The Art Institute presents “Kings, Queens and Courtiers”
Women channel political ambitions into art in Early Renaissance France.
Women’s History Month ends March 31, but the struggle against job discrimination, sexual harassment, inadequate family-leave policies and threats to Planned Parenthood continues. Still, at least contemporary American women don’t have to contend with the Salic law.
Codified by the 6th-century equivalent of Sen. Sam Brownback, the Salic law prevented women from inheriting the throne of medieval France. Toward the end of the 15th century, King Louis XI expanded the law to bar women from ruling “appanages”: the dukedoms and other lands given to the king’s younger sons. The law had another, unexpected effect: It led to the creation of several objects in “Kings, Queens and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France,” which is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 30.
French Renaissance princesses became patrons of the arts to maintain the authority they did possess or reinforce their children’s claims to titles and territories. “They are very strong characters,” Art Institute curator Martha Wolff tells me by phone. And “if the male heir is young and impressionable, then they can exercise indirect power.” Anne of France, one of the exhibition’s patrons, served as unofficial regent for her teenage brother Charles VIII. Once he came of age, she shifted her attention to strengthening her husband Pierre’s position as the duke of Bourbon and her daughter Suzanne’s claim to Bourbon lands. Anne of France hired Jean Hey (a.k.a. the Master of Moulins), a key artist in “Kings, Queens and Courtiers,” to paint her family in the best possible light. In Hey’s triptych The Virgin in Glory (c. 1492–3), Saints Peter and John the Evangelist present the kneeling parents and daughter.
Such works would have appeared in Anne of France’s family’s stronghold in Moulins, a city that “is now not on the beaten path, but then was much more so,” Wolff says. “The French court was centered in the Loire, and they were going back and forth to Italy all the time. So [Anne of France and Pierre] were probably making a statement within their own realm. But also, they were counting on their work being seen by the king and his court.”
Charles VIII’s wife Anne of Brittany channeled her political ambitions into art as well. (To marry Anne of Brittany, Charles dumped his underage fiancée Margaret of Austria, herself a future patron of the arts. Hey’s exquisite portrait of Margaret, completed pre-breakup circa 1490, appears in the show.) After Charles died, leaving no surviving male heirs, Anne of Brittany finagled a marriage to the new king, Louis XII, to preserve the independence of Brittany. Upon her death, she had her heart interred separately from her body in a golden vessel (pictured, 1514) bearing an inscription affirming her connections to both Brittany and France. Wolff identifies this bizarre practice as “a tradition which developed specifically with the kings and the princes of the blood.… It had also the effect of multiplying the places of devotion for the dead person.”
In 1504, when Louis XII became seriously ill five years after marrying Anne of Brittany, Anne hastened to have herself crowned and hired the fabulously nicknamed Master of the Chronique Scandaleuse to paint her coronation. Louise of Savoy struck a medal instead, to remind viewers that her ten-year-old son—the future Francis I—had a claim to the throne. One side of the bronze disk bears a portrait of Francis in profile; the other a salamander (his father’s emblem) whose tail is knotted (a symbol of the house of Savoy).
While such machinations seem callous today, Wolff considers the princesses’ predicament “a very poignant human story.” The Italian Renaissance also yielded important female patrons, such as Isabella d’Este, notes Wolff, “but because of the complexity of royal iconography, royal power, it’s a particularly fascinating situation in France.”