This sumptuous and swaggering life-sized portrait of Charles IX (1550-1574), King of France, for many years provided a royal welcome at the entrance of Jayne Wrightsman’s apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue. The tall, slim, twenty-two-year-old monarch, presented in a simple, darkened interior and posed between a dark rose-colored curtain and a crimson velvet chair on which he rests his right arm, seemed to appraise each new arrival with a slightly skeptical hauteur.
If the king’s expression of cool superiority is striking, no less so is his opulent attire. Wearing a doublet of white silk with gold metallic embroidery; a high, round neckline; narrowed trunk sleeves of modified gigot silhouette with gold-banded embroidery and peascod belly à la panseron; a ruff of layered white linen lace; a jerkin of white leather with vertical decorative slashing; trunk hose of white linen with matching codpiece; hose of white knit silk; white leather scarpine (slipper-like shoes); a ‘Spanish’ cape of black silk velvet with gold metallic trim and gilded silk brocade lining; a Spanish toque of black wool felt with jeweled band and a white aigrette worn on the right (in the French style); a rapier suspended from a belt at his waist; and a band of three strands of pearls and jewels with two triple-stranded chains decorating his chest, from which hangs the Order of Saint Michael (the oldest French royal order) – the king is outfitted in the height of aristocratic style.
Second of the four sons of Henri II (1519-1559) and Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589), Charles IX – styled the Duc d’Orléans until 1560 – was proclaimed king of France at the age of ten, upon the death of his older brother, François II (1544-1560), who reigned for only a year. From 1560 until August 1563, when Charles came to legal majority, France was ruled by a Regency headed by his strong-willed mother. His entire reign was overshadowed by the disastrous French Wars of Religion, pitting Catholic factions against the Protestant Huguenots, culminating in the notorious St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (24-25 August 1572), in which thousands of Huguenots were systematically slaughtered.
Bookish and interested in poetry, literature and hunting – he wrote a treatise on the subject, La Chasse Royale, published posthumously – Charles married Elisabeth of Austria in November 1570, with whom he fathered a daughter, Marie Elisabeth of Valois; he also fathered an illegitimate son, Charles, Duc d’ Angoulême in 1573 with his mistress, Marie Touchet. Always of fragile physical and mental health, Charles died at the Château of tuberculosis on 30 May 1574, aged 23; his mother promptly resumed the Regency.
The Wrightsman portrait of Charles IX is a rare painting by one of the leading portraitists of Renaissance France, François Clouet. The son of Jean Clouet (c.1485-1540), principal court portraitist in the service of Francois I, François Clouet would be equally successful; nevertheless, his life is only scantily documented. He is presumed to have been born around 1520 in Tours, where his parents were recorded as living until 1527. His father was certainly his teacher, and François is first recorded in royal accounts in 1540, when he succeeded his father as “painter et varlet de chamber.” In a document of November 1541 signed by François I, François Clouet formally inherited his father’s estate; the king praised both father and son and observed that François Clouet imitated his father’s manner very well.
François Clouet was painter and ‘valet de chambre’ to four successive French monarchs: François I (r.1515-1547), Henri II (r.1547-1559), François II (r.1559-1560), and Charles IX (r.1560-1574). Like his father, he executed various subject paintings and ceremonial designs, but was essentially a portraitist who left behind a substantial body of hundreds of three-quarter length likenesses in red and black chalks (his technique is drier and more astringent than his father’s), and a small number of paintings that are extensions of his and his father’s work in that medium. Most of François’s paintings are small, elegant panels with meticulous attention to detail, fidelity to appearances and a translucent, glazed technique; like Jean’s paintings, they are, in effect, chalk portraits translated into oil paint.
Primarily a court painter, Clouet made several drawings and paintings of Charles IX over a period of more than a decade. The earliest of Clouet’s drawings of the Valois king is dated June 1552, and depicts him as a toddler. Three of the drawings served as the basis for paintings. The first of these bears a date of 1561 and became the model for a bust-length painting, also dated 1561, in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, that depicts the self-possessed eleven-year-old in a fur-lined coat; several autograph and workshop replicas survive, including versions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and another in a private collection (sold recently at Christie’s London; fig. 2). Another drawing, in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg was used for Clouet’s first full-length portrait of Charles IX standing against a green curtain, which depicts the king at age 16 (c. 1566; also in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna; fig. 3). The general format of this portrait would be repeated almost identically a few years later in the Wrightsman painting, but the adolescent sitter in the Vienna full-length is obviously younger, with just the slightest wisp of hair above his upper lip. The Hermitage drawing also served as the prototype for a fine bust-length version in the Bemberg Foundation, Toulouse.
