The first time I saw this panel -- the right-hand wing of the "Melun diptych” -- in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, I was stunned to see that it was painted in the mid-1400s … it looks so much more modern that that!
Jean Fouquet (1420–1481) was the first French artist to travel to Italy to personally experience the early Italian Renaissance. Returning to Northern Europe sometime after 1437, he linked elements of the Tuscan style with the style of the Van Eycks, and thus became the founder of an important new school of painting. He was a master of both manuscript illumination and panel painting, and his excellence as an illuminator is evident in the precise rendering of fine detail and lucid characterization that we see in this Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels.
The picture is actually a portrait of Agnès Sorel (1421–1450), a favorite mistress of King Charles VII of France, to whom she bore three daughters. She was apparently an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, of high intelligence, and it is said that her presence at his court brought the king out of a protracted depression. She was known as la Dame de Beauté.
For her private residence King Charles gave her the Château de Loches -- where he had been persuaded by Joan of Arc to accept the French crown -- and she came to have considerable influence over the King. This, combined with her extravagant tastes, gained her powerful enemies at court.
Agnès died at the age of 28, possibly the victim of murder. Recent forensic analysis of her remains has confirmed that she died from mercury poisoning, but in those days mercury was used to treat worms and was sometimes used in cosmetic preparations, so her poisoning might not have been politically motivated.
After her death, the King chose her cousin, Antoinette de Maignelais, to take her place as his mistress.
The "Melun diptych" (c. 1450) originally stood on an altar in the cathedral at Melun, 25 miles southeast of Paris. One of Fouquet’s most important paintings, the Virgin and Child panel faced the left-hand wing -- now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin -- which depicts Etienne Chevalier with his patron saint, St. Stephen.