WHEN THE KING TUT EXHIBIT visited the National Gallery a few years ago, the universal response was, "All that gold!"
If such is not the reaction to the Louis XIV exhibit opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery, blame it on "The Sun King." Although we associate him with opulence, and the gold of the sun, it was Louis XIV's distasteful duty during his reign to call for the melting down of gold and silver -- not once, but twice -- to finance his military campaigns. Courtiers, loyal subjects and the king himself gave up their personal silver -- including the silver throne in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
All that glitters doesn't have to be gold. What dominates this exhibit is the force of Louis' personality -- just as it dominated Europe during his 72-year rule. He was France -- as his prime minister and surrogate father, Cardinal Mazarin reminded him in his youth. And in this exhibit we can see the development of the absolute monarch: "L',etat, c'est moi," are words attributed to him, as are the quotations, "Has God forgotten all I have done for him?" and, "I almost had to wait."
We also can see that Louis XIV had great legs. He was known for them. In a portrait done around 1675, when Louis was in his mid- 30s, he points a royal slipper and reveals his famous calves sheathed in red tights. Regally he sits, king and general, with crown and military helmet, armor gleaming, thick black curls cascading onto his shoulders and a rakish mustache curling at the tips. He was considered not only handsome, but godlike.
The many portraits in the show grab our attention not because of the artists (many of them unknown) but because of the players they reveal in this 17th-century historical drama -- a drama Louis XIV staged for the eternal glorification of France.
Among the dramatis personae:
* Louis' mother, Anne of Austria, Queen of France and Navarre, and Cardinal Mazarin, who was possibly her lover.
* Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Sun King's brilliant adviser (Louis was smart enough not to be threatened by good advisers).
* Toussaint Rose, Secretary of the Hand, authorized to sign documents for the king (and thus confound future scholars).
* Louis' two wives: the first a notoriously bad gambler who spoke terrible French and kept dwarves, and the second, a religious commoner who made Louis XIV get serious in his later years. They contrast with:
* Louis' mistresses. Conventions governing the painting of mistresses made them lovely, pale, fluffy things; not so for the double- chinned wives. By the way, since a king was close to god -- Louis occasionally masqueraded as the sun god Apollo, his personal symbol -- it was hardly considered a sin to bed down with him.
* Men whose careers flourished in the glow of the Sun King: dramatists Moliere and Racine, and scientists Pascal and Descartes of the Royal Academy of Sciences, which Louis established.
Though Louis was a failure militarily -- war was almost continuous in the 17th century -- he did succeed in a great many other ways.
He established the Louisiana colony (and this we particularly note, for the Louisiana State Museum organized the exhibition).
Versailles was and is a triumph. Louis transformed his father's hunting lodge into what was the biggest and best royal residence in Europe. Architects' plans for the chateau are among the 150 items in this show -- which, besides the portraits, includes some magnificent tapestries, and a good selection of personal items from Louis' time. In addition to maps and letters, we find a blunderbuss, gorgeous watches, historical playing cards used for gambling at court and faience, fine earthenware.
By the time his last best portrait was done in 1701 by Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis had become a mite jowly: But here he is at his most majestic. The sceptre appears as an extension of his hand. A regal blue mantle dotted with golden fleurs-de-lis envelops him. The mantle is lined in ermine. We know this because Louis XIV has lifted a section over his shoulder, to reveal his jeweled scabbard -- and his well- muscled calves and thighs.
Is it proper to whistle at a king? THE SUN KING: LOUIS XIV AND THE NEW WORLD -- Opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, through April 7, 1985.