Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review : French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet at the British Museum – 8th September 2016 to 29 January 2017

Exhibition Review : French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet at the British Museum – 8th September 2016 to 29 January 2017



This exhibition showcases a selection from the British Museum’s extensive collection of French portrait drawings to illustrate the development of this medium from the Renaissance until the 19th century.

The exhibition explores the way that the drawn portrait was often an informal medium, created for circulation among friends and relations of the sitter, rather than the wider public. The exhibition offers visitors the chance to see some of the Museum’s well-known French portrait drawings alongside some that  have never been exhibited before.


The exhibition opens with drawings by Francois Clouet, which offer an intimate and revealing picture of the 16th century French Renaissance court, Clouet’s drawn portraits of courtiers and the royal family were commissioned by the French queen Catherine de’Medici, and his portrait of Catherine herself will be on display for the first time. The exhibition also includes a drawing of Catherine’s husband Henri II, one of the first representations of Henri as king.


Away from the court, drawings made in the 18th and 19th century offer a glimpse into artists’ personal lives. Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune used chalk to draw his infant daughter, in about 1772, creating a delightfully naturalistic record of childhood. Another example of family portraiture is by the 19th-century artist Albert Lebourg, depicting his wife and mother in-law.


Drawings were cheaper and easier to produce than an oil painting or sculpture and allowed the artist greater freedom for creativity and spontaneity . Pierre Dumonstier ‘portrait’ of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s hand in 1625 illustrates that drawings could often be laced with humour, another example is Henri Fantin-Latour’s self-portrait studies from 1876. The exhibition that starts with 16th century French Renaissance court closes at the other extreme with Toulouse Lautrec’s portraits of the Parisian demi-monde.


This intriguing and entertaining exhibition provides plenty of evidence that often artists used drawings to provide a snapshot of the sitter, these drawings often present very different insights into the character of the sitter that would be evident in a oil painting.


Jean Joseph Bernard’s portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette show the couple as smug and self-satisfied where Marcellin Desboutin’s A young woman wearing a hat from 1889 suggests vulnerability as if the sitter is imploring the artist or viewer for something.


This free exhibition runs from the 8th September 2016 to 29th January 2017.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

 If you would like more information visit the British Museum website here

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