The Wallace Collection

Germain Pilon, Bust of Charles IX of France (S154)
Treasure of the Month - November 2004

Germain Pilon, Bust of Charles IX of France (S154)

The bronze bust of the short-lived French king Charles IX (1550-1574) is one of the most remarkable portraits in the Wallace Collection and a masterpiece of French Renaissance art.

Charles was the second son of Henry II, who had in 1547 succeeded his father Francis I. Henry’s early death in 1559 presaged a series of misfortunes for the reigning Valois dynasty, Catholic and Protestant factions battling for supremacy and plunging France into anarchy and virtual civil war. Henry’s eldest son Francis II reigned for only 16 months before his death at the age of 26, leaving the 10 year-old Charles-Maximilien to ascend the throne. Henry’s widow, the scheming Catherine de’Medicis, took on the regency of France until Charles reached his majority, but she continued to dominate her son until his death in 1574 at the age of only 23. The most notorious single act of Charles IX’s reign for which, for many people, both he and his mother remain reviled figures to this day, was the massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, the brutal orgy of murder of thousands of Huguenot Protestants. Charles certainly did not instigate this terrible act, but he allowed it to go ahead and subsequently permitted himself to be identified with the propaganda justifying the massacre. For example, a medal made in 1572, the year of the massacre, by Alexandre Olivier, shows Charles enthroned in triumph above the dismembered bodies of Huguenots.

The bronze bust of Charles made by his official sculptor Germain Pilon (c.1525-1590) around 1570-1574 goes beyond such conventional representations as Olivier’s, to become one of those rare royal portraits in which, through the façade of regal pomp, is revealed the frail reality of a human individual. Charles is depicted, as were many Renaissance rulers, dressed in a splendid and richly ornamented suit of armour, over which has been thrown a heavy cloak sown with lilies or fleurs-de-lis, the royal emblem of France. Under his armour is a collar with the French royal order of Saint Michael and on his head a crown of laurel, another common emblem of kingship. All this adds to the weighty sense of solemn majesty in the portrait, as does Charles’ cold, impassive expression. But at the same time Pilon has brilliantly succeeded in capturing all the insecurity and unease of this young man, notorious for his violent and uncontrollable outbursts of temper. Whilst rendering faithfully the required official image, Pilon’s masterly portrait, with its suspicious eyes, disconcerting sideways glance and thin, pursed lips, tells us far more, even perhaps encouraging us to feel a little sympathy for the young king, condemned by his weak physical constitution to be an eternal pawn, trapped between the warring parties in his troubled country.

In the 19th century, the bust of Charles IX belonged to the duchesse de Berry, wife of the second son of King Charles X of France and an ardent apologist for the old royal order. It eventually entered the collection of the banker James-Alexandre Pourtalès-Gorgier, at whose sale in 1865 the Charles IX was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford for the enormous price of 45,000 Francs, only a little less than he had to pay in the same sale for Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier.