What a masterpiece this portrait of Elizabeth of Austria (1554 – 1592), Wife of Charles IX and Queen of France (1570 – 1574)! The finesse, the accuracy, and the perfection of the drawing can not be further advanced; on this delicate lineament is a color of pale sweetness, more true than the colorful tones of the so-called colourist painters, and which one feels is the very expression of nature: although the model of this delightful portrait is not more than a pinch of ashes, if even this ash exists, we can affirm its resemblance. Yes, it is indeed Elizabeth, wife of Charles IX. She lives entirely in her little frame: her hands placed one on the other with a movement full of grace, are wonders, fluffy, transparent, tender like petals of lilies, truly royal hands! The costume, of complicated elegance and richness, is constellated with pearls, jewels, enamelled buttons, and precious stones, which almost make the bodice of gold brocade damask of silver disappear with its gadrooned strawberry; and the shirt of bouillon gauze seems to challenge the Blaise Desgoffes of the future.”
It was in 1570 that the young archduchess, granddaughter of Charles V, married Charles IX at the age of sixteen. Her royal husband had only twenty. This household of children, too young to have a will, was but a sad political toy in the hands of the queen-mother, the astute Catherine de Medici. Their union was, however, very short. Charles IX died five years later, and when Elizabeth, a widow at twenty-one, with the soul still terrified of the massacres of St. Bartholomew, had returned to her native land, shut herself up in a convent of Poor Clares to weep for her court happiness and forget the horrors of the past. She died of consumption at the age of thirty-eight.
At that time Clouet, whom contemporary writings call Janet, enjoyed a great reputation: he succeeded his father, Jean Clouet, as a painter of the Court, and successively confirmed in his office by Francis I, Henry II. And Charles IX. , he received a pension of 240 livres on the royal cassette.
It was not long after the arrival in France of the young queen Elisabeth that François Clouet executed his magnificent portrait. It was long believed that this picture was painted directly from nature. The discovery in 1825 of the cahier des crayons of the artist-cahier, which is kept in the cabinet des estampes, shows that Clouet, like all the artists of the time, first performed his portraits in pencil, do not weary the patience of his models. The work was then postponed to oil on board, corrected, amplified, finished. The same was true of the portrait of Elizabeth of Austria, which is in a state of readiness in Clouet’s notebook, with all its details. On sides there are the indications which are to be used later for his painting, the color of the feathers, the silks, the passages, the various shades of the costume, the errors of proportions in the sketch which he proposes to rectify on the final panel.
This pencil, like all those of Clouet, is admirable; in the panel reproduced here, are added yet this delicate and vigorous coloring at the same time and this truth in the expression which allowed us to attribute to Holbein many works of our old French master. For a long time, this delicious artist has been almost ignored, and this kind of indifference makes hesitant criticisms even today in the attribution to Clouet of paintings in which everything accuses his manner. What has he missed to keep in posterity the rank due to him? A biographer, a Vasari who would have passed on to the next generations his name and the nomenclature of his works.
And yet what a charming master that Francois Clouet! A fine, graceful, elegant Holbein, with all the French qualities. Nothing could be more delicate than his manner of painting, which would make the finest miniatures appear coarse. His color is clear, his shadows are of extreme lightness, as if he were afraid of concealing some interesting detail; but in that pallor, when the eye is accustomed to it, what a search for modeling, what rendering and what precision! And what care, what taste, what finis, what fidelity in the costumes, the adjustments, the arms and the jewels of the illustrious personages, princes or princesses whom it represents! No sacrifice, no hidden part, and yet, from this world of details, nothing stands out and disturbs harmony. It is indeed the painter of the Valois, these artist kings, dressed and stylish like women. Better than that, Clouet is the precursor of modern portraitists, and if he returned, he would have nothing to modify in his technique, to place himself at the level of the greatest portrayal painters.
The portrait of Elizabeth of Austria belongs to the ancient royal collection; he never ceased to belong to the Crown or the national galleries. It is now in Room XI, one of the two rooms devoted to the French Primitives.
Height: 0.56 – Width: 0.27 – Wood – Figure bust half nature.