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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

French Decorative Arts during the Reign of Louis XIV (1654–1715)

In 1663, Louis XIV’s future superintendent of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), wrote that the time of private patrons was over: the hour had come for them to yield to the king. To him, and him alone, now belonged the task of steering the intellectual and artistic life of the kingdom. Colbert’s vision for the young Louis XIV (1638–1715), to whom he was to dedicate all his gifts as financial adviser and administrator, strikingly prefigures the development of the arts in France during the long reign of the Sun King, when all the arts would revolve around the king’s personal tastes and will and would reflect the power and splendor of the sovereign and the state. Yet, the prophetic accuracy of Colbert’s statement notwithstanding, no declaration of artistic policy can truly account for the variety, the fantasy, and the brilliant accomplishments of the arts fostered by Louis XIV from 1661, the year he decided to rule France alone (without a prime minister, assisted only by a three-man Privy Council) until his death in 1715.

In 1661, both the taste of the young monarch and prevailing artistic style had already been shaped by the creative fervor of the 1650s. When Louis was anointed king at Reims in 1654, the then-predominant fashion in Paris was the Italian Baroque, so enthusiastically promoted by Cardinal Mazarin (1602–1661), prime minister and godfather to Louis. Italian painters such as Giovanni Francesco Romanelli were imported by Mazarin to decorate his palace and were recruited to work on the Palais du Louvre. The Royal Apartments and those of the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, were redecorated in 1654–55 with frescoed and stuccoed ceilings in the Bolognese manner. Romanelli worked side by side with French sculptors—sometimes trained in Italy, like Michel Anguier—in a newfound harmony that recalled the Renaissance traditions of the Fontainebleau of François I (r. 1515–47) and brought together Italian decorative inventions and French elegance of line and composition.

Italian Baroque forms had also seduced French designers and engravers. Foremost among them was Jean Le Pautre (1618–1682), who engraved and gathered in ornament books his exuberantly decorative fantasies, often inspired by the Roman and Florentine painted and stuccoed ensembles of Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669). Le Pautre’s prints were meant to spread the new style and stimulate the imagination of sculptors and decorators, not only in Paris but also in the provinces (56.234.34). The love of Italian Baroque decoration was inseparable from that of Italian ballet and musical comedy. Thus, Mazarin saw to it that the young king was lavishly entertained by Italian musicians and singers, while Gasparo Vigarani, the brilliant theatrical engineer whom he had imported in 1659 from the Este court at Modena, designed astonishingly ingenious stage sets and machinery.

Among the Parisian painters, a new star had risen with Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). Le Brun, who had studied in Italy for four years, showed an extraordinary talent for painting and also for creating decorative ensembles that integrated architecture, painting, and sculpture with a sense of style both sumptuous and alluring. Le Brun’s most brilliant work before 1661 was the decoration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the splendid château built by the architect Louis Le Vau (1612–1670) for the ill-fated superintendent of finance Nicolas Fouquet. After Louis XIV assumed the reins of power and, a few months later, had Fouquet arrested and tried, replacing him with Colbert, the wheel of fortune turned toward Le Brun. His versatile talents as a painter and draftsman and his instinct for decoration destined Le Brun to become, and remain for the next twenty-five years, the principal creator and orchestrator of the court style of the Sun King.

Colbert, whose zeal for the glory of the king and the welfare of France rapidly put into motion the most efficient administrative state machinery the country had ever seen, was quick to recognize the value of Le Brun’s gifts as an artistic director. Soon after Louis XIV named him premier peintre du roi in 1662 and turned to him to create the decoration of the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre, Colbert put him in charge of the sprawling complex of artists’ workshops that he had gathered, under the name of Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne, at the Hotel des Gobelins on the left bank of the Seine in Paris. Here, working together, were some 250 French as well as Italian, Flemish, and Dutch artists and craftsmen—painters and tapestry weavers, sculptors and cabinetmakers, silversmiths and metalworkers, mosaicists and embroiderers—hired for the sole purpose of creating the lavish furnishings needed to embellish the king’s residences. As director of the Manufacture Royale, Le Brun supplied sketches and approved models for all of its products, inspiring and harmonizing the works of painters like Adam Frans van der Meulen, Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, and René Antoine Houasse; sculptors and cabinetmakers like Philippe Caffiéri and Domenico Cucci; and goldsmiths and engravers like Alexis Loir. Le Brun’s success was complete. In a famous tapestry of his design depicting the visit of Louis XIV to the Gobelins (Mobilier National, Paris), we see Le Brun on the left, hat in hand to receive the king, who is accompanied by Colbert. Le Brun shows the glorious products of his establishment: in the foreground, some of the silversmiths present massive silver vases and a richly sculptured silver brazier; in the center, the ébéniste Pierre Gole watches over two attendants who carefully bring in a small table decorated with delicate ivory inlays; behind Gole, a mosaicist (perhaps Fernando Megliorini) holds aloft a table of pietre dure mosaic; while, on the right, Cucci and Caffiéri put the finishing touches on an elaborately carved two-tier cabinet.

At the Gobelins, a steady stream of tapestries, silver tables, mirrors, candlestands, and elaborate cabinets was created to furnish Louis XIV’s apartments at the palaces of the Louvre and the Tuileries, at the Château de Saint-Germain, and, above all, at the Château de Versailles.

