Northern France and the Paris Region :
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Art and Culture
Art and Culture
- Living Like Kings
- Religious and Civil Architecture
- Monasteries in Île-de-France
- Rural Housing in the North
- Military Architecture
- Faïence and Porcelain in Île-de-France
- Landscape Painting
Living Like Kings
After the 15C, medieval castles were converted from fortresses into residential châteaux. Windows were enlarged, doors and openings were richly adorned. Towers, once strategic elements of the defensive structure, became decorative features, along with crenellated battlements and moats. By the second half of the 16C, such characteristics had become superfluous. Façades were embellished with statues and rows of superimposed columns. Roofs were high and presented a single slope.
The Château d’Écouen is a fine example of the French Renaissance style, as is the Richelieu Pavillon of the Louvre (1546–1654), in Paris. The style, which succeeded Gothic as the style dominant in Europe after the mid-16C, first developed in Italy. The name describes the ‘rebirth’ of interest in Roman and Greek art and learning. By the early 17C, the Classical style of architecture had emerged, as expressed in the magnificence of royal palaces.
François I (r. 1515–47)
The early phase of the French Renaissance culminated in the François I style. The decorative aspects mingle Gothic embellishments with elements inspired by Italian art, and the design features round arches and symmetrical composition. Many of the elegant buildings erected by the monarch bear his distinctive emblem: a crowned salamander.
Henri IV (R. 1589–1610) – Louis XIII (r. 1610–43)
Louis XIII was strongly influenced by the Henri IV style (Place des Vosges, Paris), which marked the beginnings of the Classical period of French architecture. The principal characteristics of this style, which prevailed during the first half of the 17C, are the exact symmetry of the main building and the use of brick panels set into white stonework. Carved ornamentation is limited and sober. Most often, the design is a central block flanked by two end pavilions. Louis XIII built the first palace in Versailles in this style, in brick, stone and slate.
Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715)
Under the skilful hand of François Mansart, civil architecture gave up its straightforward character and acquired a less domestic, nobler appearance. The early period shows columns and pilasters that stand the height of a single floor of the château. Triangular and arched pediments top doorways and windows. Numerous chimneys sprout from the high roofs.
Châteaux built during the second period are characterised by a high ground floor, a very high first floor and a relatively low second floor. A balustrade conceals the roof. The horizontal lines of the building are broken by rows of sturdy columns and tall windows. Ornamental sculpture is limited to the rooftop and the summit of the front pavilions, and inspired by classical models. Versailles represents the culmination of the high Classical period.
Louis XV (r. 1715–74)
After 1700, the Louis XIV style and its harsh angles were mellowed by soft, rounded contours. Under Louis XV, oval spaces and curved surfaces were favoured. Windows and pediments display intricate ornamentation, while the rest of the façade remains austere, without columns; the roof is formed by two sloping planes. Over time, Classical yielded more and more to Rococo (also known as Baroque classicism in France), which is distinguished by profuse, often semi-abstract ornamentation, and lightness of colour and weight.
Louis XVI (r. 1774–92)
The influence of the elegant Louis XV style is still apparent in works of this period, but over-abundant curves are replaced by right angles. Columns make a conspicuous comeback, placed on unadorned façades. This phase is known as ‘Classicist’, for many of the decorative motifs are inspired by Antiquity, a trend that introduced the so-called Pompeian and the Empire styles that followed. The French Revolution brought an abrupt end to building in this style.
Religious and Civil Architecture
Île-de-France and the regions north of Paris offer a rich variety of architectural styles: Gallo-Roman at Bavay; Romanesque at Morienval, Rhuis and Chartres; Gothic architecture throughout Île-de-France, where it was born, and the later Flamboyant Gothic mainly in Picardy; Renaissance influence at Amiens and Cassel; Classical architecture in and around Paris; and Baroque in Flanders.
Many of the earliest buildings of note were constructed for religious purposes, and the development of architectural styles is best understood through them. A church consisted basically of a chancel reserved for members of the clergy, where the high altar and the reliquaries were located, and of a nave for the congregation. This simple layout characterised the early churches, built on a basilical plan. During the Romanesque period the plan of the church developed into the shape of a cross. The vestibule (narthex) at the entrance received those who had not been baptised, and the nave was enlarged with aisles. In places of pilgrimage, an ambulatory and side aisles were added to the chancel to facilitate processions. Architects followed this layout as it was convenient for celebrating Mass and easy to build.
Architects in Romanesque times knew how to build huge, lofty churches, but as the heavy stone vaulting often caused the walls to settle or cave in, they made the windows as small as possible and added aisles surmounted by galleries to support the sombre nave.
One of the main types of roofing in Romanesque churches is groined vaulting, in which two identical barrels meet at right angles. The barrel, in line with the nave, is supported by the transverse arch, while the one set at a right angle is supported by the main arch or by a recess in the wall. Rhuis and Morienval churches and the Royal Doorway of Chartres Cathedral are splendid examples of Romanesque art worth seeing.
The transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture – which originated in Île-de-France – was a slow, natural process that developed in response to the demand for wider, higher and lighter churches. Gothic art, typified by quadripartite vaulting and the use of pointed arches, evolved from sombre 12C Romanesque sanctuaries into light 13C churches and the extravagantly ornate buildings of the 15C. It is rare to find a church with entirely unified features reflecting a given period in history. Building a church was a costly and lengthy operation subject to changes in public taste and building methods as the work progressed. Towards the late 13C, famous personalities and guilds were granted the privilege of having a chapel built in their honour in one of the side aisles. In exchange they were expected to make a generous contribution towards the building or its maintenance.
The names of the architects of great religious edifices are known to us only from the Gothic period onwards, through texts or through inscriptions carved around the ‘labyrinths’ outlined on cathedral floors. That is how Robert de Luzarches was revealed as responsible for the plans of Amiens Cathedral.
The most outstanding master builder in the north of France, however, was undoubtedly Villard de Honnecourt, born near Cambrai. The towers of Laon Cathedral, Vaucelles Abbey (south of Cambrai), and the chancels at St-Quentin and Cambrai (no longer extant) have all been attributed to him.
Most main façades were set facing west. Nave and aisles had their own doorway flanked by buttresses that were bare in the 12C and 13C, ornate in the 15C. The tympanum featured ornamentation, and in the 14C its gable was elaborately carved. In the 13C, rose windows were fairly small; in the 14C they were enlarged across the west front to provide light for the nave. As windows grew larger, façades became more delicate. A gallery was built at the base of the towers to break the rigid vertical perspective created by the buttresses and bell towers; in the 15C this was reduced to a balustrade and the gables further embellished.
Ideally, west fronts were to be richly decorated with stone carvings, but in many cases they were the last part to be completed. Architects were often obliged to forego ornamentation, and even towers, owing to insufficient funds. In other cases, even the transepts were given remarkable façades.
After lightening the façades of Gothic churches, architects turned to the spires. By the Flamboyant period the open-work masonry was markedly ornate. In the 19C many bell towers in the region were given a spire by followers of Viollet-le-Duc.
In Early Gothic churches the pillars in the nave were supported by masonry concealed in the galleries. During the 12C these walls were reduced to arches supported by sturdy piers. Soon afterwards the galleries themselves were replaced with a row of flying buttresses outside. A number of high openings could therefore be incorporated into the church interior, producing a far more luminous nave.
From then on, tall churches can be schematically described as stone frames consisting of columns supporting diagonal arches and resting on two or three levels of flying buttresses. The buttresses were in turn supported by a series of tall pillars bearing pinnacles.
Towards the end of the 11C, groined vaulting was extremely common; but, as it was difficult to build and liable to crack, a group of architects from England, Milan and Île-de-France decided to reinforce the groins.
They found that by building the diagonal arches first and by consolidating them with a small amount of rubble, vaulting that was both sturdy and light was achieved.
By supporting this vaulting on a series of arches, so that the weight of the masonry would have to be borne at the springing, the architects could dispense with the walls in between the arches and replace them with stained-glass windows; this in turn greatly enhanced the luminosity of the interiors.
This significant development heralded the age of quadripartite vaulting.
Quadripartite vaulting, in which the thrust is supported by four main arches, is easy to install in a square-shaped bay. In the 12C bays were enlarged and it was no longer possible to build them square, as the pillars propping up the walls would have been too far apart. The problem was initially resolved by covering the bays two by two, thus forming a square again. An extra transverse arch was then added and made to rest on slim pillars alternating with stout piers.
This type of vaulting – upheld by three diagonal arches – is known as sexpartite vaulting because of the number of its divisions.
When more sophisticated diagonal arches were made to support the vaulting above rectangular bays, the intermediary resting points were eventually discarded.
After the 15C, Flamboyant architects put in additional, decorative ribbing of complex design that formed purely decorative arches (called liernes and tiercerons) and subsequently stars and intricate networks. The main supporting arches were flanked by ornamental arches of no practical use. The keystones – usually pendant – grew thinner and longer.
Transitional Gothic (A)
The term Transitional Gothic covers the birth and early stages of Gothic architecture, from about 1125 to 1190. The first use of diagonal vaulting in France appeared over the ambulatory in the Romanesque abbey church at Morienval.
Though some Romanesque details – such as semicircular arches – can still be observed in early Gothic buildings, there were several significant changes. The new interiors presented four-storey elevations consisting of high clerestory windows at the top lighting the nave directly, a triforium (a narrow, arcaded passageway below the clerestory), a gallery – instrumental in supporting the walls as high up as possible – and arcading at ground level. There were often openings behind the gallery but never behind the triforium.
The pillars of the main arches initially consisted of a thick column; this was later replaced by twinned columns supporting the arches and the colonnettes above. Laon Cathedral is a good example of Early Gothic architecture. Semicircular transept endings like the famous south arm at Soissons Cathedral were also a feature.
Early Gothic (B)
This great period (c. 1180–1250), when Gothic architecture was in its ascendancy, produced some of France’s finest masterpieces, among them Chartres Cathedral.
