Published: December 19, 2000
NEW YORK CITY – The first one-man show in the United States devoted to the work of a manuscript illuminator, “Jean Poyet: ,” opens at the Morgan library, 29 East 36th Street, on January 25, and remains on view through May 6. Taking a novel approach to the traditional manuscript exhibition, “Jean Poyet” examines not only the artist’s work but also his artistic roots, his contemporaries and his competitors.
Poyet, 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 (reigned 1461-83), Charles VII (reigned 1483-98) and Louis XII (1498-1515).
The exhibition explores Poyet’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 the Renaissance paintings are noticeable: Poyet 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 illuminations, the artist’s predecessors, his contemporaries; and his peers and rivals. Throughout, the exhibition emphasizes connoisseurship, allowing the visitor to judge works attributed to Poyet and others.
Payment documents tell us that for Louis XI’s queen, Charlotte of Savoy, Poyet painted 1,031 coats of arms to be attached to the candles and torches used at her funeral. For Charles VII 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, Poyet designed and supervised elaborate theatrical spectacles as part of the royal entertainment. For Louis XII, Poyet was in charge of the pageants that Tours was planning in 1498.
Poyet was famous in his own time and immediately after his death. Sixteenth Century literary sources compare him, for example, to Jan van Eyck, circa 2390-1441. 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 20 years a significant body of work has been attributed to Poyet, 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 exhibit, the Briconnet Hours, a tutorial volume made for King Charles VIII (on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris), and the Loches Triptych (in exact photographic reproduction). Though scarce, the work of this period reveals Poyet’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.
Poyet’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 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. Poyet 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.
Poyet’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. Poyet’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. Poyet’s most capable assistant, referred to in the exhibition as the “pseudo-Poyet,” worked in Paris until around 1520, though without huge success. The prolific Master of Morgan 85 used some of Poyet’s models, but had little of his flair. The influence of Poyet’s subtle style was not extensive, and only one painter, the Master of Claude de France, can be considered his true artistic heir.
The library offers a variety of lectures, concerts, films and other public programs related to exhibitions and its collections. For information, 212/590-0333. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday, 10:30 am to 5 pm; Friday, 10:30 am to 8 pm; Saturday, 10:30 am to 6 pm; Sunday, noon to 6 pm.
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