The collection of French art in the Hermitage is exceptionally rich and is the finest outside France among the museums of the world. More than forty rooms are used to house the displays of painting, sculpture and various items of applied art.
Rooms 273 and 274. 15th-16th century art. At the end of the fifteenth century the separate feudal provinces were united into a single French state governed by the king. Within the framework of this national state there developed conditions favourable to the growth of culture. In the town of Limoges the production of enamels was revived after a long interval of time, not champleve as in the Middle Ages (see p. Ill) but painted.
The very rich collection in the Hermitage allows us to trace the development of the style of fifteenth and sixteenth century French enamellers. Religious subjects were gradually replaced by mythological ones, medieval convention gave way to a realistic handling of themes, and grisaille (a painting executed entirely in monochrome, in a series of greys) superseded polychrome painting, thus making it possible to convey volume both of figures and of space. The Renaissance artists turned from objects connected with religious worship to the creation of decorative secular articles, such as dishes, jugs and plates.
Room 274. Sixteenth century French court art, the so-called Fon-tainebleau school, developed under the significant influence of Italian Mannerism. The Venus and Cupid relief was created by one of the leading representatives of the Fontainebleau school, Jean Goujon (1510-1568). The sculptor has skilfully worked into his composition carved on an oval medallion, the graceful, somewhat elongated figure of the goddess presented in a fanciful pose. The distinctive originality of sixteenth century French art is seen more clearly in portrait painting. One of the finest items in the exhibition is the Portrait of the Duke of Alenpon, painted by the famous Francois Clouet (1520-1572).
In a large cabinet there are some faiences by Bernard Palissy (1510-1589), the inventor of a coloured, transparent glazing which gave pottery additional beauty and durability. At one time his decorative dishes with relief designs of fish, snakes and crayfish were tremendously popular; this was called Palissy’s rustic pottery. In a case by the window there are three exquisite sixteenth century faience vessels made in the small French town of Saint-Porchaire. They have been preserved up to the present day only as separate items, not as part of a set.
Rooms 275-278. Early and mid-17th century art. During the seventeenth century a number of different trends developed in French art. Two paintings by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), Heracles among the Olympians and Portrait of Anne of Austria as Minerva, are typical examples of court art at the time of Louis XIII (room 275). Room 276 contains some of the work of Jacques Callot (1592-1635), a good representative of the realist trend in the French art of this period. A series of etchings produced by him called The Disasters of War constitute, for those times, an unusually bold exposure of the bloody events of the Thirty Years’ . War. Views of Paris and Nancy, prints portraying beggars, gypsies and actors of Italian comedy all point to the great range of this craftsman’s fine work. Of great importance in seventeenth century French art was the work of the Le Nain brothers, who portrayed peasant life with great sympathy and respect for the common man. The MilkwOman’s Family was painted by Louis (1593-1648), the most talented of the brothers. Although he took for his subject an everyday theme, the artist was able to impart to it a definite importance; the figures of the peasants are full of dignity, and the compact group stands out boldly against the silvery expanse of the masterfully painted landscape. Also in this room are Louis Le Nain’s A Visit to Grandmother, Peasants at Table by Antoine Le Nain and A Peasant Family by the third brother, Mathieu.
Room 279. The Hermitage has a very large and valuable collection of the works of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the founder of Neoclassicism in seventeenth century French painting. The main task of art according to Poussin was to portray the noble, the heroic and the beautiful embodied in ideal forms, which the artist can learn only by studying the legacy of antiquity. In the centre of Poussin’s vision stands Man, endowed with reason, will and spiritual beauty. Such are the heroes of his numerous paintings on biblical, mythological, and literary themes: the selfless Erminia in Tancred and Er-minia, the fearless Esther of Esther before Ahasuerus, and Moses the wise tribal chief in Moses Striking the Rock. Poussin’s rationalism and philosophical outlook are revealed in his delightful Landscape with Polythemus (1649). Polythemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, is sitting on the top of a rock playing a pipe; the nymphs, satyrs and a ploughman tilling the land are all absorbing this song. In his search for an ideal representation of nature Poussin does not paint from life, but builds up his landscape from separate details observed in nature.
Room 280. Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) was a leading exponent of the classical landscape. Composed according to the rules of Classicism, Claude’s canvases are saturated with light, which lends them a particular emotional quality. The famous series The Four Times of the Day (Morning, Noon, Evening and Night) reflects the artist’s interest in light, which was something new for French art.
Room 281. Late 17th century art. The official art of France during the golden age of the absolute monarchy served the task of glorifying Louis XIV. Artistic life was regulated by the Academy, at the head of which was the premier pelntre to the king, Charles Lebrun (1619-1690), and after him Pierre Mignard (1612-1695). Mi-gnard’s work is represented by the monumental Magnanimity of Alexander the Great. After his victory over the Persian emperor Darius, Alexander enters his tent where he encounters the family of the vanquished emperor begging for mercy. With a gesture of the hand the victor grants the captives their lives. The choice of subject was not fortuitous; in the figure of Alexander is glorified le roi soleil, Louis XIV. If Mignard extolled the king in the figure of the great general, the sculptor Francois Girardon (1628-1715) portrayed Louis as a Roman emperor. Qirardon’s small bronze model for the unpreserved equestrian monument presents the king of France in the attire of the ancient Roman soldier and in a wig, such as was worn in the seventeenth century.
In room 282 there is a unique collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century Western European silver, for the most part French. Rooms 290-297 contain items of French applied art, including furniture, Gobelin tapestries, faience, bronze and porcelain. This collection is known throughout the world on account of its exceptional wealth and because of the great range of items.
