted by wealthy lords and bourgeois who were also artistic patrons and commissioned works.

Visitors will appreciate the wealth of information presented in this retrospective which offers a thorough overview of all the disciplines, including medals, tapestries, illuminations, paintings, stained-glass and sculptures. Although architecture cannot really be displayed, except for a sculpted dais from the cathedral’s central portal (ill. 1), it is studied extensively in the catalogue.
The demonstration is divided into several chapters presenting, on the one hand, the historical context, the patrons and the iconography and on the other, the different artistic techniques, with stained-glass, paintings and illuminations treated in the same group. Indeed, the artists were often the same ones and while the stained-glass and, especially, the paintings suffered badly in the hands of the various iconoclast movements, the illuminated books are still quite plentiful. There are many splendid examples on view here but, alas, displayed too low for visitors, requiring them to lean over significantly in order to admire them. This is in fact the only criticism we would make concerning the setting, which is understated and perfectly suitable otherwise.

2. Jean Poyet (documented from 1465 to 1498-died before 1504)
Liget Altarpiece, 1485
Oil on Panel - 143 x 283 cm
Loches, château
Photo : P. Boyer

While the exhibition covers the period from 1470 to 1520, surprisingly, it does not present anything by Jean Fouquet (who died around 1481). This absence, no doubt due to the fact that it is difficult to obtain loans for an artist who has often been highlighted over the past few years and whose works cannot always be moved, is highly regretable because, as the catalog points out, he is the major founding figure of 15th century art in Tours. But most of all, he was responsible for actually creating this school of Tours, if we are to accept its existence.
We can however, console ourselves with works by Jean Poyer and Jean Bourdichon, who are also studied in several essays. For the first, an artist known through texts and whose oeuvre has been reestablished only in the last forty years, visitors will admire an exceptional triptych which, unless we are mistaken, was not on view at the exhibition France 1500. This is the Liget Altarpiece (ill. 2), held at the château in Loches, which shows an obvious Northern Italian influence, particularly that of Mantegna. The artist was also an illuminator as well as providing models for stained-glass windows of which a fragment with Saint John Evangelist is displayed.

3. Jean Bourdichon (c. 1457-1521)
Page from Hours of Louis XII, The Flight into Egypt
Paint on Vellum - 24 x 17 cm
Londres, Courtesy of Sam Fogg
Photo : Courtesy of Sam Fogg

Among the pieces by Jean Bourdichon, we would like to point out, besides the many illuminations, the exceptional assembly of eight out of fifteen known sheets from The Hours of Louis XII, a work commissioned by the King of France then taken to England by Mary Tudor and finally taken apart piece by piece. This ensemble includes the sublime Flight into Egypt (ill. 3), currently offered on the art market, which we sincerely wish could be listed as a work of major heritage interest so that a patron might acquire it for the benefit of the Musée in Tours.
The latter has in fact, over the past few years, considerably increased its 15th century art collections. Apart from those mentioned in this news item, we should recall two panels Christ and The Virgin, acquired in 2007 (see news item in French), which are of course presented here with their new attribution which is none other than Jean Bourdichon with the aide of his studio.
We discovered that these works, for which there was no doubt a first version by the master himself, served as models for both several replicas produced in his studio but also for illuminations and even painted enamels (ill. 4 and 5). Another panel of The Virgin, close to the one from Tours but lacking the Christ companion piece it had, was recently identified (Sam Fogg collection) but is simply reproduced in the catalogue.

4. Jean Ier Pénicaud (c. 1480-after 1541)
Christ Giving His Blessing
Enamel Painted on Copper - 24.2 x 19.8 cm
Paris, Musée de Cluny
Photo : RMN/J.-G. Berizzi

5. Jean Ier Pénicaud (c. 1480-after 1541)
The Virgin Praying
Enamel Painted on Copper - 24.2 x 19.8 cm
Paris, Musée de Cluny
Photo : RMN/J.-G. Berizzi

6. Gullaume Chaleveau
(Known in Tours from 1514 to 1527)
The Virgin with Child, 1515-1516
Marble - 115 x 39 X 37 cm
Sens, cathédrale
Photo : Ph. Bardelot

This natural persistence of the models can also be found in sculpture. In this way, a very beautiful marble Virgin with Child (ill. 6) from the Sens cathedral is very close to the Virgin with Child just acquired by Tours (see here).
Michel Colombe, the greatest sculptor in Tours from this period, for the same very understandable reasons as in the case of Fouquet - there are very few known acknowledged works - is also missing in the exhibition, at least through originals, since he is represented with three plaster casts of very fine quality, lent by the Musée des Monuments Français. These are a Saint George from the Louvre, one of his three documented works ; the two others represent Force and Virtue from the tomb of Francis II and Marguerite de Foix whose original resides in the Nantes cathedral.
Several sculptors who worked with Michel Colombe are featured in studies offered in the catalogue : the three Juste brothers, authors of the tomb of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne in the Saint Denis basilica, as well as Guillaume Regnault and Jérôme Pacherot (the latter being of Italian origin, as were the Juste brothers), who probably participated in the tomb for Charles VIII’s children and which we recommend seeing in the cathedral not far from the museum. Much as for painting, alas, Tours sculpture from the 15th and 16th centuries has suffered considerably, and there are many losses, notably as concerns the cathedral décor.

7. After a model by Jean Poyer
Stained-Glass Window with Saint John Evangelist
Collections de la Société archéologique de Touraine
Photo : D. R.

We will conclude our review of this beautiful exhibition with news of a small scandal involving a museum in Tours managed by the Conseil général. The latter has indeed closed the Musée de l’Hôtel Goüin which exhibited the very rich collections of the archeological society. The works, some of which have been placed on deposit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts (though already too small for its own collections) and many of which are presented at the Tours 1500 show here (ill. 1 and 7) are now for the most part destined to packing crates. An affair - which we had already mentioned, in French - and which we will return to shortly.

General curators : Philippe Le Leyzour and Guy du Chazoud. Scholarly curators : Béatrice de Chancel-Bardelot, Pascale Charron, Pierre-Gilles Girault and Jean-Marie Guillouët.

Collective work, under the direction of Béatrice de Chancel-Bardelot, Pascale Charron, Pierre-Gilles Girault and Jean-Marie Guillouët, Tours 1500. Capitales des arts, 2012, Somogy Editions d’art, 384 p., 39€. ISBN : 978-2-7572-0515-0.

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts, 18 place François Sicard, 37000 Tours. Tel : +33 (0)2 47 05 68 73. Open every day except Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission : 4€ (full rate) ; 2€ (reduced rate).

Didier Rykner, vendredi 1er juin 2012

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