Goddesses, mistresses and the tradition of sixteenth-century French portraiture

Activity: Service and engagementPublic lecture, debate or seminar


In sixteenth–century France a series of exquisite paintings and sculptures by individual, named artists and 
by unnamed artists from the Ecole 
de Fontainebleau, portrayed the mistresses—or ‘favorites’—of reigning French monarchs.
The portrayals draw on mythological, literary and iconological sources to place these women in a context befitting their beauty, status and importance within the life of the monarch and within French society. The portrayals often also contain in their margins an additional narrative bearing on the life of the woman in the portrait.
The idealised representation of the women depicted invites the viewer to unravel the commonplaces underlying the portraits and to decipher the ‘language’—often unknown to the modern viewer—on which these portraits are constructed. Cognisant of the complexity of this language in secular art, the French critic, Guy de Tervarent, devised a dictionary, published by Droz in 1958, titled Attributs et symboles dans l’art profane. Dictionnaire d’un langage perdu, (Attributes and symbols in secular art. Dictionary of a lost language), a valuable tool for scholars of the early- modern period, as are the emblem books and the literature of the period.
The tantalising narratives of the life of the women portrayed are also ‘readable’ if the portraits are closely examined and we can query how far the truth is masked by the artists’ representation of the women in the portraits.
Period19 Oct 2018
Held atLawrence Wilson Art Gallery