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ART : REVIEW : Illuminating Fouquet’s Prayer Book : The Getty Museum has ‘reunited’ masterpieces of 15th-Century French artist Jean Fouquet for the first time in centuries

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Imagine a cross between the sweet, radiant simplicity of the early Florentine Renaissance painter Fra Angelico and the vaguely intimidating, revelatory mystery of the Flemish master Jan van Eyck, and you’ll have something of an idea of the unusual tone of Jean Fouquet’s best paintings.

Today touted as the greatest French artist of the 15th Century, Fouquet didn’t really have a lot of competition. He was in many ways the first distinct personality in the history of French art. His work displays a budding European Renaissance sensibility that was northern in its origins and southern in its shadings.

If this distinctive artist and his compellingly quirky, hybrid style are not nearly as well-known today as are Fra Angelico and Jan van Eyck, several explanations offer themselves. One is Fouquet’s role as something of a brilliant synthesizer of independent innovations, first made elsewhere. Another is the relative paucity of his extant work, which amounts to a small number of panel paintings and a variety of illuminated manuscripts. And still another is his commitment to the genre of manuscript illumination itself, an art central to the culture of medieval Europe but on the brink of eclipse at the very moment Jean Fouquet was wielding his brush.

In 1455, Johann Gutenberg and his assistants printed their famous bible in Mainz, Germany, the first book mechanically produced with movable type. Printing was to become a revolutionary means for spreading written and visual ideas far and wide, in a manner and for purposes completely different from the one-of-a-kind luxury items that are decorated manuscripts.

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That same year in Paris, Fouquet completed six miniatures for a diminutive, completely handmade prayer book commissioned from a wealthy nobleman. The Hours of Simon de Varie, as the prayer book is called, is neither as lush nor as elaborate in its decoration as the Hours of Etienne Chevalier, the lavish manuscript on which much of Fouquet’s reputation now rests, and which was completed at around the same time. Still, four of the six little paintings at the front of the smaller book are extraordinarily beautiful in design and execution.

Furthermore, two of those little masterpieces can now be seen by the general public for the very first time. “Fouquet’s Century: Transformations in French Painting, 1415--1530" is the fourth exhibition in an exceptionally significant series to focus on a single great manuscript in the celebrated collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Examining the Hours of Simon de Varie, it has as its magnificent centerpiece a diptych showing an exquisitely rendered Virgin and Child enthroned on one page, and the book’s patron and a servant kneeling in devotion on the facing page.

The show, organized by Getty curator Thomas Kren, also marks the publication of the museum’s first monograph about a manuscript in its collection. Unlike a facsimile edition, which copies an entire manuscript, the Fouquet monograph reproduces in color and actual size only those pages with miniatures and decorated initials, as well as a few text pages with secondary decorations. (About 70 pages in all are reproduced.) This “book about a book” also includes dozens of black and white illustrations of related material and several enlightening texts about the manuscript and its history.

That history is remarkable, too, especially as it intersects razor-sharp scholarly insight with plain dumb luck--the stuff from which art historians’ dreams are made. For the Getty’s manuscript, which is one-third of a larger book whose remaining two volumes have been in a library in The Hague (the Koninklijke Bibliotheek) since 1814 and 1887, respectively, came into the museum’s hands pretty much by accident.

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In 1983, Prof. James Marrow, a highly regarded medievalist then on the faculty at UC Berkeley, made one of his regular visits to the San Francisco antiquarian book dealer, the late Warren R. Howell. There he was introduced to Gerald F. Borrmann, a bibliophile who had in his possession a small manuscript acquired in London four years before, about which he knew little. Could Prof. Marrow take a look and tell him what he thought?

Marrow could and did. But not before overcoming momentary speechlessness. Struggling to maintain his composure as he leafed through the four frontispiece miniatures, which included two full-page, heraldic representations enclosing a diptych of the donor kneeling before an enthroned Virgin and Child, he announced that he thought the paintings were exceedingly rare examples by Jean Fouquet.

Two years and much productive research later, the extraordinary manuscript entered the collection of the Getty Museum, a partial gift of Borrmann and his wife. The exhibition and its accompanying monograph are the culmination of those early efforts at understanding the lovely little book and its serpentine history.

There is still a good bit of sleuthing to do. Fouquet did the six miniatures at the front of the book, but he didn’t illuminate the main text. The identities of the two principal illuminators who did are unknown; currently, they are attributed (in typically arcane art historical manner) to the Master of Jean Rolin II and to the Chief Associate of the Bedford Master, because of stylistic similarities to other painted books.

