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Jean (or Janet) Clouet, the finest French painter of the early sixteenth century was not born in France. His origins are uncertain although
he may have been born in the Netherlands region around Valenciennes where the name Clouet was not uncommon. Clouet arrived in France during the reign of Louis XII (1498-1515) and the king was probably his patron. He was officially mentioned first in 1516 as one of the painters of Francis I, whose chief painter he became after 1528. From 1533 Clouet enjoyed the title of "painter and valet to the king" and with the title came the salary and the social status of the most important artists, scholars, and poets of the period. Though remembered today only as a portrait painter it is known that Clouet also painted religious subjects although none of these, nor for that matter any signed paintings or drawings, have been discovered.
The custom of the period among the nobility was to exchange black, white, and red chalk drawings, much as we exchange photographs.
A group of about 130 of these very fine portraits, kept in the Musée Conde in Chantilly has been identified as the work of Clouet, owing to the broad, diagonal, rather nervous cross-hatching, Northern realism, and simplicity. The portraits also bear inscriptions identifying the subjects as members of the French court who, because of their costumes and ages, were drawn between 1516 and 1540 when Clouet was court painter. This tradition of the crayon portrait modified Clouet's early style, which was probably Dutch, and introduced a relative flatness induced by the medium in which he worked. His identified work includes seven or eight oil paintings and nine miniatures. In these may be noted some influence of Italian Renaissance portraiture and what may have been a reciprocal interchange of influences between himself and Holbein who crossed France several times on his journeys to England. Clouet's spirited realistic style, extremely appealing to the most cultivated members of French society, has been the source of a continuous tradition in French portrait painting.