Room 283. This exhibition introduces the visitor to the French portrait painting of the second half of the seventeenth century. The eminent artist Nicolas Largilliere (1756-1846) is represented by a sketch for a large painting which has not been preserved – a group portrait of the members of the Paris parliament entitled Preparation for a Fete in the Paris Town Hall to Celebrate Louis XIV’s Recovery. The Portrait of a Scholar was painted by the distinguished portrait artist Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743). The two ebony cupboards, decorated with bronze and tortoise-shell and used for keeping medals in were made in the workshop of Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), a well-known furniture-maker. An original Boulle cupboard can be seen in room 293.
Rooms 284-289. 18th century art. This room/contains several pieces by one of France’s most eminent artists, Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who, in his search for a realist approach, broke with hidebound academic convention. In his small paintings The Hardships of War and The Recreations of War (room 284) Watteau portrayed the everyday life of a soldier rather than ostentatious battle scenes as his predecessors had done. The Savoyard with a Marmot (1716), a picture of a simple-hearted young travelling musician, also confirms Watteau’s interest in the simple phenomena of life. The blue expanse of the clear, fresh sky, the buildings of the small town, and the silhouettes of the bare trees make up a landscape in which the fresh colours of autumn are dominant. Watteau became famous after his adoption of a completely new genre, as painter of so-called fetes galantes. An example of this type of painting is the Embarrassing Proposal, painted around 1716. Some members of fashionable society are amusing themselves chatting in the shade of the gossamery foliage; the casually graceful postures of the young ladies and their admirers convey subtle, almost imperceptible shades of emotion. A delicate range of colour is manipulated by Watteau in tones of subdued silvery grey, brownish-orange and yellowish-pink. Exquisite colouring and delicate execution distinguish one of the artist’s masterpieces, a small painting A Capricious Woman (c. 1718), in which the spectator encounters the same world of superficial feelings.
The exhibition in rooms 285 and 286 presents examples of Rococo art which existed, according to the apt remark of a contemporary, “in order to please”. Venuses, cupids, shepherd boys and shepherd girls are the central figures of the many works of Francois Boucher (1703-1770), a court painter of Louis XV. “What colours What diversity!… But where, you ask yourself, has one ever seen shepherd boys dressed with such elegance, such splendour?” These words of Denis Diderot concerning Boucher’s paintings may also be applied to the Pastoral Scene, which is in the Hermitage. Boucher’s oval-shaped canvases, The Triumph of Venus and The Toilet of Venus, confined in their colours to attractive pinks and blues, are very typical of Rococo art, of which he was a distinguished exponent.
In room 285 particular mention should be made of the work of Etienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-1791), who executed the equestrian statue of Peter the Great (“Bronze Horseman”) in St Petersburg. His Cupid and Flora, in which elegance is combined with the true-to-life quality of the figures, are evidence of the sculptor’s faithful adherence to realist traditions. In a large cabinet by the window, among some Sevres porcelains, are the unglazed white porcelain statuettes Cupid, Psyche and Woman Bathing, made from models of Falconet.
Room 286 contains a number of portraits by Jean-Marc Nattier and Louis Tocque, painters who at one time enjoyed considerable popularity. Falconet’s sculpture Winter is distinguished from his earlier works by its greater severity of style; this is related to the growing influence of Classicism in French art during the last thirty years or so of the eighteenth century.
Room 287. Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) was a leading representative of the realist movement in eighteenth century French art, which reflected the ideas and beliefs of the bourgeoisie at that time becoming more firmly established. His Washerwoman (c. 1737) and Grace before Meat (1744) take the onlooker into the sphere of activities and everyday problems and chores of a poor French family. Chardin was an outstanding painter of still life, which was unknown to French aristocratic art as an independent genre. The appeal of the Still Life with the Attributes of the Arts, painted by Chardin in 1766 for the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, lies in the austere conception of the composition and the subtle, skilful use of colour.
In the centre of the room stands the marble statue of the great man of the Enlightenment Voltaire (1781), created by the realist sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). The eighty-four-year-old Voltaire sat for him in 1778, but by May of that year the great man was dead. With ruthless veracity the hand of the sculptor portrayed the aged, weak body, the hands disfigured by illness, the crooked spine and toothless mouth. But upon the face of Voltaire, with its high brow, ironic smile and the poignant gaze of the sharp eyes, is the seal of an immortal intellect and undying energy. The philosopher, seated in an armchair, is dressed in a garment which reminds us of the ancient toga, and upon his head he wears an ancient headband. Also of interest are the portrait busts of Diderot and Falconet carved in marble by Marie-Anne Collot (1748-1821). Collot came with her teacher Falconet to Russia, where she took part in the work on the Bronze Horseman. It was from her model that the head of Peter the Great was made.
Room 288. The bourgeois theoreticians of the immediate pre-Revolution period in France had a high regard for the didactic, sentimental art of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). His Paralytic Helped by His Children, one of his most famous canvases, was considered to be an affirmation of bourgeois virtue and a protest against the depravity of the aristocracy and the frivolity of Rococo art. Another example of this type of moralizing scene is his painting Widow Visiting the Cure. Greuze’s artistic merit is seen fully in such works as The Spoilt Child, Girl with a Doll and Young Man in a Hat. Three paintings-The Stolen Kiss, The Farmer’s Children and The Snatched Kiss – illustrate the work of the fine painter of the second half of the eighteenth century Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732- 1806). There are also some paintings by the famous landscape painter Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789).
Room 289. In the White Room (designed by Briullov, 1838) there are paintings, sculptures and items of applied art from the last thirty years of the eighteenth century. During these years Hubert Robert (1733- 1808) enjoyed great popularity; ancient ruins were the favourite theme of his decorative landscapes.