September 2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of the French King Louis XIV. This month we’ll be exploring the artistic legacy of Louis with a series of blogs and films.
This week our Assistant Curator, Laura Langelüddecke, explores the impact on the arts of Louis’ first painter, Charles Le Brun.
His brows pulled together and the alert gaze determinedly directed into the distance, this remarkable portrait depicts a very energetic image of Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), doubtlessly the dominating artist during Louis XIV’s reign. A highly versatile painter and designer, his comprehensive activities for the royal Court had a great influence on the artistic production of his time and played a seminal role in shaping what today is known as the ‘style Louis XIV’.
At the age of thirteen, his artistic talent was recognized by the Chancellor of France, Pierre Séguier, who would be the first of several influential dignitaries to commission works from the artist – among them also the Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu, Anne of Austria (Louis XIV’s mother) and the minister of finance, Nicolas Fouquet. For the latter, Le Brun carried out extensive decorative works at the newly built château of Vaux-le-Vicomte and it was this vast project, demonstrating Le Brun’s artistic as well as organisational capacities, that caught the king’s attention.
Advised by Fouquet’s successor, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV actively encouraged the arts in France and deliberately used them as a means of glorifying his kingship. Le Brun’s first major commission from the king, a series of four paintings depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great is a very telling example of this agenda, deliberately drawing on Ancient Greece’s greatest emperor to shape the image of the seventeenth-century monarch.
Entrusted with several major commissions from the Crown, Le Brun’s meteoric rise culminated in his ennoblement in 1662, followed by his appointment as the king’s Premier peintre du Roi two years later. He also oversaw the newly-founded Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne in the Gobelins, where he led a team of some 250 artists and craftsmen producing lavish tapestries, furniture, and silverware of unsurpassed quality. During the following years, Le Brun would personally create or supervise much of the interior decoration of the royal palaces, most notably of the recently enlarged palace in Versailles, where his works succeeded each other in the most prominent places: the staircase of the Ambassadors, the Hall of Mirrors, and the salons of Peace and War
Not least, Le Brun was also one of the leading lights of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Created in 1648, the Academy aimed at a re-evaluation of the artist’s status from a mere craftsman to an educated creator concerned with intellectual matters. In its scholarly approach, the institution sought to establish a defined canon and universal rules for painting, for which Le Brun’s own lectures and writings were very influential.
A man of manifold talents, it was perhaps his ubiquitous presence that led to the undermining of his reputation after his death. Especially in the nineteenth century, which saw the final overthrow of the French monarchy and an increasing emancipation of the artists from both the academy and the government, Le Brun was alleged of a ‘dictatorial’ control over the arts, suppressing individual expression and the visual qualities of art in favour of a purely purpose-oriented propagandist style. However, during a time when the royal court was the most important patron for artists, Le Brun’s activities across such a wide array of the arts contributed fundamentally to the international recognition and esteem that French art gained in the seventeenth century and that outlasted Louis XIV’s reign.
by Laura Langelüddecke, Assistant Curator
Find out more about Charles Le Brun here:
Want to know more about Louis XIV? Check back next week for the last post in series, exploring one of our gold boxes and the 19th century fascination with Louis XIV.