At Versailles, the young Louis XIV could also indulge in his personal dream world. It was a world haunted by the memory of the elaborate and exotic furnishings assembled at the Louvre by his mother and of the Italian operas organized by Mazarin, and a world inhabited less by the virtuous presence of Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish Infanta he had married in 1660, than by the charms of Mlle de La Vallière, the first of his mistresses. Here, in the still small but gay and colorful pavilion devised by Le Vau, now his favorite architect, the young sovereign surrounded himself with sensuous Italian or Flemish cabinets of ebony and pietre dure, Chinese porcelains and Chinese vases inlaid with gold and silver filigree, Turkish carpets, and tubs full of fragrant jasmine and orange trees. In the gardens that stretched from the château out toward the thickly wooded countryside, Louis could entertain his mistress and his court with countless banquets, theatrical and musical performances, ballets, and fireworks. Some of the most lavish fêtes lasted several days, like the Plaisirs de l’Isle Enchantée (1664) and the Fêtes de l’Amour et de Bacchus (1668), always created by Louis’s favorite artists and depicted in numerous prints.

A small bronze relief designed in 1672 (25.142.61), the year the city of Paris conferred on Louis the title of Magnus (Great), conveys the mood of these happy years. Shown as the Sun King, he wears a fanciful helmet crowned with the chariot of Apollo that drags in triumph a chained prisoner—a symbol of the German towns captured by Louis XIV’s armies during the first of his victorious campaigns against the Dutch in 1672. The helmet and the armor, embossed with a wealth of allegorical details, may well have been worn by the king at one of the fêtes at Versailles. It is a fairy-tale image of a fairy-tale prince, the way Louis XIV wanted to appear to his subjects and to the whole of Europe in the mid-1670s and during the ten years of peace and prosperity that began with the Peace of Nijmegen in 1678.

Louis XIV’s understanding of architecture and the decorative arts astonished his contemporaries. Although he was always faithful to a fully Baroque ideal of stately décor, his youthful flights of fancy later yielded to a more mature appreciation of the beauty of classical architectural forms and the symmetry and clarity of a grander, more rational order. A last, formal display of royal magnificence was created for him by Charles Le Brun in 1681–84 in the new Galerie des Glaces at Versailles (53.600.2784). Here the paintings of the vaulted ceiling displaying Louis XIV’s triumphs in peace and in war, the colored marbles, the gilt-bronze fittings, the silver and silver-gilt furnishings, the crystal candelabra, and the many-colored carpets, all multiplied by the large, shimmering mirrors, created a symphony of visual enchantment hailed as the crowning moment of the Louis XIV style.

By the time the Galerie des Glaces was completed, Colbert was dead. He was succeeded by the marquis de Louvois (1641–1691), and a new generation of architects and designers was now ready to interpret the sovereign’s wishes. In 1678, Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646–1708) had been named by Louis XIV as architect of Versailles, and it was he who transformed the château into the permanent royal residence, the seat of the court, and the center of the French government (30.22[22.64]). In 1688, as Mansart set out to enlarge Versailles, to design new living quarters for the king and for the Grand Dauphin and his family, and to build a royal retreat at Trianon, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and the League of Augsburg declared war on France. While the conflict raged for nine years at the borders of France, severely straining all the resources of the nation, royal construction came to a halt, the Gobelins was closed and its artists disbanded. Only after the Peace of Ryswick in 1697 did the Manufacture Royale reopen, this time housing only the tapestry weavers.

Since 1680, Jean Berain (1640–1711) had been entrusted with the drawings for costumes, stage sets, and royal ceremonies at the Académie Royale de Musique, where the post of director had been bestowed upon the Florentine Jean-Baptiste Lully. Although Berain had never been to Rome, his talent for inventing and drawing beguiling theatrical costumes, enchanting opera sets, and fanciful banquets gained him the post of dessinateur de la chambre et du cabinet du roi in 1674. His imagination, first stirred by the ornamental vocabulary of Le Pautre and Le Brun, had magically transformed their opulent formal inventions into lighthearted and witty fantasies. Elaborating on the grotesques that Raphael had borrowed from the vaults of the Golden House of Nero and adapted for the stucco decorations of the Vatican Logge, Berain introduced into them a population of dancers and acrobats, impertinent monkeys, and riotous satyrs—the children of his own theatrical world. In these designs, soon to be multiplied by means of engravings (21.36.141), the antics of Berain’s little actors were restrained by delicate filaments and an elegant yet rigidly disciplined structure of seventeenth-century ornamental motifs.

Berain’s mixture of playfulness and stateliness held an irresistible appeal. His designs for grotesques and for all manner of objects soon became as influential in the closing years of the seventeenth century as those of Le Brun had been in the heyday of Louis XIV’s reign. They were adopted by the king’s favorite ébéniste, André Charles Boulle (1642–1732), and by the textile and tapestry weavers now employed not only by the king but also by the Grand Dauphin, the princes, and the envoys from foreign courts: for their more relaxed, carefree lightness and wit seemed to bring a breath of fresh air.

Although the intellectual and artistic ferment that united artists and poets, musicians and scientists around the various academies of arts and sciences, as telescoped in a famous print by Sébastien Le Clerc (62.598.300), continued to add to the brilliance of Louis XIV’s court, the old monarch became tired of Versailles and the stiffness and solemnity of its official life. Saddened by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) and by the many deaths in his immediate family, Louis XIV yearned in his last years for a simpler lifestyle. As a new sensibility—more lyrical, more French, and, above all, more spontaneous—appeared in the designs for tapestries, furnishings, and costumes sketched by Berain’s younger competitor, the painter Claude III Audran (1658–1734), and in the small collectors’ bronzes by sculptors like Corneille van Cleve (1645–1732) and Robert Le Lorrain (1666–1743) (1973.263), the decorative style of Louis XIV’s long reign moved imperceptibly into that of the oncoming Regency.