An Analysis of King Louis XIV’s Painting

Visiting the Getty Center in downtown Los Angeles had always been my dream. The main reason lay in the fact that numerous works of decorative art, paintings and sculptures were present in the Getty Museum, which would be an excellent opportunity for me to take a trip back in time through the historical works of art present there. One particular piece that I chose for the purpose of writing this essay is the portrait of King Louis XIV by the French painter Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659 – 1743). As a lover of the French culture and history, this piece was a perfect choice for me as I was quite familiar with events that took place during his reign.

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The first half of the 17th Century was full of unrest and constant warfare, with France emerging as the largest military power in Europe showing its might politically and militarily. Under King Louis XIV, absolute power was the order of the day, with full power residing in the king. Without limitations on his power, King Louis ostensibly had to declare that he was in fact ‘the state.’ His authority was said to come directly from God, and he was to rule by divine right. The notion of this divine was to allow him to quash any emerging rebellions and establish legitimacy for his monarchy (Levey 34). Recognizing the power of propaganda, the king’s advisors went on initiating vast large-scale initiatives such as the expansion of the Versailles hunting lodge into a mirrored palace. To reinforce his image as the Sun King and linking his rule to Imperial Rome, art with classical Baroque elements became central to his government. One of the painters lucky enough to gain employment in his court was Hyacinthe Rigaud.

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Hyacinthe Rigaud’s painting is perhaps most eminent of Louis XIV’s paintings, with its completion coming in the year 1701. The painting was done in the later years of Louis XIV’s life when he was roughly 58 years old. Even at the ripe age of 58 years, Louis still has a stand full of dignity, donning expensive garb and at the same time having his scepter lean against a minute tabletop. The king’s cape happens to be drawn back exposing his pair of crisp white stockings while wearing shoes with high heels(Getty Research Journal). His hair is stylishly done up in a beautiful split arc, a style which is common in all of his portraits. Viewers can also catch a glimpse of his gilded sword with its hilt sticking out.

At first sight, one would mistake this painting for a show of lavish habits and riches by Louis’s kingship, but on closer inspection, the painting reveals a deeper hidden meaning. It is worth noticing that Louis’s crown is put out of the immediate line of sight of the viewers of the portrait where the scepter rests upon. The official stance that is evident in the portrait is a symbol of rule and power among most rulers in European monarchies. Louis is seen rising to the occasion, politically, which was indeed an expectation of the people of their ‘Sun King. The medium that was put to use in the production of the painting was oil on canvas.

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For an art of such importance, the depth and color were a perfect blend. Its dimensions stand at 289.6 × 159.1 cm or 114 × 62 5/8 inches. The painter of this portrait, Hyacinthe Rigaud, first caught the attention of the court and the king when he made a picture of Louis’s brother in 1688. However, the most famous of all the portraits made by Rigaud was that of King Louis XIV in full coronation garb. During his lifetime, Rigaud is said to have been able to paint nearly 400 paintings (King 56). Most of his subjects would include his family, friends, ambassadors, aristocrats and many other prominent figures that were famous during his time. Rigaud is also known for his intimate style which would involve the careful study of drapes and hands, indicating his attention to detail.

The paintings style of signing and dating is phylactery and is on the column basis that represents Goodness of Justice Themes depicting the king holding a balance in his hand. The broad picture of the aging king is on a rectangular canvas that is then sewn on a larger canvas. In the portrait, the king is standing three- quarters to the extreme left, on foot, with his head at an angle and his feet down in his view. Such a pose is meant to represent the most out of his subject as the king occupies a central space at the table consisting of vertical lines (throne, column, King). The aspect of dramatization in the film is given its accentuation by the heavy drape that traditionally means is not quite visible, but it appears. The large pillar of marble behind him, a traditional evocation of the Renaissance, depicts his divine powers uniting with human ones.

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The portrait is also one of pageantry and pomp where the French king surrounds himself with ritual objects. The gentleman’s demeanor is brought forth by his casual treatment of objects of power which also lends an air of informality that also suggests his innateness to the authority and power that he wields.  The whole point of having the scepter resting on a cushion is displayed the resting area of the king’s crown.  The majestic coronation robes have the royal fleur-de-lis with an ermine lining with drapes that reveal his rather shapely legs; a reference to his dancing skills. The nonchalance with which he wears his sword belies the profound power. The sword is not any ordinary one, but Charlemagne’s sword that is used in all coronation ceremonies in France. Additionally, the one-time major event that cements a king’s legitimacy to the people is on full display. The portrait would later serve as a precedent for all the royal paintings that would come after it, with every aspect of the king’s life at Versailles being the primary focus in the paintings (PAINTERS).

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The activities of King Louis became part and parcel of his grand performance. Every single aspect of King Louis’s life was, from his morning toilette and even to his imperial evening meal is somewhat ritualized. Rigaud’s initial intention was to create a portrait that was originally a gift for the King of Spain, but its high level of artistry ultimately caused it to remain in France, and as such, it is accorded the same respect as the king. The rules of etiquette and respect apply equally to both ensuring that it is treated as the kings equal. No one was thus allowed to ever turn his back on this portrait that has come to be known as the embodiment of French royal history.

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