Paintings in the Collège de France faculty Professors’ meeting room (Episode 1)
Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.
For almost five centuries, the Collège de France has been administered by its faculty, who meet three times a year, on the last Sunday of November, March, and June. As both the institution’s governing board and its academic council, the faculty is composed of professors headed by the administrator, who collegially make policy decisions for the institution.
The meeting room with its Art Deco furniture has been the venue of these meetings since the 1930s, when it was renovated by the young architect and designer Jacques Adnet. In 2009 it was again renovated, but without any changes to the décor.
Some of the ancient, rare and valuable collections of the Collège de France’s heritage library are housed in the cabinets and on the glass-covered shelves of the room. As one of the institution’s symbolic spaces, the room is adorned with paintings, which are the subject of this series in two episodes.
The Founding of the Collège Royal by Francis I [La Fondation du Collège Royal par François Ier], Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1824)
Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1760-1832)
Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (10 January 1760, Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe – 22 April 1832, Paris) was the illegitimate son of Marie-Françoise Dupepaye, a freed slave, and Pierre Guillon, a Crown prosecutor in Guadeloupe.
His inclination for the visual arts developed very early and was encouraged by those close to him. When he arrived in France with his father in 1774, he became a student at the workshop of Gabriel-François Doyen, as did Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. He received the Prix de Rome in 1784, was the director of the Académie de France in Rome from 1807 to 1816, and finally became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1819. At the end of his life, this famed artist reaffirmed his ties with his Caribbean roots by dedicating the allegorical painting The Oath of the Ancestors (French: Le Serment des ancêtres) (1822) to the young Republic of Haiti, at the time not yet recognized by France.
Although this is a history painting, the preferred genre of the nineteenth century, it is nevertheless an artistic rendition insofar as no precise descriptions of the episode that it depicts have been found.
- Here, the painter represents Francis I at the time of signing the deed of creation of the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux, in a scene representing several important figures of Renaissance humanism.
- Guillaume Budé, an eminent humanist and the person behind the creation of the Collège. At the time, he was the king’s librarian. The royal collection, which since 1537 had been enriched by the legal obligation of book producers to submit a copy of works (the “dépôt légal”), would become the precursor to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France [French national library]. His portrait here resembles the statue of him bearing his name, located in the courtyard of the Collège de France (click here to view the statue).
- Sitting behind the king is his sister, Queen Margaret of Navarre, a humanist who promoted the arts and literature through patronage and writing. Most notably, she authored a collection of short stories called The Heptameron.
- The man who appears to be reading to her could be the poet Clément Marot, who was moreover in the queen’s service. He was among the first and most noteworthy modern French poets, a precursor to the poets of La Pléiade twenty years his junior.
- The female face appearing behind them could be that of their mother Louise of Savoy, who assumed the regency of France on behalf of her son every time he left the kingdom (due to wars, captivity, etc.), for a total duration of more than two years.
- Standing in the foreground is the heir apparent, the future Henry II, holding the hand of a man whom he himself referred to as his “compère” or second father, in a sense.
- His “governor” (in other words, his teacher) and therefore “compère”, Anne of Montmorency, Constable of France and a childhood friend of Francis I.
- Last of all, above the king’s outstretched hand, is a character with a ghostlike appearance, as if he were emerging from limbo to bear witness. This is likely the protective figure of Leonardo da Vinci1, the man of all sciences and all arts. It reflects the significant licence taken by the painter, because at the time the Collège was created, in 1530, da Vinci had been dead for eleven years (1519).
- In reference to models from classic antiquity, Pericles’ bust prevails over the scene.
- The dog, a conventional symbol of loyalty, reacts to the enthusiasm of the king’s arm. Its back and head trace a curve that points to the young Henry II and then to Margaret, grandmother of the future Henry IV, thus representing loyalty enduring beyond changes in dynasties.
- There are multiple reminders of the powers in place (the Bourbon Restoration) at the time of painting: Francis I’s throne resembles the one in a painting of Louis XVIII (conserved at the Palace of Versailles), as well as the one in a portrait of Charles X (also at the Palace of Versailles), who had just succeeded Louis XVIII in 1824.
- The insignia of the Order of Saint Michael is visible on the royal canopy and the king’s breastplate. It had been abolished in 1791 but was restored by Louis XVIII in 1816.
- On a chair to the left, in addition to symbolizing a royal founder, blueprints seem to imply the promise of new buildings for the new institution.
We can compare this work to its modello (Italian for “mock-up”), a preliminary version painted in smaller format:
This preparatory study already contains the essential elements of the composition, although the opening towards the room to the left offers a broader perspective, decorated with a wooden gallery and corresponding to a window in the right-hand section of the painting.
The main difference here is the chronologically realistic presence of two young princes instead of a single one in the final work. In 1530, the heir apparent was still Francis III, Duke of Brittany (1518-1536), accompanied in this version by his younger brother, Henry of Orleans, who would later become King Henry II following their father’s death in 1547. We can assume that the painter decided to eliminate the first heir apparent from his canvas to spare viewers the complications of succession in a painting that already had a detailed composition.
The blueprints of potential buildings are already present at this stage of the composition.
It is not hard to imagine that the events of the latter half of the sixteenth century delayed the construction of the Collège Royal’s facilities: political unrest, religious wars, the frequency of royal successions, foreign wars, and civil war prevented the monarchs of the House of Valois from making such an investment. They nevertheless supported the new institution, which was highly successful. By 1600, the number of Chairs remunerated by the king had increased from six to almost twenty. This amazed Étienne Pasquier, a scholar of the time, who praised this institution uniquely “built of men” and not of stones.
Ce(tte) œuvre est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International
- As confirmed by Patrick Boucheron, among others, in his inaugural lecture, in Paragraph 19: https://books.openedition.org/cdf/4507