Characteristics include: arches and windows pointed and shaped like a lancet; clerestory windows surmounted by a round opening; the gallery replaced by external flying buttresses. The numerous colonnettes originating from the vaulting rested on the shaft that bore the weight of all the main arches. This pier was generally a large round column flanked by four colonnettes.
High Gothic (C)
This was the golden age of the great cathedrals in France, lasting from about 1250 and the reign of St Louis to around 1375 when the Hundred Years’ War blocked the progress made by medieval architects.
At this time High Gothic, known as ‘Rayonnant’ in French, reached its peak: the three-storey elevation (large arcades, triforium – the wall at the back now pierced with stained glass – and tall clerestory windows) lightened the nave and formed one huge single stained-glass window in the chancels of churches with no ambulatory; the wall area was reduced to a minimum and the springers supporting the vaulting were doubled by another series of arches. In many cases the colonnettes started from the ground, at the point where they surround the pillar of the main arches. Two slight mouldings – level with the main arches and the springers – were the only features to break the vertiginous ascent. Beauvais Cathedral is the most outstanding example of High Gothic.
Flamboyant Gothic (D)
This last stage in Gothic architecture, which could develop no further, succumbed to ornamental excess, aided by the fine, easily worked Picardy stone.
The style owes its name to the flame shapes in the tracery of the bays and rose windows, and to the exuberant carved and sculpted decoration which tended to obscure the structural lines of the buildings: doorways were crowned with open-work gables, balustrades were surmounted by pinnacles, vaulting featured complex designs with liernes and tiercerons converging on ornately worked keystones. The triforium disappeared, replaced by larger clerestory windows. Arches came to rest on columns or were continued by ribbing level with the pillars. The latter were no longer flanked by colonnettes. In some churches, the ribs formed a spiral around the column.
Flemish civil architecture
From the late 13C the particular nature of Flemish Gothic architecture manifested itself in the civic buildings, belfries and town halls erected by the cities that had obtained charters.
A symbol of the town’s power, the belfry was either an isolated building (Bergues, Béthune) or part of the town hall (Douai, Arras, Calais). It was built like a keep with watchtowers and machicolations. The rooms above the foundations – which housed the prison – had various functions, such as guard room. At the top, the bell room enclosed the chimes. Originally, these consisted of only four bells. Today they often number at least 30 bells which play every quarter-hour, half-hour and hour. The bell room is surrounded by watchtowers from which the sentry looked out for enemies and fires. At the very top is a weather vane symbolising the city: thus the lion of Flanders stands at Arras, Bergues and Douai.
Town halls – Town halls are often imposing with striking, richly embellished façades: niches, statues, gables and pinnacles might adorn the exterior.
Inside, the large council chamber or function room had walls decorated with frescoes illustrating the history of the town.
The most beautiful town halls (Douai, Arras, St-Quentin, Hondschoote, Compiègne) were built in the 15C and 16C. Many suffered damage and modification over the centuries and some were completely rebuilt in their original style, as at Arras.
Renaissance architecture, under the influence of Italian culture, favoured a return to classical themes: columns with capitals imitating the Ionic and Corinthian orders; façades decorated with niches, statues and roundels; pilasters flanking the windows. Quadripartite vaulting was replaced by coffered ceilings and barrel vaulting. Architects introduced basket-handled arches and semicircular or rectangular openings. Inverted brackets replaced flying buttresses. West fronts, and sometimes the north and south façades too, kept their heavy ornamentation. Spires were replaced by small domes and lantern towers.
Isolated examples of Renaissance art – not widely adopted in the north of France – are the Maison du Sagittaire in Amiens and the Hôtel de la Noble Cour in Cassel.
Baroque and Classical (17C–18C)
Architecture – Through the 17C and 18C, architecture presented two different faces. One was Baroque, dominated by irregular contours, an abundance of exuberant shapes, generous carving and much ornamentation. The other was Classical, a model of stateliness and restraint, adhering strictly to the rules of Antiquity with rows of Greek columns (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian), pedimented doorways, imposing domes and scrolled architraves.
The Baroque style flourished in Flanders, Hainault and Artois which fell under Spanish influence, while the Classical style found favour in Picardy and Île-de-France.
The Baroque Chapelle du Grand Séminaire in Cambrai is one of many religious buildings erected in the 17C following the influence of the Counter Reformation and its main engineers, the Jesuits. Civil buildings include the House of Gilles de la Boé in Lille and the Mont-de-Piété in Bergues. The Mint in Lille, with its bosses and richly carved ornamentation, exemplifies Flemish Baroque.
The Petit Trianon at Versailles is a famous example of Classical architecture.
In Arras, Baroque and Classical elements were combined for the town’s splendid main squares framed by houses with arcades and volutes. Combined elements can also be seen at the abbeys in Valloires and Prémontré and at the Château de Long.
