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What is it about wandering around the long connecting hallways and galeries, snooping in corners, and oggling at furniture and artwork in the homes of the long dead royal rich? It’s a fascinating thing and, for some of us, like artists, art historians, history buffs, antiques collectors, and tourists with a checklist to tick, it becomes almost an obsession.

There are two periods of time that give the Palace of Fontainebleau a special place in history – during the Renaissance and during the time of Napoleon.

The site where the Palace of Fontainebleau now stands was owned by French Royalty from the 12th century onward, with its first mention in the papers of Louis VII in 1137. Between then and now, it was called home by 34 French monarchs and emperors.

The reconstruction and development of the palace and the gardens as we see them today was begun during the reign of François I – who served as King of France from 1515 until his death in 1547 – during the time of the Renaissance. Prior to François I, Fontainebleau, and the forest around it, was primarily a hunting lodge for royalty. It was during this time of François I that the palace came alive.

François I hired the architect Gilles le Breton to erect most of the buildings of the Cour Ovale, which were built on the old foundations, including the Porte Dorée, its southern entrance. Artists from Italy were also brought in to design, build, and decorate the expanding château and because of this the Italian Mannerist style, which was used in the rooms and galeries and in the gardens, was introduced to France. In 1530 Florentine artist Rosso Fiorentino was the first Italian artist to arrive. Soon after he was followed by his rival, the Bolognese painter Francesco Primaticcio. Together they created what became known as the Fontainebleau School, which sought to create a harmonic merging between painting and the decoration of the interior rooms of the château.

Ten years after his arrival, Fiorentino died, leaving Primaticcio in charge. Under his care, the art of the palace became, somewhat sensuously and visually extreme in the Mannerist style. The use of classical landscapes and settings, creation of female figures with elongated torsos and limbs, the use of exaggerated lines, and the use of brilliant colors were elements of this style.

As a side note, and reference point, François I also brought Leonardo da Vinci to France, with his famous Mona Lisa in tow. It was François I that finally nudged Leonardo to part with his favorite work, on the condition that François I would not take possession of the painting until after Leonardo died. François I was also responsible for updating the Louvre, turning the building into a piece of Renaissance splendor.

After François I passed away in 1547, his son, Henri II with his wife Catherine de Medici took over the maintenance of the palace, but the over the top royal patronage of Fontainebleau fell by the wayside until the reign of Henri IV began in 1589. This time the School of Fontainebleau was comprised of artists mostly from the French and Flemish schools who spent their time redecorating Henri IV’s apartments within the palace. Henri IV also redid the gardens and dug the canal.

In later centuries, both Napoleon I and Napoleon III seized power by force and held imperial courts in Fontainebleau’s royal chateau.

The Emperor Napoleon I (b.1769 – d.1821) was consecrated as Emporer of France on December 2, 1804. During The Revolution, the palace was emptied of its furniture and anything that was sellable or usable in some way to the public of France. When Napoleon entered Fountainbleau, he found it completely devoid of furnishings. He worked at returning Fontainebleau to its natural state as a royal palace and home. Napoleon I refurnished the apartments, transforming the King’s Bedroom into the Throne Room (shown above). In 1804 he welcomed Pope Pius VII who had come to anoint him as Emporer of France. But then he also held the Pontiff here again from 1812 to 1814, that time as a prisoner.

For all of the energy that Napoleon I expended in restoring Fontainebleau, it was not, ironically, a happy place for him. It was here, on April 20, 1814, following a failed suicide attempt by poisoning, that the defeated Napoleon was forced to abdicate. He ceremoniously descended the famous horseshoe staircase in the chateau’s grand Cour des Adieux to bid farewell to his Imperial Guard before going into exile on Elba.

With the restoration of the Empire in 1852, Fontainebleau regained considerable importance. The new emperor, Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I), frequently came to the countryside with the Court, and pursued the Chateau’s restoration without hesitation or rest.

In April of 2007 it was announced that another restoration of Fountainebleau would take place, funded by the Tourism Board of Abu Dhabi, and was to begin in the Theatre of Napoleon III.

The story above and the images below are reposted from artist-at-large 2005.

Fontainebleau is a World Heritage site.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History

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