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Still, the museum’s exhibition is thoroughly engrossing. The two separately bound volumes of the Varie hours that are housed in The Hague library have been reunited in Malibu with the missing third for the first time since they were split up in the 17th Century (probably to fetch more money on a flourishing manuscript market). Because an open book can only show two pages at a time, color transparencies of other illuminations in the Varie hours are in cases that ring the room.

The show also includes nine additional illuminated manuscripts, five independent folio leaves and three panel paintings. Except for the two Hague portions of the book and one leaf borrowed for the occasion from a private American collector, everything in the show is from the Getty’s permanent collection. It is a measure of the Getty’s impressive strengths in this area that the museum hasn’t needed to turn elsewhere to set Fouquet in considerable context.

Sure, it would be nice to have a painting by Jan van Eyck to show off with the two small Fra Angelico panels on view, each depicting an elegantly rendered pair of saints. (Fouquet visited Rome before 1447, when Fra Angelico was working there.) But a fine crucifixion panel attributed to the Master of the Parlement of Paris remains a good example of the saturation of color and intensity of observed detail common to great Flemish art of the first half of the 15th Century, such as Van Eyck’s.

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The show is divided into four parts, with the Hours of Simon de Varie at the intersection. It looks at the artistic background on which Jean Fouquet built his style, while also giving examples of the work of several of his contemporaries. Subsequent illuminations that owe a debt to Fouquet’s precedent are included, as are examples of his considerable legacy: Perhaps the most far-reaching feature of Fouquet’s art was that it acted as one convincing conduit for the spread of Italian Renaissance influence throughout Europe.

A striking feature of Fouquet’s paintings is the sense of monumentality achieved in very small images. Each half of the magnificent Getty diptych is barely more than three inches wide and four inches high; and yet, the scale is dramatic and commanding.

At the right is Simon de Varie, dressed in a ritual suit of armor to designate nobility. (He worked in the finance ministry of Charles VII, not slaying English knights; that was left to Charles’ devoted Joan of Arc.) He kneels in a ramrod straight posture with hands clasped before him in prayer. As sturdy, upright and enduring as the stone pilasters that mark the wall behind him, Simon casts an undifferentiated gaze across the page, not really looking at the Virgin and Child on the facing page as much as looking into a dreamy, contemplative inner space.

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If the right panel depicts the earthly world with spiritual overtones, the left one shows the spiritual world in earthly terms. With a motherly grasp underneath the Child’s arms, the enthroned Virgin holds the infant upright on her knee. She looks warmly at the boy, a faint smile on her lips, while he advances in Simon’s direction.

Simon may not be looking directly at the infant Jesus, but the infant is certainly looking at Simon. In fact, he strides toward him across his mother’s lap. One outstretched hand offers a blessing, the other, an apple for Simon, the dedicated “new Adam” of the savior’s church.

The space enclosing the enthroned Virgin and Child is far shallower than the one in which Simon and his attendant kneel together. Red velvet drapes close off the throne. Amazingly, Fouquet joins together the disjunctive spaces of the facing pages in a unified, one-point perspective articulated by the checkerboard floor.

Simultaneously, however, he underscores a subtle separation between the two: The Virgin and Child fill the page in a way Simon and his servant do not. Sacred figures dominate the diptych. The brilliant spatial interplay between pages convincingly establishes just who fits where in the culture’s all-important hierarchy.

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The other Fouquet miniature on view is from The Hague, a Madonna and Child of gravely beautiful, slightly nerve-racking simplicity. Veiled in lapis blue with golden highlights, and shown with head bowed in three-quarter profile, the Madonna cradles her child. Her gaze is concentrated on him.

The child, retaining just a hint of the medieval convention of displaying the features of a little old man, thus filled with wisdom beyond his mortal years, stares straight out of the lower left corner of the frame, gazing all-knowingly into the waiting eyes of a mesmerized viewer. Then, as if that rattling stare were not enough, Fouquet also painted the child’s hand as if resting on the decorative border of columbines and heraldic shields that frames the two-dimensional page, separating the pictorial world of imagination inside the frame from the world of flesh outside.

With this simple gesture, which magically breaches the separation, the kid seems poised to crawl from his mother’s pictorial lap into our actual one. The word is ready to be made flesh.

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Fouquet is something of a show-off in these gorgeous little paintings. And why not? That’s what his patron was after, a pyrotechnic display of visual and conceptual theatrics worthy of Simon’s vaunted perception of his own exalted station in life.

The patron’s mottoes, painted on parchment scrolls unfurling above and below him on his diptych page, pretty much tell the tale. Vie a mon desir , they forthrightly declare, plus que jamais .

Life according to one’s desire--more than ever.*

* “Fouquet’s Century: Transformations in French Painting, 1415-1530,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through July 10. Parking reservations required: (310) 458-2003.

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