The reign of Louis XIV has come to stand for the power of absolute monarchy and Versailles has long been a byword for opulence. But have we lost sight of the actual artworks and objects produced under the patronage of the Sun King?
This year marks the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV (1638-1715) and the end of one of the most significant periods of French history. The Sun King's reign spanned more than seven decades and shaped the political and cultural stage of Europe unlike any other. Throughout the 18th century, until the French Revolution, European princes and patrons took him as their role model, following his example of building lavish palaces and creating formal gardens that embodied the absolute power to which they aspired. Even Voltaire praised Louis XIVs reign for its patronage of literature and the visual arts. In his introduction to The Age of Louis XTV (1751), Voltaire explained that his purpose in writing it was 'to provide posterity with an account of the achievements of the human spirit in the most enlightened age there has ever been ... and it is perhaps the one ... which approaches most nearly to perfection.' (1)
While it may seem surprising today that the chief proponent of the Enlightenment would praise an era associated with human exploitation, religious oppression and destructive military campaigns, The Age of Louis XTV is a valuable reminder of how formative the period was for the liberal arts. Voltaire compares Louis XIVs reign to those of Alexander the Great and Emperor Augustus. 'Future generations,' he notes, 'digging among the ruins of our time, may someday discover works like the Baths of Apollo, now exposed to the weather in the woods of Versailles ... If this were to happen, one may well believe that these productions of our own time would be placed side by side with the finest works of Antiquity.' (2) The sculpture Voltaire refers to is the work of Francois Girardon and Thomas Regnaudin, which shows Louis XIV in the guise of Apollo, served by six nymphs (Fig. 2). Despite its artistic merit, compared to the Apollo Belvedere (its prime source of inspiration), the group has had a negligible subsequent influence on the visual arts. Can we therefore agree with Voltaire and consider the age of Louis XTV on a par with the Augustan era? Do the rays of the Sun King still reach us? For decades, the French 17th century was enthusiastically investigated by British art historians such as Anthony Blunt, author of the catalogue that accompanied the last UK exhibition on Louis XIV at the Royal Academy in 1958. Today, it is mostly French and German art historians who continue to study the Sun King's artistic legacy. On the whole, however, scholarship has gone rather quiet on the subject, perhaps because it is wrongly believed that everything has already been said.
The end of Louis XIVs reign, for instance, produced a picture so ingrained in our shared visual heritage that...