Inside the Masterpiece: Fouquet’s “Madonna & Child”

Fouquet (1420-1481) was the leading French painter of the 15th century, a period in which Italian and Flemish painting outshone all others.  But France could boast mastery of manuscript illumination.  Fouquet began his career as an illuminator, and brought his talent for detail and precision to his panel painting.

Jean Fouquet

Madonna and Child

from the Melun Diptych (1450)

Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Jean Fouquet "Madonna & Child" from the Melun Diptych

Little is known about Fouquet’s life beyond the fact that he was born in Tours and went on an artistic pilgrimage to Italy in 1437.  This panel is the right half of the so-called Melun Diptych.  The accompanying left-hand panel, on display at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, depicts the donor, Etienne Chevalier, being presented by his patron saint, Saint Stephen.  Chevalier was a knight from Melun in France, and was French Ambassador to England in 1445.  In 1451 he would become the Treasurer to Charles VII of France.  An important and wealthy official, Chevalier commissioned this diptych (two-panel altarpiece) for his native town.

The vivid color of this altarpiece, broad swaths of pigment with little in the way of light suggested, is indicative of a medium that was in its death throes.  Tempera, a painting technique in which ground pigments are bound with egg white, was the dominant painting medium up until this point, when it was replaced by oil paints, which use linseed and nut oils as the binder.  Oil paints are translucent, and permit greater detail and the illusion of painted light, refraction, and layering.  Tempera on the other hand is essentially opaque, one layer blotting out the layer beneath it.  Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, also on this list, was the first monumental artwork in oil, and led a painterly revolution.  While tempera would remain the medium for frescoes, oil took over for works on panel or canvas.  Fouquet’s Madonna and Child is one of the last important monumental panel paintings to have been executed in the dying medium of tempera.

Strangely enough, the original frames of this painting were covered in blue velvet wound with silver and gold threads decorated with the donor’s initials spelled out in clusters of pearls.  This would have made a striking resonance with the blue of the patterned angels behind Mary’s throne.

The painting itself is strikingly modern.  The skin tone of the Madonna and child has been bleached into a marble-like whiteness with none of the warmth of humanity.  This is a painting of an impossible stone sculpture, complete with gravity-defying breasts slipping out of loosely-fitted blue leather garments.  Mary is far too sexy.  The angels behind her are like wallpaper emerging and surrounding her throne.  Red angels represent seraphim, the warrior angels, while the blue angels are the messengers, cherubim, each interlocked so that their illusory three-dimensional forms become a two-dimensional surface.  The angelic backdrop, like a stage curtain, recalls M. C. Escher prints, made five centuries later.

A love story is woven into the fabric of this altarpiece.  The model for the Madonna was Charles VII’s mistress, the renowned beauty Agnes Sorel.  Something fishy may have gone on between Chevalier and Sorel, because an 18th century inscription on the back of this panel reads that Chevalier commissioned the diptych after having promised Sorel that he would do so, as she lay on her deathbed.

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