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Work Henry II (1519-1559) and Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589)

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

Portrait d'Henri II et de Catherine de Médicis

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Grollemund Hélène

This drawing, with portraits of Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medicis in the center, belongs to a series of allegorical and historical compositions on the rule of the Valois from Francis I to Charles IX. The series, titled Histoire françoyse de notre temps, dates from the reign of Charles IX. It illustrates a text written by Nicolas Houel, a Paris apothecary seeking favor with the royal family.

A posthumous portrait

The drawing uses a framed tripartite structure inspired by the decorative principles that Rosso applied in the François I gallery at Fontainebleau. The double royal portrait in the center-the faces have been laid on top of an initial sketch that can still be seen against the light-combines the usual insignia of majesty and fabulous mythological figures. Henry II is shown in armor, in accordance with the knightly ideal. He is wearing the collar of the royal order of St. Michael and, like his wife, the mantle decorated with fleurs de lis and ermine of the French sovereigns. To show that their authority derives from an order superior to that of common mortals, the portraits are dominated by a representation of Olympia in which Jupiter is sending Mercury to the king, bearing the insignia of power: crowns and the sceptre. Several details show that Henry II was dead when the portraits were made (the obelisk behind him can be read as a funerary monument) and that he has handed his power over to the queen (in the shape of a horn of plenty). The shadow beside the king, and day dawning beside the queen, also symbolize his passing.

To the glory of the king

The rest of the decor is similarly eloquent. At the top, on either side of the arms of the king and queen, and at the bottom, flanking a cartouche, women with horns overflowing with fruit are allegories of Plenty. On the left, Apollo, the god of music and poetry, and Minerva, the goddess of war and industry, flank a medallion showing a temple where a goat is being led to sacrifice. On the right another medal, which depicts a harvest scene, is flanked by Juno, the sovereign goddess and protectress of married women (so it is not surprising to see her beside Catherine de Medicis) and Ceres, the maternal goddess of the earth and vegetation. All this is meant to suggest ideal prosperity, which failed to materialize during the reign of Henry II and was even more conspicuously absent during Catherine de Medicis' regency for her son Charles IX.

Aspiring to the absolute

The son of Francis I and Claude de France, Henry II had married Catherine de Medicis in 1533, well before acceding to the throne in 1547. His death in 1559 put an end to a reign which had maintained a spirit of competition with the Hapsburgs (Charles V, then Philip II) and an interest in the literary and artistic prestige championed by Francis I. The figure of Henry II in the left-hand border of the drawing associates Diana's crescent moon with the king's initial. It refers to the motto "until it has filled his globe," which makes the phases of the moon the symbol of an aspiration towards the absolute-absolute monarchy in particular. The crowned double M and motto, on the other side, belongs to Catherine de Medicis.


Cordellier D., Visages du Louvre : Chefs-d'oeuvre du portrait dans les collections du Louvre, Exposition Tokyo, Musée national d'art occidental, 1991, n 62, p. 128-129.

Technical description

  • Antoine Caron (Beauvais, 1521-Paris, 1599)

    Henry II (1519-1559) and Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589)

    Between 1561-62 and 1572

  • Pen, brown ink, light brown wash, white highlights, and preparatory lines in black chalk and stylus on superimposed sheets; the portraits in pen and black ink, and grey and brown wash on the overlaid pieces of paper

    H. 41.6 cm; W. 56.5 cm

  • Sale at Sotheby's, London, 14 May 1912, part of no. 264; gift of Count Robert de Billy and Countess de Billy, 1948, in memory of Maurice Fenaille

    RF 29713

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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