Charles Le Brun—the subject of Wolf Burchard’s beautifully presented book—had the rare combination of skill and social grace required to succeed in the faction-ridden, bureaucratic climate of Louis XIV’s court. He worked for the king nearly half his life, entering Louis XIV’s service in 1661 at the age of 42 and working for him until he died at 71 in 1690. His preeminent position among the Sun King’s artists is evident from the many offices that he held: he was the king’s premier peintre; chancellor, rector and later director of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture; and director of the Gobelins manufactory where paintings, tapestries and furniture were made for the royal palaces. With three decades of service to the crown, Le Brun’s indelible mark on the history of art is most evident at Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, where his grand, ebullient style is found everywhere in paintings that he made and the many objects and images produced after his designs by others.
Those of us who study the art of ancien régime France, especially that produced for aristocrats before the 1789 revolution, face the burden of reconciling a fascinating, beautiful world with its terrible politics. For some, this task proved to be impossible. The British art historian, Anthony Blunt, equated Charles Le Brun’s leading role in the design and production of Louis XIV’s palaces, gardens, monuments and all that they contained with the top-down tyrannical structure of absolutist government, branding him “a dictator of the arts in France”. Blunt’s statement provides the opening gambit for the introduction to Burchard’s book, The Sovereign Artist: Charles Le Brun and the Image of Louis XIV, about one of France’s most celebrated, if maligned, artists, whose contemporary influence and posthumous legacy he seeks to redefine through the concept of sovereignty.
The author presents Le Brun as a benevolent (albeit ferociously ambitious) sovereign of the arts. In Early Modern Europe sovereign power was thought, at best, to be a form of non-arbitrary authority, whereby a ruler governed as a father to the people by a strict moral code, for the greater good. Le Brun, Burchard argues, was not a tyrannical dictator, but more a patriarch among the community of artists who served the Sun King; his control was not arbitrary, but based on mutual respect between him and the artists and artisans he supervised.
Revealing how Le Brun’s authority conforms to the contemporary political structures of Louis XIV’s France, this study is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature re-evaluating the artist’s oeuvre. (The catalogue for the impressive Le Brun exhibition staged at Louvre-Lens in 2016 being foremost among these.) Indeed, Burchard’s book comes at an exciting time for the study of 17th- and 18th-century French art, with scholars today providing nuanced and sympathetic accounts of the period, moving past the political and theoretical burdens of previous generations.
Le Brun is, perhaps, best remembered for two things: his ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles that narrates events from the life of Louis XIV, and his lectures on physiognomy and the expression of the passions, neither of which feature prominently in this book. The latter was the subject of Jennifer Montagu’s work, The Expression of the Passions (1994), the only serious monographic study on the artist to be published in English until now. And while it would have been interesting for Burchard to bring his considerable insight into Le Brun’s oeuvre to an analysis of his cycle for the Hall of Mirrors, it would be impossible to cover all that the artist designed, and advised on, throughout his career in one book. This study concentrates on the lesser-known aspects of his oeuvre, particularly his designs for decorative arts and architecture, while synthesising the more comprehensive French and German literature for an anglophone audience.
Six chapters guide the reader through Le Brun’s sphere of influence, from the works executed by his own hand, to a multitude of objects made under his supervision that can be attributed through the repetition of motifs that he designed when other evidence is lacking. The most fascinating works discussed in this study no longer exist, or were never fully realised: a celebrated equestrian portrait of Louis XIV; an obelisk fountain for the precinct of the Louvre’s east facade; an unfinished commission for 93 Savonnerie carpets for the Louvre; and the celebrated Ambassadors’ Staircase at Versailles. The last chapter devoted to the staircase draws together Burchard’s insightful analyses of the diverse painted, built and woven monuments to Louis XIV’s reign to reassemble the fragments of Le Brun’s designs and influence into more complete account of his practice.
Burchard’s most fascinating insight, however, is his analogy between Le Brun’s designs and frontispieces for Early Modern books. The analogy is structural as much as symbolic: the lost equestrian portrait of Louis XIV reappears in a frontispiece for a philosophical treatise; Le Brun’s designs for the facade and fountain for the Louvre function as a frontispiece to the palace; the Savonnerie carpet for the Salon Carré serves as a frontispiece for the grande galerie of the Louvre; the Ambassadors’ Staircase at Versailles “was a three-dimensional frontispiece advertising the grandeur of the spaces that lay behind”. The frontispiece to a book refers to both its subject and its author in images and inscriptions, just as Le Brun’s designs both celebrate his patron and simultaneously reveal his authorship. This insightful analogy forms a thread that not only connects the chapters of this book, but provides a coherent characterisation of the artist’s approach to representing Louis XIV across media.
• Robert Wellington is a lecturer at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research focuses on the material and intellectual culture of Louis XIV’s court. His book Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV was published by Ashgate (2015)
The Sovereign Artist: Charles Le Brun and the Image of Louis XIV
Paul Holberton Publishing, 288pp, £40 (hb)