Sculpture – The finely grained and easily worked chalky stone found in Picardy was used for much decorative work. By the 13C the ‘picture carvers’ in Amiens and Arras were already displaying the specific Picardy traits discernible throughout later centuries: lively, finely detailed figures going about their everyday life. The calendar at Amiens is a good example of this engaging art. In the late 15C and early 16C the Picardy wood carvers (huchiers) became renowned through their work on the stalls in Amiens Cathedral; the door panels in St Wulfram’s in Abbeville; and the finely worked frames of the ‘Puy-Notre-Dame’ paintings.
Baroque art favoured abundant decorative sculpture. Buildings were covered with a profusion of ornamental fruit, flowers, cornucopias, putti, niches, statues, vases, etc.
Monasteries in Île-de-France
A considerable number of priory, convent and abbey ruins are to be found in Île-de-France, and numerous districts and street names recall the many religious communities that have not survived.
Abbeys in the History of Île-de-France
Abbeys would not exist if people didn’t feel a strong calling to take up ecclesiastical duties. At the same time, there would be no abbeys if the clergy had not been given any land. After the 5C, when the victorious Franks divided up the Gallo-Roman territory, it would have been impossible for any religious community to survive without the help of donations. There were many aspiring monks in France up to the 18C, and the different communities were almost entirely dependent on the generosity of benefactors. As the suzerain of Île-de-France was none other than the supreme ruler of France, the king, this region was graced with an abundance of local monasteries.
In the early days of Christianity, during the late 4C, Île-de-France was covered with forests; but the land was also fertile and the area attracted monks who wanted to live in peace and escape the terrible famine ravaging the country. Soon afterwards the Merovingian monarchs, who had been strongly backed by the clergy, encouraged the creation of religious foundations, to which they made considerable contributions. The wealthy Carolingians continued to endow these abbeys, and the practice was kept up by the Capetians and their vassals for over 800 years (Chaalis and Royaumont).
French kings favoured monasteries because the monks used to reclaim uncultivated land and because the monasteries were constantly praying for their patrons. Religious faith was strong from the 10C to the 17C, and kings made donations to abbeys for a variety of reasons: to thank God for a victory, to seek expiation for an offence committed against the Church, to express their own personal belief or to offer a dowry to dowager queens or royal princesses about to take the veil.
The term abbey does not apply to just any Christian community whose members lead a frugal, secluded life. In fact, it designates a group of men or women placed under the authority of an abbot or an abbess, who live according to a rule approved by the Pope. The monks’ day is usually divided into chores related to community life, and spiritual and liturgical duties, which are the main purpose of the association.
All abbeys have an abbot or abbess, who generally enjoys the same rank as a bishop. He or she is elected by fellow companions and incarnates the spiritual and temporal leader of the abbey. After the 16C, the Pope gave the king of France the right to appoint abbots and abbesses. These prelates were called commendatory abbots and usually lived in the king’s entourage.
Sometimes, to administer new domains or to fulfil the wish of a patron who wanted to receive monks on his land, the abbots would build a priory. This small community was supervised by a prior who was answerable to the abbey. The Cistercians set up many granges, farming colonies run by lay brothers.
The Benedictine Order – created by St Benedict in the 6C – was undoubtedly the order which flourished the most in France. Its members founded over 1 000 abbeys throughout the country. The Benedictine rule was subsequently reformed, leading to the creation of two additional orders.
The first originated in the late 10C from Cluny in Burgundy, but unfortunately all the Cluniac houses died out during the Revolution. The second – the Cistercian Order – was, and still is, extremely powerful. It was St Bernard of Cîteaux, also a native of Burgundy, who founded the order in the 11C. A firm believer in asceticism, he introduced a number of new rules: elaborate ceremonies and the decoration of churches were condemned; monks could no longer be paid tithes, nor receive or acquire land; strict rules were laid down on diet, rest was limited to seven hours and monks had to sleep in their clothes in a common dormitory.
They shared their time between liturgical worship (6–7 hours a day), manual labour, study and contemplation. In the 17C, Abbot de Rancé added further austerities to the Cistercian rule (silence, diet). This new rule was named after La Trappe, the monastery near Perseigne where it originated. It is presently enforced in abbeys of strict observance.
The other two main orders that founded abbeys in France were the Augustinian friars and the Premonstratensian canons, both dating from the 12C.
Other communities include the Carmelite Order, the Order of St Francis (Franciscans and Capuchins), the Order of Preachers and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). They do not follow monastic rules, nor do they found abbeys. Their activities (missionary work, caring for the sick) bring them into contact with the lay world. They live in convents or houses under the authority of the prior, the Mother Superior, etc.
A collegiate church is occupied by a community of canons accountable to their bishop.
The cloisters are the centre of an abbey; the four galleries allow the nuns or the monks to take their walks under cover. One of the cloister walls adjoins the abbey church, while another gives onto the chapter house, where monks meet to discuss community problems under the chairmanship of the abbot. The third gallery opens onto the refectory and the fourth onto the calefactory, the only room with heating, where the monks study or do manual labour.
