Over 65 portraits by French artists spanning four centuries, many of which have rarely been displayed.
When Pierre Dumonstier set about making a portrait of the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi in 1625, he chose not to draw her face but her hand instead. In explanation he wrote on the reverse: ‘The hands of [the goddess] Aurora are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this one is a thousand times more worthy for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into raptures.’
This exhibition formed from the British Museum’s prestigious collection of French portraits sheds light on an experimental era for the genre. Beginning with the innovations of the Renaissance – as seen in a series of work by Clouet that was commissioned by Henri II’s queen, Catherine de’ Medici – it explores the transformation of portraiture over four centuries of practice.
Particular attention is given to private commissions and personal sketches; never intended to be shared beyond family or friends, these projects afforded artists the freedom to take far greater creative risks. For example, the smoky black chalk drawings Albert Lebourg created of his wife and mother-in-law in the 19th century see the artist trialing unusual techniques; the velvety texture of the lines, the position of the sitters and the evocation of candlelight were completely unlike formal portraiture of this time.
Meanwhile in Henri Fantin-Latour’s self-portrait studies from 1874, he defies convention by capturing himself from behind.