Jean Poyer Exhibit

JEAN POYER: ARTIST TO THE COURT OF RENAISSANCE FRANCE OPENS JANUARY 25

Press release date: 
Thursday, November 30, 2000

The first one-man show in the United States devoted to the work of a manuscript illuminator, Jean Poyer: Artist to the Court of Renaissance France opens at the Morgan Library on January 25, 2001, and remains on view through May 6. Taking a novel approach to the traditional manuscript exhibition, Jean Poyer examines not only the artist's work but also his artistic roots, his contemporaries, and his competitors. Poyer, who lived in Tours, France, was active from at least 1483 until his death around 1503. He was a multitalented artist—illuminator, painter, draftsman, and designer of festivals—who worked for the courts of three successive French kings: Louis XI (r. 1461–83), Charles VIII (r. 1483–98), and Louis XII (r. 1498–1515).

Jean Poyer is drawn from objects at the Morgan Library, which has the world's largest collection of manuscripts illuminated by the artist, along with choice loans from this country and abroad. A highlight from the Library's collection is the superb Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne, a manuscript that the French queen commissioned to teach her son the dauphin, Charles-Orland, his catechism. On loan from the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Briçonnet Book of Hours, which was commissioned by France's secretary of the treasury under Charles VIII, Guillaume Briçonnet, as a gift to his wife, is also particularly noteworthy.

Generous support for the Poyer project was provided by Michel David-Weill; the H. P. Kraus Fund for Lectures, Research, and Acquisitions in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts; James E. Ferrell; Bruce Ferrini, and the Andrew W. Mellon Research and Publications Fund. Additional assistance was received from the Marilyn M. Simpson Charitable Trust and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Organized by Roger S. Wieck, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Morgan Library, the exhibition explores Poyer's oeuvre through his early phase, his more mature styles, his workshop practices, and his influence. His mastery of perspective, subtle use of color and light, and convincing representation of the human figure show a break from the Late Gothic style. Influences of Renaissance paintings are noticeable: Poyer traveled to Italy and experienced the works of artists such as Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) and Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516). Four smaller sections examine Late Gothic French illumination, the artist's predecessors, his contemporaries, and his peers and rivals. Throughout, the exhibition emphasizes connoisseurship, allowing the visitor to judge works attributed to Poyer and others.

Payment documents tell us that for Louis XI's queen, Charlotte of Savoy, Poyer painted 1,031 coats of arms to be attached to the candles and torches used at her funeral. For Charles VIII he painted a schoolbook, a treatise on the Apostles' Creed, and his portrait (all three of which are in the exhibition). For Charles's queen, Anne de Bretagne, and their son the dauphin, he illuminated the special prayer book mentioned above. For Charles and Anne's ceremonial entry into Tours following their marriage, Poyer designed and supervised elaborate theatrical spectacles as part of the royal entertainment. For Louis XII, Poyer was in charge of the pageants that Tours was planning in 1498.

Poyer was famous in his own time and immediately after his death. Sixteenth-century literary sources compare him, for example, to Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390–1441). By the seventeenth century he was forgotten—as were many artists who were primarily illuminators and whose professional habit it was not to sign their work. Within the last twenty years a significant body of work has been attributed to Poyer, based, somewhat circumstantially, on the fact that the art can be dated to the period of his activity as documented by payment records. One 1497 payment was for his illumination of a small Book of Hours for Anne de Bretagne. What is proposed to be the only surviving leaf from that hitherto lost commission is on view in the exhibition.

The artist's early period, in the 1480s, consists of only three known works, and they are all represented in the exhibition: the Briçonnet Hours, a tutorial volume made for King Charles VIII (on loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris), and the Loches Triptych (in exact photographic reproduction). Though scarce, the work of this period reveals Poyer's mastery of perspective, subtle use of color and light, and convincing representation of the human figure in space. His monumental approach is typical of the Renaissance and represents a break from the Late Gothic style of the previous generation of French illuminators. The defining difference is his firsthand experience of the works of Italian Renaissance painting.

Poyer's mature period began in the 1490s and lasted until his death around 1503; during these years he was most productive and at the peak of his career. The artist's most impressive creations date from this period: the Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne, the "Tilliot Hours," the Lallemant Missal, the "Hours of Henry VIII," and the controversial Petites Heures of Anne de Bretagne. Poyer began to use a lighter, more pastel palette, applying his colors with feathery, almost impressionistic, brushstrokes, as can be seen in the Prayer Book. His style was not stagnant, however, and many of the larger manuscripts of this mature period retain aspects of his earlier, more monumental manner. This is most evident in the "Hours of Henry VIII" and the Lallemant Missal.