The dormitory is generally placed above the chapter house. It communicates with the church by means of a direct staircase, so that the monks could more readily attend early morning and nighttime Mass.
These are believers who cannot or choose not to take holy orders and therefore have a different status. They spend most of their time in the fields and the workshops, and have their own dormitory and refectory. They may not enter the chapter house or the chancel of the church. Since the Vatican II Council (1962–65), Lay brothers have become more and more involved in the life of the community.
Visitors are not allowed to enter the ‘enclosure’ and are lodged in the guest house. The poor are housed in the almshouse.
Monasteries also include an infirmary, a noviciate, sometimes a school, and the buildings needed to run the abbey: barns, cellars, winepress, stables and cowsheds.
Rural Housing in the North
The Coast, Inland Flanders and Artois – Whether in Picardy, Artois or Flanders, the same type of houses can be found along the coast: long and low to form a defence against the west winds, which often bring rain. They are capped by high-pitched roofs covered with Flemish S-shaped tiles called pannes. Their whitewashed walls are cheered by brightly coloured doors and shutters; the bases of the buildings are tarred against the damp.
Behind this apparent uniformity lie very different construction techniques.
In Picardy the walls consist of daubing on wood laths; in certain areas the surface is left plain, as in Ponthieu, but it is more usually whitewashed, giving a spruce look in summer to the flower-bedecked villages along the River Canche and River Authie.
In Flanders the usual building material is more generally brick, sandy coloured in maritime areas and ranging from red to purplish or brown farther inland. The great Lille and Artois regional farms, known as censes, are built around a courtyard with access through a carriage gateway often surmounted by a dovecote.
Some large, partly stone-built farms in the Boulonnais hills are actually old seigniorial homes with a turret or fortifications, giving the impression of a manor house.
Hainaut, Avesnois, Thiérache and Soissonnais – In the Hainaut and Avesnois regions houses are massively built, usually consisting of one-storey brick buildings with facings and foundations in regional blue stone. Their slate roofs are reminiscent of the nearby Ardennes region.
Construction in the Thiérache region, the land of clay and wood, consists of daubing and brick with slate roofs. There are many old dovecotes in the region, either over carriage gates or free-standing in courtyards. Villages in close proximity to one another huddle around their fortified churches.
The houses in the Soissonnais region are similar to those of Île-de-France. Beautiful white freestone is used for walls and crow-stepped gables, contrasting with flat, red roof tiles which take on a patina with the years.
Windmills – In the early 19C there were nearly 3 000 windmills in northern France. Today no more than a few dozen still exist, registered, protected and restored by the Association Régionale des Amis des Moulins du Nord-Pas-de-Calais (ARAM).
Post mills – Built of wood, these mills are the most common in Flanders. The main body of the structure and the sails turn around a vertical post. On the exterior – the side opposite the sails – a beam known as the ‘tail’ is linked to a wheel which is turned to position the entire mill according to the wind direction. Some fourteen of this type remain in northern France, including those at Boeschepe, Cassel, Hondschoote, Steenvoorde, Villeneuve d’Ascq and St-Maxent.
On a tower mill (or smock mill when made of wood) only the roof, to which the sails are attached, turns. This type of mill is more massive and is usually built of brick or stone; the Steenmeulen at Terdeghem near Steenvoorde is the only one still in working order, but there are other fine specimens at Templeuve and Watten (Nord) as well as Achicourt, Beuvry, Guemps (Pas-de-Calais), and Louvencourt (Somme).
Water mills – Water mills can also be seen throughout the region, particularly in the Avesnois, Ternois, Thiérache and Valenciennes areas. The shape and size of the wheel, which is the essential part of the mill, depends on the rate of flow of the river and on the specific features of the site. Some of these mills are open to the public: Felleries, Sars-Poteries, Marly (Nord), Esquerdes, Maintenay, Wimille and Wissant (Pas-de-Calais).
Of the defensive systems in the north of France, relatively few date from the Middle Ages: the town walls of Boulogne and Laon, and the castles at Coucy, Rambures, Picquigny, Lucheux, Septmonts and Pierrefonds. In contrast, numerous 17C star fortifications along the northeastern border have been preserved, some in their entirety, as at Bergues and Le Quesnoy, éothers only partially: Avesnes, Maubeuge, Cambrai, Douai, St-Omer and Péronne.
It was under the last of the Valois kings that the military engineers, who had studied Italian examples, adopted a system of curtain walls defended at the corners by bastions. Bastions in the shape of an ace of spades with projections were introduced to protect the men defending the curtain wall. This feature can be seen at Le Quesnoy. Bastions and curtain walls, usually with stone bonding, were crowned with platforms bearing cannon. Raised towers allowed the moats or ditches and surrounding areato be watched. In the 17C Henri IV employed an engineer, Jean Errard (1554–1610) nicknamed the Father of French Fortification, who specialised in castrametation. In the north Errard fortified Ham and Montreuil and built the citadels at Calais, Laon, Doullens and Amiens which still stand today. In 1600 he published an authoritative Treatise on Fortification which served until Vauban’s time.
