Organizers of the splendid exhibition, "The Sun King; Louis XIV and the New World," opened yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, had a hard sell on their hands.
Louis the Great, as he also liked to be known, was the most fanatically image-conscious monarch in history. The king's "house at Versailles is something the foolishest in the world," wrote an English diplomat at the time. "He is strutting in every panel and galloping over one's head in every ceiling, and if he turns to spit he must see himself or his Viceregent the Sun . . ."
There's hard truth in this hilarious judgment of the magnificent Versailles. Even after 300 years it is not easy to warm up to a fellow, sun king or not, who mobilized armies of painters, sculptors and craftsmen with the sole intention of glorifying his person and the state that, as he pointed out in his most famous (though perhaps aprocryphal) epigram, was he.
Louis XIV's reputation in the "new world" never has been sunny. For obvious reasons he didn't play well in the English colonies and, after independence (an achievement so ironically aided by the ancien re'gime in its final years), the French king and all that he represents -- absolutist rule, religious intolerance, constant war, unprecedented ostentation, centralized art production, institutionalized flattery -- became all but irrelevant, at least officially, to the American experience.
But if the exhibition fails the impossible task of making Louis and his regime likable, it succeeds in a much more important one: in the most direct manner, with some 160 objects authentically dated to Louis XIV's long reign (1643-1715), including paintings, sculptures, prints, tapestries, furniture, weapons, documents and objets d'art, the exhibit brings the times alive and thereby contributes to our understanding of the forces that shaped 17th-century France (and therefore much of Europe), not the least of which was the commanding presence of the king himself.
The most famous image of the sun king is the late, great portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud in which the 63-year-old king, despite pursed lips that cannot hide toothlessness, stands alone in splendor and dignity. Sword, scepter, crown and an emblem of Catholicism are the appropriate props; the king's costume, from high-heeled shoe to towering black wig, is unbelievably luxurious; and the focus of the grand composition is the king's oval head and the small eyes from which he surveys the world at his feet with steady composure. Besides being a stupendous tour de force, the painting is the authoritative portrait of regal authority. Louis understandably loved the picture and had Rigaud paint another one as soon as the first was done: it was the way he wanted to be seen, and, basically, it was the way he was.
This is not the image that appeared on the various dinner invitations and publicity materials distributed by the museum last week, nor is it featured on the catalogue cover or informational handouts that accompany the show. For these items, organizers preferred reproducing a gilded Apollo mask symbolic of the king's identification with the sun, or an earlier portrait by an unknown painter showing the red-stockinged king as military commander-in-chief at age 38. "Everybody knows the Rigaud painting," observed Vaughn L. Glasgow of the Louisiana State Museum, who selected the show with Pierre Lemoine, inspector general of the Museums of France, "and we're hoping people get a different view of Louis. The earlier painting shows him as a vigorous young man."
This is fair, but it doesn't change the basic, correct perception of the king at the center of power, an institution within himself. The earlier painting is by no means so masterful as the later one, but the message is the same. Louis' steady gaze, revealing little, is the psychological focus of both paintings.
Getting to know the "real" Louis XIV is in fact something of a fool's errand. How can you "know" a person whose every act, almost, from getting up in the morning (the leve'e, attended by privileged courtiers) to going to bed at night, was a considered act of state policy? The king was above it all even in his own "house." How it was to live in the court at Versailles (and not be king) is tersely summed up in the display of a stool and chair and its accompanying caption: "Most courtiers never rested their backs on such a chair, vying instead for the privilege to sit on more humble stools."
So, we best know Louis XIV just as most of his subjects knew him, by his acts, both great and small, from the time that he assumed personal control of the state in 1661 upon the death of Cardinal Mazarin, his godfather and tutor in the management of power. These acts are recorded in various ways in the exhibition: The defeat of the Fronde, a revolt of nobles hoping to take advantage of the king's youth, is shown in a contemporaneous (1654) bronze statuette of Louis XIV as a beautiful adolescent, his triumphant right leg resting upon the helmet of an abject rebel. Although the nobility as a class retained its vast social prestige and wealth, its relation to the king was greatly altered by this defeat, which prepared the way for Louis' court and the centralization of power, and thus the creation of the French nation-state. The military prowess of his domain, based on a huge standing army responsive to the king and his commanders and not to independent aristocrats, is shown in several paintings, weapons, maps and, most interestingly, in an original document recording France's treaty with Holland under the Peace of Utrecht (1713). The army was the backbone of Louis' power, but ultimately his military adventurism nearly bankrupted his regime and forced the other European states to collaborate against Louis' France. The repression of religious minorities, notably the Protestant Huguenots and the Jansenist Catholics ("Calvinism in Catholic clothing"), was, understandably, glossed over in most of the art works dedicated to glorifying the king. There is, however, a stunning portrait by Philippe de Champaigne of Me re Ange'lique Arnauld of the abbey of Port Royal, a Jansenist stronghold not far from Versailles. Me re Ange'lique died in 1661. In 1709 the king finally did away with Port Royal, dispatching troops to raze the buildings visible in the background of this painting. The centralization of the arts under Louis XIV, led by Charles Le Brun, a second-rate painter but skillful courtier and brilliant organizer, is a leitmotif of the show, most dramatically illustrated in a fabulous tapestry depicting a visit by the king to the Gobelins manufactory in 1667. Crafts skills and performance extravaganzas reached an apogee under this policy, but more creative arts suffered. It took a strong mind and will -- that of a Molie re, for instance -- to resist this drive toward regimentation. The fantastic achievements of Louis XIV as a builder, most notably at Versailles but also at royal establishments elsewhere in the countryside, are represented in an array of paintings and prints. It can be argued, in Washington if not New Orleans (where the exhibit premiered last spring), that Louis XIV's more lasting contribution to the new world was his employment of horticulturist and landscape architect Andre' Le Notre to lay out the nonpareil gardens of Versailles. Maj. L'Enfant, after all, grew up at Versailles, and his inspired adaptation of Le Notre's design principles to the U.S. capital is a preeminently successful, if ironic, example of symbolic transfer.
Many other aspects of the king and his reign are touched on in the exhibition -- Louis' colonial enterprises, which in the end gave us 13 states; his enthusiasm and skill as a hunter; his ability to command (and to listen to) a succession of brilliant, strong-willed advisers; his habits as a husband; his selection of mistresses. Although, unfortunately for us, many of the rare, original documents that graced the New Orleans version of the show could not be further risked, French museums and private collectors were exceptionally generous with their loans. The Corcoran exhibition, sympathetically installed by curator of collections Edward Nygren and continuing through April 7, comprises a fascinating, informative entertainment.
The France of Louis XIV did indeed, as one catalogue essayist notes, "prefigure the modern state in signficant ways," not all of them fortunate. The king doubtless would be pleased at his continued capacity to dazzle, and be surprised at his continued inability to command universal respect.