Arts & Culture

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1638 - 1715

Louis XIV

The construction of a political image
Under Louis XIV, art was officially organised to serve the Prince’s glory and became an instrument of power. A philosophy of sovereignty was developed using arguments taken from ancient history and an idea of government inspired by Machiavelli.
Official portrait of Louis XIV

The representation of the King, his actions and his beneficence contributes to the exaltation of the sovereign’s grandeur.

Louis XIV is the most portrayed person in the kingdom. The multiplication of his portraits ensured that they were distributed throughout the realm.

I. The King, the man and posterity

Louis XIV is represented at the age of approximately 15 in a ceremonial military uniform.

It is no accident that Bernini, the architect and sculptor from Rome, accepted to come to France: he was attracted by the creative effervescence of the early years of the reign of Louis XIV, both in Paris and at Versailles.

Antoine Benoist, “the King’s painter and his only coloured wax sculptor”, made at least eleven portraits of Louis XIV. This one, from around 1705, is surprising in its uncompromising realism. The artist probably composed it using several impressions cast directly on the King’s face.

Wax portrait of Louis XIV by Antoine Benoist

Images are used both as a reminder and as a substitute for the person revered. 

Engravings were the easiest way to make them circulate and to have them used in the media. 

The press, notably La Gazette, immediately made use of such images for promotional purposes.

Around 1670, Jean Nocret represented Louis XIV and the royal family in costume

The monarchy is timeless. The arts contribute to celebrating the memory of its power.

Thus, a connection with past reigns, from Caesar to Saint Louis, is reaffirmed, as is the dynastic principle of the Prince and his descendants.

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Fame holding a trumpet presents the sovereign’s name to the Temple of Immortality, written on a phylactery: “Ludovicus XIV victor immortalis”; she triumphs over time, personified by an old man carrying a scythe.

II. Symbolic images: the use of allegory

Statue of Louis XIV by Jean Warin

The 17th century was a period submitted to literature during which metaphor was reigning. Culture was based on references to the past.

The heritage of the ancients and the models of the Renaissance provided a repository of symbolic images and myths. The ideal of a god or a demigod coloured the image of the King.

A myth that the King attributed to himself takes on all its meaning at Versailles: the sun

The image of the god Apollo is connected with the sun, the centre of the universe, source of heat and harmony. 

The parallelism between the natural order and the political order was an obvious reading for the people of the time.

This topic can be seen on the walls of the Palace as well as in Le Nôtre’s gardens.

The Grotto of Thetis, which no longer exists, was in reference to the cosmic myth of the sun’s path from dawn to dusk.

III. The “King governs”: temporal power and sacred power

Absolute monarchy was religious. In France, it sought to instil a feeling of admiration and fervour toward the royalty that approached a religious emotion.

Diplomacy at Versailles: 

Ambassadorial receptions were moments of refined festivities in the Hall of Mirrors that were not to be missed at Court.

Reparations made to Louis XIV by the Doge of Genoa in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles on 15 May 1685

The fight against Protestantism:

Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The sculptor Thomas Gobert represented the King crushing the heresy depicted as an old lady.

Allegory of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685

IV. Historical images: man of war and man of peace

Warrior representations outnumber images commemorating peace.

After the ancient myths and mythology, the new myth of Louis XIV was based on a modern rhetoric expressing the historical language.

The King’s historical narrative is a way for the monarch to reaffirm his power over History.

Louis XIV was passionate about military glory. He continuously expanded France at the expense of the Habsburgs of Spain.

The War of Devolution (1667-1668), which ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), which came to a close with the Treaty of Nijmegen giving France part of Flanders and Franche-Comté.

In 1671, Louis XIV decided to go back to war against the Dutch. Charles Le Brun immortalised this act of war in the Hall of Mirrors.
In 1674, Louis XIV conquered Franche-Comté for the second time. Charles Le Brun represented the King standing amid the chaos of war.

Pierre Mignard, a rival to Charles Le Brun, in turn painted Louis XIV at the siege of Namur in 1692.

Louis XIV explained the choice of his motto “Nec pluribus impar” to the Dauphin in his Memoirs: 

“Those who saw me managing the cares of royalty with such ease and with such confidence induced me to add the sphere of the earth, and as its motto Nec pluribus impar, by which they meant to flatter the ambitions of a young king, in that with all my capacities, I would be just as capable of ruling still other empires as would the sun of illuminating still other worlds with its rays.”

V. The monarch, Prince of arts and sciences

Allegory of Louis XIV, protector of Arts and Sciences
Protection granted to the Fine Arts

The arts are organised in a pyramid converging toward the King at the summit. The system of academies was a response to this desire to regulate all forms of thought to serve the glory of the Monarch. Charles Le Brun was the mastermind behind this system.

At the “Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne” (Royal Factory of Furniture to the Crown), over 250 people worked to produce furnishings, objects and tapestries to decorate the royal residences.

Nothing was too good for the sovereign. Versailles was born of the King’s desire and required full attention, becoming a place where everything was possible..

The King poses amidst the members of the Academy of Sciences. A globe, sextants, scientific treatises and plans for the Canal des Deux-Mers illustrate the subjects studied by the new academy.

On his deathbed on 1 September 1715,

Louis XIV is said to have had these last words:

“I depart, but the State will always remain".

Credits: Exhibit

Présidente du château de Versailles — Catherine Pégard
Directeur du Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon — Béatrix Saule
Commissaire de l'exposition en ligne — Béatrice Sarrazin
Administrateur général  — Thierry Gausseron
Directrice de la communication  — Ariane de Lestrange
Chef de projet multimédia sur l'exposition — Maïté Labat

Credits: All media
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