The Age of Vauban
Inspired by his predecessors, Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707) established a system of his own characterised by bastions with half-moons surrounded by deep moats. Making the most of the natural obstacles and using local materials (brick in the north), he also tried to give an aesthetic quality to his works by adorning them with carved monumental stone gateways as at Bergues, Lille and Maubeuge.
On the coast and along the border of Flanders and Hainaut, Vauban established a long line of double defences, known as the pré carré. These two close lines of fortresses and citadels were designed to prevent the enemy’s passage, and to ensure mutual backup in case of attack.
The first line consists of 15 sites from Dunkirk and Bergues to Maubeuge, Philippeville and Dinant. The second runs a little way behind and includes 13 towns extending from Gravelines and St-Omer to Avesnes, Marienbourg, Rocroi and Mézières. Some of these strongpoints were Vauban’s own creations such as the citadel at Lille, which he himself called the ‘Queen of Citadels’; others existed already and were remodelled.
For over a century this group of fortifications succeeded in defending the north of France, until the invasions of 1814 and 1815.
During the French campaign in 1940 Le Quesnoy, Lille, Bergues, Dunkirk, Gravelines and Calais all formed solid strongholds protecting the retreat of the Franco-British armies.
The concrete bunkers of the Atlantic Wall that stretch along the coastline were erected by the Todt Organisation, which from 1940 used prisoners of war for the task. The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region was considered a war zone against England, and in 1944 about 10 000 constructions were counted on the French coast. In the deep forests of Eperlecques and Clairmarais enormous concrete installations were built for launching the V1 and V2 rockets on London. The Eperlecques Bunker, today designated a historic monument, is one of the most impressive examples of this type of monumental concrete architecture, along with the fort at Mimoyecques.
Faïence and Porcelain in Île-de-France
This term is commonly applied to all ceramics made of porous clay and glazed with waterproof enamel. The enamel was initially transparent but, in the 9C, it became opaque thanks to the discovery in the Middle East of tin glaze. The Arabic influence throughout the Mediterranean Basin led to the development of faïence in Moorish Spain and Italy from the 15C onwards. The Spanish island of Majorca gave its name to ‘Majolica ware’, the term describing Italian Renaissance ceramics. The name ‘faïence’ may derive from Faenza, the Italian town renowned for its majolica.
Faïence developed in France in the 16C and 17C with leading pottery centres such as Nevers and Rouen. The latter influenced the early producers of faïence in Île-de-France such as Pierre Chicaneau who settled in St-Cloud in 1674. In the 18C, as porcelain became more popular, the number of potteries increased in the region and the first pieces of porcelain were produced. The famous ceramist Jacques Chapelle set up the works in Sceaux in 1748 and circumvented the Vincennes-Sèvres mono-poly on faïence by creating ‘Japanese-style faïence’. The Rococo style, vivid colours, and original decorations, many of them in relief, brought success to Sceaux until the end of the 18C. This period was marked by the discovery in England of ‘fine faïence or white lead-glazed earthenware. Its reasonable cost and elegance, along with the exceptionally liberal conditions laid down in the Treaty of Vergennes (1786), ensured its popularity and it was massively imported into France. This know-how was gradually taken over in Île-de-France by the works in Montereau, Creil and Choisy-le-Roi. However, the end of the 19C confirmed the preference for porcelain, and faïence went into a decline.
Porcelain was discovered in China in the 12C. It is a thin, white ceramic ware that is slightly translucent. Body and glaze are fired together. In the 16C, the popularity of porcelain from the Far East led to numerous experiments in Europe to try and achieve a product that would rival it. The high level of imports by the French East India Company is indicative of European interest in this mysterious technique. Craftsmen did not know the exact nature of the paste used by the Chinese and they progressed by trial and error, using processes similar to the ones used for faïence. A very fine marl used on its own was vitrified by the introduction of a sort of glass called frit. The resulting ceramic was ‘soft-paste’ porcelain that could be scratched by steel.
In the early 18C, the basic ingredient of porcelain, white china clay, was discovered in Saxony. The secrets of the production process were jealously kept in Meissen, near Dresden.
In France, it was not until 1769 that the output from a white china clay quarry near St-Yriex in the Limousin area enabled craftsmen to produce ‘hard-paste’ porcelain. Sèvres produced porcelain exclusively from the beginning of the 19C onwards. This new product, in which body and glaze were fired together at a very high temperature (1 400°C/2 500°F), was very strong but more difficult to decorate.
Only five colours are suitable for high-temperature firing – blue, green, yellow, purplish brown and reddish orange.
The introduction of low-firing techniques revolutionised the production of faïence and porcelain. The enamel was fired in succession at low temperatures, enabling the use of a wide range of fresh, vivid colours.
