Le Goût du Prince: Art and Prestige in Sixteenth-Century France at Yale University Art Gallery

Odd Couple

The Yale University Art Gallery just raised the curtain on two fascinating, wildly disparate summer shows. In the first-floor special exhibit space, filled with royal decorum and decadent pride, is Le Goût du Prince: Art and Prestige in Sixteenth-Century France. In the fourth floor special exhibit space, the walls are warmed by ancient, superbly preserved, sometimes psychedelically conceived fabrics in Weaving and the Social World: 3,000 Years of Ancient Andean Textiles.

Old France beckons first thanks to its positioning near YUAG’s front doors. Le Goût du Prince—“the taste of the prince”—was curated by graduating seniors Cordélia de Brosses, Hélène Cesbron Lavau and Stephanie Wisowaty. But while the curators themselves are young, their taste for antique French art is compelling.

The gallery has been given an I-beam arrangement (two wings connected by a long hallway) intended to mimic the gallery at King Francis I’s Château de Fontainebleau. Francis I, inspired by the art of the Italian Renaissance, invited master Italian artists to collaborate with French ones as they designed and stocked his château. The result, a Franco-Italian wonder, became the epicenter of the French Renaissance.

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In one wing, conservative Greco-Roman style prints and paintings of noblemen line the walls. Respectable metallic busts of King Henry IV and Queen Marie de’ Medici stand at the center of the room. But among the air of propriety there’s a hint of bedlam. Before the French Renaissance, a French king had never appeared in art without his clothes, but on the wall to the right of the busts is a ceramic figure of King Henry IV. Ruler of France from 1589 to 1610, he’s depicted here as Neptune, riding a seahorse in the buff. On the wall to its left, the venerable king is depicted as a Herculean figure surrounded by astrological signs, his crown jewels on full display.

In the long hallway, the walls are lined with prints, many of which represent works that would’ve hung in Château de Fontainebleau. But most evocative in this passage are the six marble grotesques along its length, depicting faces of various fauns—humanoid animal spirits—that the curators suspect once hung in one of the château’s grottos. Recessed into the walls and placed across from each other in pairs, the first has a buck-toothed faun yelling across the passage at a nonplussed target. In the next pair, one crosses its eyes and pouts insolently at a partner who grimaces gruffly as if annoyed. The third pair looks frightened: one looks down at something and screams, while the other edges its eyes at something worse coming around the corner.

If you follow the last, frightened faun’s eyes, they’ll lead you to The Triumph of Mars, a painting that, if the gallery’s hallway were a long table, would be sitting at its head. Here, artist Antoine Caron critiques the late 16th-century religious wars between French Catholics and Protestants. The heavily allegorical imagery shows Mars, the Roman god of war, sitting atop a chariot loaded with war loot as he rides through a pillaged landscape. His cart is led by Fury and pulled by two horses, Devastation and Destruction. Beside him walk Blasphemy and Famine.

Nearby are two “rustique” oval basins modeled after those of the renowned self-taught ceramist Bernard Palissy. Palissy developed a secret molding technique which could cast snakes, frogs, crawfish and other small animals just moments after their death. The artist took his technique to the grave, but in the 19th century, industrial processes allowed forgers to make convincing likenesses of his works. The two basins on display are beautiful plates that, when filled with water, resemble verdant pools full of fish, plants and other critters. These platters are industrial-era copies, though the realism of Palissy’s fascinating and eerie formula shines through nonetheless.

Remarkably, given its millennia-long span, there don’t seem to be any such stand-ins among Weaving and the Social World. The collection of artifacts from Inca, Nazca and other ancient Andean cultures is made up of well-preserved tunics, mantles and wall hangings—some of which look fresh off the rack—plus examples of the tools they used to make them.

You’ll find one tunic that belonged to a royal guardsman, its checkerboard pattern signifying his status as a warrior. Another shows four “supernatural puma” on the hunt with spears while riding what look like snowboards. You’ll also find wall hangings depicting abstract sun gods, two-headed snakes, dragon-ringed figures and female cat deities with fangs in their mouths and in other places too.

While most of the material is made from cottons and camelid wools, there’s an entire room dedicated to feathered wares made from Amazonian macaw feathers. This stolen beauty was harvested from live birds, who were plucked repeatedly for their feathers but not enough to kill them.

Also in the room of macaw feathers is a case containing four appearances of the mysterious “crested moon animal.” The dragon-like quadruped began in the art of the Moche culture, spreading to others and enduring even as other figures in the Moche pantheon, such as the fish monster and bird warriors, disappeared with colonialism. The artifacts in the case comprise a moon animal plaque, a pair of earspools and two vessels. The larger vessel held fermented corn beer that would sometimes be mixed with the psychedelic herb, ayahuasca.

Which may help explain the snake-winged men flying around a tapestry in the next room.

Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tue–Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs (Sept.-June) 10am–8pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
(203) 432-0600
Le Goût du Prince (through August 28)
Weaving and the Social World (through September 18)

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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