By 1642, when Cardinal Richelieu had died,he had confirmed the power of France on all her land and sea frontiers, and had turned the tide against Spain and her allies. Beyond the political and military achievements, an expansion in all the arts of civilization had gone with it. A flourishing school of painting had its center in Paris. The Academy had been founded to encourage literature. The French drama, stimulated and inspired by the personal encouragement of the Cardinal , was gaining a reputation soon to be unrivaled in Europe.
Of course, many gifted men and women contributed to the ascension of the arts. The French “salon” , for instance, that fruitful invention of polite society to which the intellectual life of France owes so much, was started by Madame de Rambouillet shortly before the rise of Cardinal Richelieu. But it was under his ministry that the idea developed and spread and became an established part of the cultural scene. Richelieu’s attitude towards the arts was not that they could be exploited for propaganda purposes, but that a great and civilized nation ought to be great in literature, architecture, learning, and the arts. It was the duty of rulers to spend generously to encourage their practice.
It is still a valid issue today concerning the advantages and drawbacks of state subsidies for the arts. In France, the advantages during Richelieu’s time overwhelmed; he had always been keen on drama but had little use for the crude and lively street theaters much beloved by the common folk. He wanted to see French dramatic writing brought into line with the best classical models, and the French theater a place of dignified entertainment for intelligent men and women. The carrot approach resulted in the exiling of the lewd and crude plus horseplay from the performances plus playwrights turning to classical themes.
There was Tristan L’Hermite, there was the elgant and witty Mairet, to whom Richelieu gave a pension, and above all, there was Pierre Corneille. Corneille’s “Le Cid” took Paris by storm in 1637. Like many another play popular with the public, it ran afoul of the critics. The quarrel became so bitter that Richelieu intervened and commanded the newly founded Academy to judge the piece. Corneille, like others of genius, was not bound by hard and fast aesthetic rules. The Academy in due course reported that “Le Cid” did not conform to the classical conventions of playmaking and could not therefore be vindicated against his critics. Corneille was indignant, and it was reflective of state appointed Arts body’s in the future retrenching in the face of innovation and ardently working to maintain existing status quo’s.
The Academy was the beloved child of Richelieu’s conception. It was an association of literary menwhose task was to iimprove the language and encourage the literature of France. To be a member of the Academy was, and has remained, one of the most coveted distinctions in the entire world of literature. The work that was done to stabilize French grammar and cleanse the vocabulary was of immense importance. Thus was established that clear and flexible speech which replaced Latin as the international language of diplomacy and became the vehicle of the most influential modern literature in the world.
He would have liked to make Paris the aesthetic center of Europe, but the position was still in his time held by Rome. The two greatest French painters of the age, Poussin and Claude, had long been settled there, and Richelieu’s attempts to bring them home met with failure. Poussin did come for a time, but was irritated by plans for redecorating the Louvre which did not give him enough scope. He soon decided that independence in Rome was preferable to the gilded cage of France, in spite of the generous court patronage.
The two painters who dominated Paris in the time of Richelieu were the Flemish born Philippe de Champaigne and the Frenchman Simon Vouet. The clear, astringent manner of Ch
igne is the opposite of the rotund and flowing compositions of Vouet, but both were fearless colorists and fine decorative painters. Whatever Vouet’s intrinsic merit as a painter, he is significant in the history of art because his studio in Paris became a center for young artists that competed with Italy and re-created a school of painting in France.
Despite his attentiveness to culture, the Cardinal’s sensibility did not extend to the lot of the common, Frances large population of unwashed; in fact he was indifferent to their aspirations to the point of hostility. The poor were to be governed, without any voice in government. He did not show much concern for the sufferings that his war policy caused to the unfortunate peasants unluckily situated in the frontier provinces.
Jacque Callot’s famous set of etchings “Les Miseres de la Guerre” supply graphic evidence of what befell the peasant population in time of war. They suffered atrociously, and when they dared question their lot and broke into revolt, the Cardinal employed his velvet touch with the iron hand of repressive authority at his disposal. The church, with pretexts of heresy and witch burning as an excuse to subordinate the civilian population quite handily, were examples that the horrors of the age could not be simply alleviated by ponying up money toSaint Vincent de Paul to wander among the poor and sick. Hard to understand how the Cardinal could reconcile his own devotion to Christianity with intolerable brutality; all rationalized by the mounting prosperity of the country through exports against the legions of homeless in Paris and dispossessed peasants whose land had been wasted by war. Perhaps another example of the closer to god the least religious they become.
As a personality, the Cardinal was an enigma. A devouring lust for power and a devotion to duty competed in equal parts; all rounded out by a lack of human feeling behind the multitudinous activities of his exceptional mind. His greatest glory was that he laid the foundations for France’s intellectual and aesthetic leadership.