Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sun King and Absolutism

Hyacinthe Riguad, Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701
(Musee du Louvre, Paris)

For the next couple of months, I am going to be discussing Realism and the art movements that preceded it, Romanticism and Neoclassicism.  I feel that in order to comprehend what prompted these works of art, we need to understand the events that were taking place at the time and it's affects on the people of that period. No study of these movements can be started without first getting to know Louis XIV (1638-1715)  'the Sun King' and his form of government, absolutism, the absolute monarchy.

Louis was not yet five years old at the time of his accession to the throne, after his father's death in 1643.  His mother, Anne of Aurstria, with Cardinal Mazarin acting as first minister ruled France until Louis turned thirteen and came of age.  This was a time when Paris had been reduced to a state of anarchy, misery and hunger due to the fronde, the uprisings that had started four years ago first of which was contended to principles and the second which was concerned mainly with the rivalry of competing princes.  The humiliation and the threat he suffered during this time would cause him to be vigilant when it came to his subjects and affect the rest of Louis' reign.

Once order was restored, Louis promised a general amnesty and assured office holders would get paid off with pensions and lands, parlement renounced its claims to have a voice in political and financial affairs.   With the end of the revolution, all power resided in Louis alone and it was the beginning of the absolute monarchy.  There is a story that in 1655, Louis heard Parlement was meeting without his knowledge while he was out hunting; legend has it, he rode back, forbid the meeting to continue and uttered the famous words "L'etat, c'est moi" (The State, it is I.)1

Louis XIV loved spectacles and to take part in them.  For the birth of his firstborn he mounted a great spectacle that evoked medieval times where he dressed as a Roman emperor wearing sun on his shield with the inscription Ut vidi vici ("As I saw, I conquered.")  This is supposed to be the beginnings of the myth of the Age of the Roi Soleil. 2

The reign of Louis XIV was a great time for the arts to flourish.  This was the age of Racine, La Fontaine, Moliere and Boileau and Lully, the father of the french opera (see below).  By the end of the seventeenth century, Comedie Francaise  had 10,000 to 17,000 regular patrons.3  Louis was the first of France's monarchs to offer consistent support for artists and writers.  The Academie de peinture et de sculpture had been founded in 1648, the Academie Royal d'Architecture in 1671 and under the control of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, the academies worked to the glorification of the sun king.  La Gloire and sheer spectacle were to be embraced as essential components of the style of this era.

This painting by the  court painter Hyacinthe Riguad, is probably one of the greatest examples of royal propaganda.  The long, massive wig hiding a receding hairline and short stature, the coronation robe embroidered with fleur de lis and lined with ermine, the red high-heeled shoes only nobility were allowed to wear and all the other accouterments of a king are present along with the look of arrogance from his position high up above the viewer. Even though it was meant as a gift to the King of Spain, Louis was so enamored of this likeness, that he kept it and had his subjects show the same reverence to the painting that was to be afforded to the king himself.

Louis XIV had removed his family, his ministers and the whole court to Versailles in 1682 where he could keep them close and exercise complete control over them.  He demanded total obedience and infinite loyalty.  The French aristocracy, was to live in seclusion surrounding the king with only card games, hunting and gossip to relieve the weariness.

His actual rule of 54 years, that started after Mazarin's demise, was full of grandeur and prosperity for France.  He launched a very ambitious building program, shipbuilding developed, the army modernized and expanded, mines, foundries, mills, refineries and the wool trade  thrived, and the prestige industry from Savonnerie carpets to France's superlative Gobelin tapestries were launched.

Unfortunately, the seventeenth century was also a time of hardship  and recession for the French peasantry, the erratic weather conditions and the archaic agriculture practices producing years of unsatisfactory harvests.  Combined with the Church, landlords and bureaucrats exploiting the peasantry caused revolts against taxation and regular bread riots which never amounted to much due to the power of the absolute monarchy.4

As the grand siecle  came to a close tragedy struck Louis one after another.  His first grandson died at birth, then he lost three dauphins within one year and in 1715, four days before his seventy seventh birthday, Louis XIV died after being on the throne for seventy years.  The court could finally move back to Paris, after a thirty-three year separation which set the stage perfectly for Rococo.

1  Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris,Vintage Books, New York, 109
2 Ibid., 110
3  Ibid., 132
4  Ibid., 121-124

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