An equestrian game with riders jousting among balls of fire (c. 1575–80), Antoine Caron. Courtesy of The Courtauld Gallery, London

This focused international loan exhibition, the first dedicated to the drawings of Antoine Caron (1521-1599), brings together a celebrated group of drawings executed for his patron Catherine de’ Medici, queen of France (1519-1589). Centred around the Valois series, a set of drawings of courtly pageantry here reunited for the first time, the display showcases the way in which the powerful and influential Catherine promoted herself and her dynasty through a series of lavish courtly events.

It has been argued that the Queen Mother Regent Catherine de’Medici was the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe, but the reign of her three sons covered a period of almost constant civil and religious unrest in France and continual danger to the monarchy. Determined to keep her family on the throne, she made full use of the arts in an effort to glorify her dynasty and uphold its declining reputation.

Le château d’Anet (1565–1574), Antoine Caron. Courtesy Louvre, Paris

To this end, she became the patron of Antoine Caron, appointing him court painter in 1561. Caron’s Valois series, which captures the lavish pageantry of the court, is reunited here for the first time and forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. The drawings were preparatory works for tapestries and depict actual court events designed to promote the power of the Valois. Jousts, tournaments, festivals, and a mock naval battle are portrayed which all took place between 1573 and 1581 at the castles of Anet, Fontainebleau, Bayonne and the Tuileries Gardens during the reigns of Charles IX and Henry III.

Game of Quintain (1575–80), Antoine Caron. Courtesy of The Courtauld Gallery, London

Though not a court artist, Caron worked at the court of the Valois family, first at the Château de Fontainebleau, and then at the Château d’Anet where Henri II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers lived. He also contributed to the designs of the ephemeral decorations for the ceremonial entry into Paris of the young King Charles IX in 1571, and two years later to the celebrations of the election of his brother Henri to the throne of Poland and Lithuania. In 1581, Caron was the official painter for the wedding of the king’s favourite Anne d’Arques, duc de Joyeuse.

Portrait of Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici (1560–74), Antoine Caron. Courtesy Louvre, Paris

At the centre of this exhibition are six drawings that evoke the Valois Magnificences, complex festivals organised by the French court between 1573 and 1581, during the reigns of Catherine’s sons King Charles IX and King Henri III. The drawings capture in minute detail the jousts, tournaments, and a mock naval battle staged as part of these lavish spectacles. The compositions of the drawings were later readapted as designs for a set of tapestries.

Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici as a widow (1560–74), Antoine Caron. Courtesy Louvre, Paris

These works, together with other drawings by Caron included in this display, showcase the ways in which the artist helped Catherine to achieve her goal of promoting her progeny. The importance of these drawings cannot be overemphasised, not only because they give us invaluable insights into the fashion, behaviour, protocol and the elaborate apparatus of the Valois ‘Magnificences’, but especially because they bear witness to Catherine’s insatiable desire to promote her legacy through powerful and arresting spectacles.

If you wish to see this exhibition, please select a date between 18 January and 15 April 2018 in The Courtauld Gallery.