More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet’s Madonna were revealed

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Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels by Jean Fouquet 1450

“The Madonna Surrounded by Seraphs and Cherubs” by Jean Fouquet is an intriguing masterpiece of the late Middle Ages and a jewel in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In early 2019 the painting went to the Getty Museum and Conservation Institute in Los Angeles for thorough study by art historians, restorers and scientists. Now the panel has returned to its home institution, which has published very interesting results of analysis.

More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels by Jean Fouquet
1450

“Jean Fouquet’s Madonna looks surprisingly modern. And yet it was created in the middle of the XV century by the French court painter Jean Fouquet by order of Etienne Chevalier, treasurer of the French king Charles VII. The painter presented the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, the sublime Mother of God. An unusual, intense use of colour and a bold image make the painting truly breathtaking.

Around the main figure are nine angels. Three blue cherubim represent purity and air, six red seraphs represent love and fire. Mary is wearing an aristocratic dress of the XV century, a cloak and crown give her greatness. The narrowed waist accentuates the full, naked breasts, and this brings an almost erotic touch to the scene. Most likely, Jean Fouquet was posed by Agnès Sorel, the mistress and adviser to Charles VII, who gave birth to three children. As a breastfeeding mother, she could embody the common ideal of beauty.

Infrared images showed that the artist has made remarkably few transformations while working on his masterpiece – there is almost no difference between a carefully designed original drawing and the final colorful layer. However, researchers found some very subtle changes: the space occupied by the Madonna’s cloak was slightly reduced, her crown had fewer pearls than at first, her hands were thinner with seraphs and cherubims, and Jesus’ forefinger was slightly moved.
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
Jesus’ finger doesn’t match the original contour.
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
Fuke didn’t paint all the pearls in the crown he originally painted.
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
Madonna’s cloak takes up more space

Photo: Royal Museum of Fine Arts / KMSKA

Studies of the Fouquet palette indicated the presence of chemical elements such as lead, cobalt, calcium and mercury. For example, the artist placed a layer of lead whitewash between the ground and the surface layer, while gold-colored details such as the Madonna crown were painted with a pigment containing lead and tin. Maria herself was also painted with lead whitewash.

Getty’s team also found organic dyes in the painting. For example, Fouquet applied them to the Virgin’s cheeks and lips. The painter – and this is especially emphasized – used a huge amount of expensive ultramarine. This pigment was made from powdered lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone imported from Afghanistan. Because of its high value, it was used mainly to represent divine objects.

More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
In gold details, such as the Madonna belt, Fouquet used lead and tin.
Photo: KMSKA
The customer, Etienne Chevallier, was without doubt a wealthy man. “Madonna surrounded by seraphs and cherubs” is the right panel of a diptych from Melen. The left panel is now in the Berlin Art Gallery. It depicts two restrained men in a strict manner – the Chevalier himself and his patron saint Stephan, the first Christian martyr. The infant Christ on Mary’s lap points to the left panel (more precisely, to Etienne Chevalier), as if saying to his mother: “This man deserves a place in heaven. It is worth putting in a good word for him.”
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
Etienne Chevallier and St. Stephane. Left sash of Melensky diptych Jean Fouquet 1450, 85×93 cm
Around the beginning of the 19th century, the back of the panel was covered with a thick layer of lead whitewash. This was probably done to protect the wood from fluctuations in temperature and humidity. But the radiography also made it clear that no paint was put around the head of the Madonna, perhaps to avoid damaging the inscription on the back.

Fouquet violated the tradition of portraying Madonna as a sensual and fashionable woman. The characteristic features of his figures are alienation and the absent look. The red and blue angels are not an “invention” of the artist himself, but an established way of presenting seraphs and cherubs at that time typical of Italian painting of the XIV-XV centuries.

More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
More pearls, thinner hands. The secrets of Fouquet's Madonna were revealed
Maria sits on the throne calmly and motionlessly. Or is she really standing? The last aspect the scientists considered was using perspective in Fouquet’s painting. When you look at the painting directly, it seems that the seraphs and cherubs hold the throne, and Madonna leans on it in a rather uncomfortable position. Earlier studies have shown that the composition changes when viewed from below, perhaps because it was originally conceived as an altar.

The California team put the painting on a motorized easel and raised it above the floor. The perspective effect appeared at an altitude of 183 centimeters – Madonna sits comfortably on the throne.

 

 

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