In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.
Jean de La Fontaine was the most famous fabulist (writer of fables) and one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th Century. He is most celebrated for his ‘Fables’ which provided a model for successive fabulists across Europe and other alternative versions in French.
Jean was born on July 8, 1621 in Château-Thierry, Champagne. He was the eldest child and attended grammar school in Reims. He continued his education in seminary but decided it was not the vocation for him. He then went into law and is said to have been admitted as avocat (lawyer). Early in life he was set up with his father’s position as a forest ranger and married to Marie Héricart who had a 20,000 livres dowry. The couple did not get along and in 1658 were separated, La Fontaine living in Paris and Marie living in Château-Thierry. Marie raised and educated their son who was born in 1653.
La Fontaine’s literary career began when he was thirty, writing tales and poetry. He received a pension from King Louis XIV’s minister Nicholas Fouquet in 1659. He was to never lack for commissions and patrons the rest of his life. He was great friends with Racine, Molière and Boileau, forming a literary quartet. In 1668, his first book of fables was written. His works mostly consist of fables, tales and other miscellaneous work. His fables are universally famous and his tales are known by all lovers of French literature. La Fontaine was admitted to the Académie Française in 1684. He died on April 13, 1685 at the age of seventy three in Paris. According to novelist Gustav Flaubert, La Fontaine was the only French poet to understand and master the texture of the French language before writer Victor Hugo (“Les Miserables”) in the 19th Century.