The Invention of France: Happy Bastille Day!

Before the trois-couleurs, before the Eiffel Tower, before the Larousse Gastronomique, a 15th-century artist named Jean Fouquet was at work creating images that were utterly and exclusively French – though, at that time, saying “That is so… French!” might not have been very meaningful to many people.  In a new book entitled Jean Fouquet and the Invention of France: Art and Nation after the Hundred Years War, Erik Inglis shows us that Fouquet was, in fact, shaping a national identity through his court painting for Charles VII and Louis XI.

In the 15th century, the royal circle was keenly focused on securing France against outside threats and centralizing authority in the king’s hands.  This process, which was not merely military but also ideological, called for nothing less than the invention of French national identity, defined in terms as various as the country’s patron saints and its wine, its buildings and its artists.  Inglis explains both how Fouquet contributed to this nascent nationalism, and how this nationalism affected the court’s appreciation of him as a great French artist.

One of the ways that Fouquet put his imprimatur on French national identity was by illustrating a 1450s edition of a book entitled the Grandes Chroniques de France – the authoritative history of France.  The history was published first in 1250, and was continually expanded and updated as decades and centuries passed.  One particularly notable difference between Fouquet’s version of the Grandes Chroniques and those that had come before is the preponderance of fleurs-de-lis – the stylized lilies emblematic of the king.  This image took on its modern form in the thirteenth century, so Fouquet’s use of the fleurs-de-lis in illustrations of events dating to the eleventh century (and earlier) was anachronistic… but gave the history of France a visual “French-ness”. The painting reproduced on the book jacket depicts King Edward I of England paying homage to King Philip IV of France for his extensive family lands in France.  As the son of Philip’s daughter Isabella and grandson to both monarchs, Edward III of England would later attempt to claim the French throne for himself, initiating the Hundred Years War, and his descendants followed suit until the early English triumphs were reversed by Joan of Arc.  Fouquet’s 15th-century scenes were crucial in re-emphasizing the subordination of the English kings, grandly illustrating the victory of France over its longtime rival.

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