Professor Nicola Courtright

Was King Henry IV of France a feminist? Probably not.

But Professor Nicola Courtright is studying how the art and architecture of his royal residences—from the Louvre to Luxembourg Palace—may have elevated the status of his wife, and in the process re-envisioned gender roles in early modern ruling culture.

Courtright, the William McCall Vickery 1957 Professor of the History of Art, is on leave this semester in Washington, D.C., where she is a senior fellow at the National Gallery of Art, delving into archives that will inform her forthcoming book, Art and Queenly Authority: The Creation of Spaces for Marie de Medici. The book explores how Marie’s chambers, galleries and gardens, combined with artwork depicting her shared sovereignty with the king, sent an important message to the public: far from being merely the wife of the king, Marie was a leader in her own right.

1603 Medal depicting King Henry IV and a Ruben painting
Courtright’s interest was sparked by this 1603 medal that depicts King Henry IV and Queen Marie as if they were equals. She’s also studied a Rubens painting, at right, that does the same.

Courtright’s research interest was sparked by a bronze medal, made in 1603 by Guillaume Dupré, that depicts King Henry IV and Queen Marie as if equals. “They’re shaking hands, and they’re completely balanced and equally weighted,” she says. The symbolism parallels the structures of their palaces, which in the 17th century began to include expanded chambers for the queen, decorated to emphasize her importance in the monarchic structure.

“It was for the safety of the monarchy,” Courtright reasons: Henry IV knew that if he died before his son came of age (which he did), Marie would be the only one to ensure the continuance of the kingdom.

The study of rooms and the objects within them is at the heart of Courtright’s art history seminar “Art, Things, Spaces and Places from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.” Last year she curated a similarly themed exhibition at the Mead Art Museum. “I wanted to understand the environments these kings and queens lived in,” she says, “to get a whole picture of what life was like.”

In her research on Henry and Marie, she’s exploring floor plans, diaries and letters, as well as art including a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, commissioned by Marie after the king’s death, again showing the king and queen as if equals.

“He was really trying to see beyond his death,” she says of Henry, “and to make room for women in the future.”