Like many major artists of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Poyer did not work alone but managed a workshop. Judging from the relatively few manuscripts they produced, however, his assistants were limited in number, for Poyer apparently hired only those illuminators capable of emulating his subtle style. Some manuscripts are entirely the work of assistants, while in other books Poyer would "drop in," painting part of a miniature and then allowing his helpers to complete the rest. It is not always easy to distinguish between the master's hand and an assistant's: connoisseurship is a highly vicissitudinous pursuit. The fascinating distinctions are seen in a large Book of Hours on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, a collaborative effort between Poyer and members of his shop, and a Psalter from the Bibliothèque Nationale, a creation of shop members alone.

Poyer's death left an artistic power vacuum in Tours. His great rival in that city, Jean Bourdichon, expanded his own influence by stoking the production of his many (if at times indifferent) assistants. Poyer's atelier, meanwhile, collapsed with the loss of its leader. Some shop members, as well as other painters who refused to join Bourdichon's factory, decamped to Paris. Poyer's most capable assistant, referred to in the exhibition as the "pseudo-Poyer," worked in Paris till around 1520, though without huge success. The prolific Master of Morgan 85 used some of Poyer's models but had little of his flair. The influence of Poyer's subtle style was not extensive, and only one painter, the Master of Claude de France, can be considered his true artistic heir. The Hours of Jean Lallemant the Elder, on loan from the British Library in London, features the work of the "pseudo-Poyer." The Prayer Book of Claude de France, loaned by Mrs. Alexandre Rosenberg, is the eponymous work by this rare painter.

Predecessors, Peers, and Rivals
Manuscripts from the 1460s and 1470s illuminated by artists of the generation prior—both chronologically and stylistically—to Poyer are included in the exhibition. Active in various parts of northern France, all these illuminators painted in a Late Gothic style. Figures, often elegantly (if unrealistically) attenuated, occupy dollhouse spaces. Neither linear nor atmospheric perspective has been mastered. This is particularly notable in works painted by Maître François and the Master of the Échevinage de Rouen.

Poyer's style, though markedly different from that of the previous generation, did not come out of nowhere. Illuminators working in his hometown of Tours in the 1460s and 1470s had certain stylistic penchants—such as their fondness for shades of lilac and plum—from which Poyer developed his own style. Most important was the presence in Tours of Jean Fouquet, fifteenth-century France's greatest painter, who opened French art to Italian influence. The exhibition includes the Hours of Jean Robertet, a rare work by Fouquet, and a Book of Hours by a Poyer predecessor known as the Master of Morgan 96.

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were busy times for French illuminators. This highly productive period was energized by increased literacy, a booming economy, and a market fueled by the competition between printed and hand-produced books. Poyer's contemporaries whose works are in the exhibition provide, with their varying styles, evidence of regional differences as well as testimony to the period's diverse range of taste. This section features the illumination of Georges Trubert, an artist working in Provence, and Jean Colombe, headquartered in Bourges.

Poyer had many rivals but few peers. The Master of Jacques de Besançon worked for some of the same clients (such as King Charles VIII), but his broad style has none of Poyer's subtlety. Only Jean Bourdichon and the Master of Anne de Bretagne were Poyer's true artistic peers. As his direct competitor, Bourdichon was working in a similar style in the same town, at the same time, and often for the same patrons. A large Book of Hours with full-size paintings of flowers, for which Bourdichon was famous in his day, is included here. Also featured is the "Hours of Anne of Austria," so called because it was owned in the seventeenth century by that queen, wife of Louis XIII; the manuscript was illuminated by the Master of Anne de Bretagne, who also designed the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, now in the Cloisters, New York.

The exhibition is accompanied by two publications, both of which Mr. Wieck is the main author. The Hours of Henry VIII: A Renaissance Masterpiece by Jean Poyer, published by George Braziller in association with the Library, features reproductions of all fifty-five illuminations from that manuscript and a lengthy discussion of the artist's oeuvre ($60, hardcover; $29.95 softcover). The Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne, published by Faksimile Verlag Luzern, is an exact re-creation of this precious catechism ($650, in leather case with a separate commentary volume included).

Teaser text: 

The first one-man show in the United States devoted to the work of a manuscript illuminator, Jean Poyer: Artist to the Court of Renaissance France opens at the Morgan Library on January 25, 2001, and remains on view through May 6. Taking a novel approach to the traditional manuscript exhibition, Jean Poyer examines not only the artist's work but also his artistic roots, his contemporaries, and his competitors.

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