The porcelain works in St-Cloud (1697–1766) were the first to master the techniques required to produce ‘soft-paste’ porcelain. It was famous for its ‘white’ ware and applied gilding that differed greatly from the technique used by Sèvres. Numerous porcelain works opened in quick succession in the 18C, with the backing of princes or the royal family. The works in Chantilly (1725–1800), for example, were set up by Cirquaire Cirou with the support of Louis-Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Condé. In Mennecy, it was the Duke de Villeroy who provided the necessary patronage in the face of ever-increasing privileges granted to some of the works. The one with the highest level of support was in Vincennes. Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV both took a keen interest in the company that set up works in Sèvres in 1756. The earliest designs were ‘natural’ flowers and the works gradually specialised in the production of dinner services, statuettes and even veritable pictures in porcelain. Because of the processes used, the decoration and enamel combined perfectly, giving an incomparable blending. In its early days, the Sèvres porcelain works enjoyed exclusive rights to the use of gold on all its products. Even now, unless there is some technical reason against it, all its products must include some gold. ‘Biscuit-ware’, another speciality of these works, is the term used to describe a production method in which the body of the paste is left unglazed so that the gracefulness of the statuettes is not altered.
Although many painters were employed in the internal decoration of châteaux and abbeys around Paris, it was not until the 19C that painters began to show an interest in the surrounding landscapes.
Until the 18C, French masters had used landscapes merely as a background to their work, either as a decorative element or to enhance the atmosphere through composition and colour. It was so poorly regarded that often a major artist painting a portrait or other subject would leave the background landscape to be painted by a studio assistant. The two most celebrated French landscape painters were the 17C classicists Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. Poussin gave his views the heroic qualities of his subject and Lorrain painted scenes of a lost, idyllic Antiquity.
Camille Corot (1796–1875)
Corot was the pioneer of contemporary landscape painting in France. He lived in Barbizon from 1830 to 1835 and worked outdoors in Fontainebleau Forest and all over Île-de-France, studying the contrasts and soft hues of light in the undergrowth, along shaded paths and on the edge of the plain. He later took up painting lakes in a search for more delicate variations; the ponds at Ville-d’Avray (south of St-Cloud), with their subtle reflections, were his favourites.
Painters of the Oise
The group was founded in 1845 by two of Corot’s followers, Charles-François Daubigny and Jules Dupré. Daubigny (1817–78) liked to paint the rippling waters of the River Oise and the greenery and blossoms of the orchards and groves. He led a peaceful life: his work paid well and received universal acclaim. He could often be found working on the Île de Vaux near Auvers, or in a small rowing boat he had converted into a studio. Jules Dupré (1811–89), a close friend of Théodore Rousseau, used darker colours and belonged to the Barbizon School. He seldom left his house in L’Isle-Adam.
In 1865 the lithographer and satirical cartoonist Honoré Daumier (1808–79) moved from the capital to Valmondois in Île-de-France, when he met with serious financial difficulties.
In 1866 Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) initially settled in Pontoise for two years. Uninterested in the nearby streams and rivers, he concentrated on meadows, grassy slopes, country villages and street scenes featuring peasant women, which he portrayed in a deliberately poetic manner. His gift for expressing light, his qualities as a teacher and his kindness made him the father figure of the Impressionist movement.
The Barbizon School
Its representatives drew inspiration from the landscapes of Fontainebleau Forest and the nearby Bière plain. The founder of the movement was Théodore Rousseau (1812–67) who settled in a modest country cottage in 1847 and stayed there until his death. Diaz and Charles Jacque were among his close friends. They remained cheerful and humorous despite the lack of success of their paintings and their consequent penury. It was only towards the end of the Second Empire that their talent was acknowledged. Troyon (1810–65) specialised in rural scenes representing cattle. Barye, the highly respected animal sculptor, also took up landscape painting because of his love of nature. The charms and hardships of country life were portrayed particularly well in the work of Jean-François Millet (1814–75), who lived in Barbizon from 1849 until his death.
The artists of this school generally favoured the dark colours of tree bark and undergrowth, and their preferred subjects included dusk, soft lighting and stormy skies. These sombre tones were criticised by their detractors, who claimed they painted with ‘prune juice’.
Around 1865 a new group of artists fell under the spell of these magical woodlands and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet settled in Chailly. Though they did not associate themselves with the Barbizon community, they did accept advice from their elders. Diaz encouraged the young Renoir to work with lighter tones. Here. too. the seeds of Impressionism were being sown.
The second-generation artists wanted their work to capture the essence of light itself and to reflect the vibrant quality of colour. The term ‘Impressionist’ was actually coined by a sarcastic journalist in 1874, but was adopted by the group as they felt it conveyed the double revolution they had brought about in the field of painting.
The Impressionist Revolution – The Impressionist movement revolutionised artistic conventions on two counts: it paid little attention to form and it invented a new technique. Until then, the representation of reality was fundamentally important, and no artist would have dared to neglect the lines and shapes of his subject, whether a portrait, still-life painting or landscape. Painters showed little concern for light and its effects, considered a minor component, and priority was given to subject matter. For the Impressionists, light and the analysis of its effects became the principal subject; all the rest – contours, scenes, people – was simply an excuse to paint light.