One of Clouet’s final portrait drawings (in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; fig. 1) served as the basis for the Wrightsman picture; although it does not bear a date, it is thought to have been executed around the time of the king’s marriage in 1570. As in the present portrait, the king’s face is leaner and more mature, and he sports a short beard and full mustache; his felt toque and aigrette are the same in both painting and drawing, although in the drawing, his ruff is smaller and he wears an earring and only one chain of pearls. As Everett Fahy noted in his excellent catalogue entry on the picture (2005), the Paris drawing also served as the basis for miniatures in the Royal Collection, London; the Uffizi, Florence; and the Schatzkammer, Vienna. (The latter is inset in a locket that was probably commission by Catherine de’Medici in 1571.)
The apparent age of Charles in the Wrightsman portrait permits us to date it, with little possible controversy, to 1572, the final year of Clouet's life, when the sitter would have been 22 years old. Only two known paintings by François Clouet are signed and only one of these is also dated, the portrait of the artist’s friend and neighbor, the apothecary Pierre Quthe (1562; Louvre). The other signed painting is the famous A Lady in Her Bath (fig. 4) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Because there are so few securely documented works of Clouet’s, assigning dates to his works based on style alone is especially difficult to do with confidence. Widely various dates for the Washington Lady in Her Bath have been proposed, for example, ranging from 1550 to 1571, the latter date being the most commonly accepted. However, the indisputable dating of the Wrightsman portrait allows us to confirm a near-simultaneous moment for the Lady in Her Bath, which is executed in an entirely comparable manner. The silken, translucent and almost marmoreal modeling of flesh, meticulous description of fabric and jewels, and earthy, tomato-red color that dominates the palette of the Washington painting are found again in the Wrightsman portrait; both paintings share an almost identical handling and reveal the influence of contemporary Netherlandish artists such as Joos van Cleve, Quentin Massys and Maerten van Heemskerck. Therefore, both paintings can be said to represent the final flowering of Clouet’s late style and should be dated to 1571-1572.
As Everett Fahy observed, the protocol of court portraiture dictated the format of the Wrightsman painting: life-sized, full-length, in a shallow setting with a curtain to one side. The formula was invented by Lucas Cranach the Elder and adopted so widely in official Habsburg portraiture – as practiced by Antonius Mor, Alonso Sanchez Coello and Titian – that it became an international standard for royal imagery. Clouet had essayed the format previously in his somewhat stiff likeness of Henri II (Galleria Palatina, Florence), painted around 1547. His portrait of Charles IX in Vienna (fig. 3), painted almost two decades later, is a polished and elegant advance on that composition, and the Wrightsman portrait, made another five or six years later, is the most graceful and accomplished rendering in the format that Clouet was to achieve. Technical examination of the Wrightsman painting reveals that Clouet looked back to his circa 1566 portrait of Charles IX in laying out his similar composition for the present work. X-rays show that Clouet originally depicted his sitter in larger, puffier breeches that reached down lower on the king’s legs than were eventually adopted in the final rendering (fig. 5), while infrared reflectography makes clear that the king also originally wore a much smaller, shorter neck ruff, as one finds in the Bibliothèque Nationale drawing on which the portrait is based, and the belt that supports his rapier was differently positioned (fig. 6).
It is not established for whom the Wrightsman portrait was originally made, but it is known to have come from the Château de Chemault near Orléans, where it was installed until the château was razed in 1853. In 1866, Octave Donord recounted that it had hung between two windows in the king’s room in the château, and it appears to be connected to a payment made to Clouet’s heirs in 1573. (Payment was made to Clouet’s estate in 1573 for “un grand tableau de plusiers toises de notre roi.”) The king had acquired the castle for his mistress Marie Touchet, daughter of an Orléanais apothecary, who bore him his son, Charles, Duc d’Angoulême in 1573.