Recent grads lead journey through French Renaissance at Yale Art Gallery
Last summer, Yale students Cordélia de Brosses, Hélène Cesbron Lavau, and Stephanie Wisowaty visited the Château Fontainebleau outside of Paris to tour the grand palace’s galleries, courtyard, and gardens.
The students were curating an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery on the French Renaissance. The show would draw extensively from a private collection located in New York City that never had been researched or exhibited. The gallery funded a five-week research trip to Europe, where the students visited museums and libraries in London and Paris, and met with experts on 16th-century French art. They also visited the château, which became the epicenter of artistic production in France during the reign of Francis I, whose role as a patron earned him the sobriquet “prince of arts and letters.”
The show, “Le Goût du Prince: Art and Prestige in 16th-Century France,” opened May 20 — three days before its curators graduated from Yale. It explores the relationship between art and power during the French Renaissance, when monarchs and aristocrats used patronage of the arts to demonstrate their wealth and status. It reflects a period when the “goût du prince” or the “taste of the prince” exacted considerable and lasting influence over artistic production.
Wisowaty ’16, a literature major, said the show’s theme developed from their research.
“The French Renaissance was a time of intense artistic flowering. As we became familiar with the objects in the collection, we were interested in the social and political forces that were behind their creation,” she said. “We wanted to see how both noble patronage and royal patronage affected the artistic production of that era.”
The works on view encompass a diverse range of media, including prints, paintings, enamels, ceramics, medal, and sculptures. The summer research trip helped the curators understand the various objects in their original context.
Touring the château helped inspire the show’s layout and narrative, said the students.
“Pondering the majestic frescoes in the Gallery of Francis I and in the vestibule of the main entrance, called the Porte Dorée, acquainted us with the Fontainebleau School’s elaborate ornamental style,” said de Brosses ’16, an art history major from Paris. “We decided that we wanted to recreate that sense of grandeur in our show.”
A journey through the French Renaissance
A vinyl reproduction of a fresco from the Gallery of Francis I by Italian artist Rossi Fiorentino — a pioneering member of the School of Fontainebleau — greets visitors to the exhibition. The fresco depicts Francis I, crowned with laurel, his sword raised, and a book tucked under his arm, entering the Temple of Immortality. He strides into light pouring from the temple’s doorway as blindfolded figures, representing ignorance, writhe in the foreground.
The fresco and its ornamental stucco feature motifs and decorative elements echoed in many of the works on display, Wisowaty said.
The exhibition’s opening section examines how the 16th-century French royalty and aristocracy used portraiture to assert social and political dominance. It shows how the form became less conventional during the period, as monarchs began being depicted as mythological figures or Roman emperors. A late-16th-century marble relief appears to show King Henry IV nude and seated on a cloud. The relief is paired with a ceramic sculpture depicting the same king as Neptune, wielding a trident astride a seahorse.
These images were often circulated throughout the kingdom to promote the king’s prestige and power, Wisowaty said.
The second section focuses on Fontainebleau, a former royal hunting lodge that, beginning in 1528, Francis I expanded and transformed into a magnificent palace and center of artistic production. He hired celebrated Italian artists Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Niccolòdell ‘Abate to oversee the palace’s decoration. The Italian masters collaborated with French artists to develop the Fontainebleau School’s classically inspired and highly ornamental style.
A corridor emulating Fontainebleau’s grand galleries stretches through the exhibition’s center. The hallway features prints of decorative frescoes from the palace — each wall showcases works from a specific space in Fontainebleau. The prints on display include an engraving of the vinyl recreation of the fresco of Francis I entering the Temple of Immortality at the exhibition’s entrance.
The next section explores the rise of mythological themes and secularization that characterizes 16th-century French art. Among the section’s highlights is “The Triumph of Mars,” an oil painting by French artist Antoine Caron from the gallery’s collection that critiques the European Wars of Religion. Caron depicts the Roman god of war seated atop a pile of battle trophies as a pillaged town burns in background. The artist surrounded Mars with allegories of the evils of wars. His cart is drawn by Destruction and Devastation, two fierce-looking horses. Starvation, a sickly figure gnawing on a bone, trudges alongside the cart.
The School of Fontainebleau’s influence extended to the decorative arts as French aristocrats sought to express their wealth and taste through household objects. The exhibition features many examples of tableware, dishes, and other everyday items ornately decorated with elements often directly borrowed from the frescoes and stuccos at Fontainebleau. A ceramic salt cellar on display was produced by a workshop in the small town of Saint-Porchaire that catered to the ruling elite. The salt cellar, used to hold table salt, is adorned with grotesque masks and intricately detailed scrollwork.
The exhibition concludes with a selection of more recent objects showing that the tastes of the 16th-century aristocracy had a lasting influence on French art and culture.
‘An incredible opportunity’
Since 2006, the gallery has regularly featured exhibitions curated by Yale undergraduates. “Le Goût du Prince” is its 10th student-curated show.
“We’re enormously proud of this latest show, and we’ve been proud of every show we’ve done with students,” said Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director at the gallery. “The students get reviews as good as anything we professionals get.”
The curators of “Le Goût du Prince,” who are all considering careers in curatorial work, seized the opportunity to gain real-world experience curating a museum exhibition.
“I came to Yale for this type of opportunity,” said Cesbron Lavau ’16, who is from Paris.
Wisowaty and Cesbron Lavau had served as student tour guides at the gallery, a program that gives undergraduates the opportunity to develop their own tours based on themes of their choosing. Wisowaty served as head guide during her junior year.
The project started with trips to New York City to view the private collection that would be the source of most objects on view. Very little was known of many of the objects. The students realized the depth of research required to create a coherent and informative exhibition.
“One of the challenges was identifying a lot of the objects, so a goal in the summer trip was to speak with curators who had experience in identifying objects and could explain how to determine whether an object was made in 16th century,” said Wisowaty, who is from New York City.
After their trip, they set to work identifying the show’s themes, crafting its narrative, and selecting the objects to display. They tackled the numerous tasks that mounting a museum exhibition requires, such as designing the floor plan, arranging the objects, writing labels, coordinating public programming, even deciding what color to paint the walls. (They chose a shade of royal blue.)
They collaborated with various specialists — designers, framers, and editors – in bringing their vision to life.
“Working with the various teams at the gallery was one of the most rewarding aspects of this project,” de Brosses said. “Being able to collaborate, put ideas together, and create a dialogue, was an amazing experience. We had no curatorial experience so we really depended on their feedback and advice. There’s no academic experience that can replace that.”
Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art, and Suzanne Boorsch, the Robert L. Solley Curator of Prints and Drawings, mentored the student curators throughout the project.
“It is quite astonishing that Cordélia, Hélène, and Stephanie chose to take on this project because the amount of time and effort in all aspects of putting together an exhibition is just enormous,” Boorsch said. “Working with them was such a pleasure.”
Students do not earn course credit for organizing exhibitions at the gallery.
Cesbron Lavau, who earned a degree in the humanities, enjoyed working with physical objects to develop a narrative.
“It’s very much like a treasure hunt,” she said. “Once you start working on the narrative you have to keep in mind that it is not a narrative like a lecture but one that is anchored in the physical space that people will interact with.”
Wisowaty, who will soon begin a yearlong master’s program at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, said she learned skills and techniques, such as how to identify and date objects, that will help her pursue a curatorial career.
“These are things you don’t learn in art history classes,” she said.