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This exhibition is in the past. View our current exhibitions.

Art in France


France covered a significantly smaller area at the time of the Renaissance than it does today. The country was ruled by the powerful Valois family, who were rivals of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors in both Northern Europe and the Italian peninsula. After the death of Henry II in 1559, France was ruled by a series of minors under Henry’s widow, Catherine de Médicis. During Catherine’s regency, the country was racked by internal unrest, as Catholics and Protestants vied for primacy.

Against this background of conflict, the Valois kings of France – enthusiastic art lovers – bolstered their authority and power through lavish displays of magnificence. Portraiture flourished at court and many senior figures commissioned paintings from Jean Perréal and Jean and François Clouet. The Clouets produced delicate miniatures as well as full-size paintings: those displayed here are among the earliest portrait miniatures to be made.

Francis I, who ruled from 1515 until 1547, was a keen patron of Italian artists, and invited a number of important figures from Italy, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio and Nicolò dell’Abate.

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