Religious and historical works, as well as family portraits and everyday scenes, were no longer interesting in themselves. The Impressionists’ favourite subjects were those that played with light, such as water, snow, fabrics, flesh, flowers, leaves or fruit.
They wished to capture the infinite depths of the skies, the shimmering of light on water, a dress or a human face. When depicting the undergrowth, they wanted to show how the russet tones glitter in sunlight, how bright colours sparkle.
Such fleeting and indefinite concepts were no longer attainable using traditional techniques. As priority was given to the vibration of light around the edges of objects, the process that applied paint along contours was banished. Traditionally, the layers of paint were applied slowly and acquired their definite colour after the oil had solidified. They were then coated with varnish to produce a transparent effect and to give depth to the colours. Naturally this technique was far too lengthy to capture the ephemeral quality of light. As a consequence, the Impressionists developed a technique more suited to their purpose that involved very little oil and dispensed with varnish. Their art consisted in applying quick, small dabs of colour. The exact shade was conveyed by the juxtaposition of touches of pure colour, the final effect being assessed by the eye of the viewer.
The Impressionists were harshly criticised, even insulted at times, and it was only after a 20-year struggle that their work was fully acknowledged. Île-de-France – with its rivers, lakes, gardens, orchards, showers of rain, mists, elegant ladies and regattas – provided them with countless sources of inspiration.
The Impressionist School was founded in Honfleur where Claude Monet (1840–1926), a painter from Le Havre, was encouraged by the seascape specialist Eugène Boudin to paint landscapes. Boudin (1824–98), a friend of Corot’s, was also a precursor of Impressionism: his paintings are full of air and light. Following his example, Monet and later the Dutch artist Jongkind worked on the luminosity of the landscapes around the Seine estuary. They were joined by Bazille and Sisley, whom they had befriended in Gleyre’s studio, and began to paint around Fontainebleau Forest too, though they remained separate from the Barbizon School. Pissarro, Cézanne and Guillaumin, who met at the Swiss Academy, were called ‘The Famous Three’ (Le Groupe des Trois).
The painters were strongly supported by Édouard Manet (1832–83), one of their elders who was upsetting artistic conventions and scandalising the public with his bold colours and compositions. It was Manet who encouraged the Impressionists to pursue their efforts at painting light. In 1863, following clashes between the artists and the official salons that refused to show these new works, a now-famous independent exhibition of the rejected works (Salon des Refusés) was set up on the orders of Napoleon III. It gave birth to, and led to the naming of, the Impressionist movement.
In 1871 small groups of amateur painters, pupils and friends, including Paul Cézanne, joined Pissarro at Pontoise and Docteur Gachet in Auvers. Another group based in Argenteuil and Louveciennes included Renoir, Monet, Sisley and Edgar Degas, who had originally studied under Ingres. Monet’s innovative technique put him at the head of the movement and inspired both Manet and later Berthe Morisot.
In the 1880s, Renoir moved to Chatou just west of Paris, where he frequented the Maison Tomaise, a restaurant first opened in 1815 and now restored. After 1880 the group broke up, but its members remained faithful to painting with light colours. Sisley moved to Moret, drawn to the River Loing, while Monet settled in Giverny on the banks of the Epte. For practical reasons, Pissarro left the Oise Valley to live in Eragny, near Gisors.
Georges Seurat (1859–91) remained in Paris but concentrated on the landscapes around the capital and along the Channel coast. His technique amounted to breaking down the subject matter into small dabs of colour, each consisting of a series of dots (points). Maximilien Luce (1858–1941) also experimented with this method – known as Pointillism or Divisionism – in the vicinity of Mantes.
Cézanne later returned to Aix-en-Provence where, through the use of colour, tone and accentuated outlines, he developed stylised masses that laid the foundations for the Cubist movement.
Renoir travelled to Algeria and Venice, which inspired him to paint some of his finest works. Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec (1846–1901) lived in Paris. They were fascinated by circuses and theatres where swirling dancers and performers were bathed in complex illuminations created by artificial lighting.
The Dawn of the 20C
The followers of the Nabis and Fauve movements, which preceded Cubism and the new art forms born in the wake of the First World War, also set up their easels – and sometimes even their studios – in the picturesque outskirts of Paris. On his return from a stay in Pont-Aven, where Paul Gauguin had shown him the magic of composing in flat, bold colours, Paul Sérusier converted his friends from the Académie Julian to the same style and formed the Nabis movement (a Hebrew word meaning prophet). Maurice Denis (1870–1943) became the leader of the group, which included Bonnard, Roussel, Vuillard, Maillol, Vallotton and others.
The early Fauves (meaning ‘wild beasts’) included extremely diverse artists – Matisse, Dufy, Braque, Derain, Vlaminck, Rouault, Marquet. Their paintings of bright, even violent colour created an uproar when they were first shown. The painters, never a coherent group, were influenced by the paintings of Van Gogh, who had died in 1890 leaving a collection of brilliant canvases composed of strong, vigorous brushstrokes of pure colour.
The coasts and countryside of the north of France and the region around Paris continue to attract many artists.