Art and Architecture in the Age of Louis XIV

It Is Fun Art History With Lilly Time! Yeah! I know you’ve been waiting for this…(I have!)…

As of late, I’ve been swinging by so many different time periods, that I realise how much I had neglected the 17th century! And, of course, what is the 17th century without Versailles and Neoclassicism? ( I could say not much, but the 17th century saw many changes in Europe, particularly from an artistic point of view!). Of course, the artistic development of France during this period is almost single-handedly owed to its ruler, the glorious Sun King, Louis XIV. Indeed, the only thing that could make France more prestigious than it was, were the arts and yes, it was all about the king. Yet, Louis succeeded in giving the public also what they wanted: beautiful looking things that would drag them, at least for a short period of time, out of their miserable lives.

In this context, the arts needed to send the political message of the crown. Although Louis appealed to Baroque, his mind was sure that the purpose of art was not to create an exciting emotion, but to please and, therefore, art had to be controlled to achieve rather aesthetic harmony and orthodoxy – reason why any sort of decorative element created during this period embraces the more classical, ancient Roman style. But Colbert, Louis right hand in this enterprise, knew that a lot of work was going to be required to make this successful. Therefore, artists were brought from Venice and Flanders, while at the same time, France made use of a truly ingenious man:Charles Le Brun. He had the skills and energy that made him a good director for the art academies that were settled in France, in order to attract everyone’s attention in the making of “the state art-machine”. In addition, to make France independent from foreign influences, Colbert put a lot of effort in the development of craft industries, especially those in Lyons, as well as the Gobelins. Tapestries were produced in the Gobelins – particularly well renown are the sets L’Histoire d’Alexandre and L’Histoire du Roi. The Gobelins also excelled at silver work production, although much of it is lost now, due to the melting of most of the silver in France to pay for the kings’ wars…Dexterous silversmiths such as Verbeck and Dutel created vases, our of which the most formidable was Medusa’s head crafted by Loir. However, we only have recollection of this piece thanks its representation on a tapestry at Versailles. Amongst the minor arts, pottery and furniture making  also experienced changes in their motifs, oddly enough to move towards a more Baroque-like style which would also allow for comfort.

In the fine arts developments were  also quickly achieved, even though many of the artists and monuments are/were not as popular as one would have thought. The public is, and was, usually mesmerised by the glory of Versailles, but there were other palaces that played an important role in the development of Neoclassic architecture. In fact the Louvre was a palace, even though Louis barely used it. The works in the Louvre began with the aim to make Paris the magnificent capital that the kingdom needed. The original design for the building was ordered to Bernini, however it was soon abandoned. This event is significant because it meant that France would be following Rome as an example of architectural design rather than producing its own. Thus, the Louvre suddenly became the first symbol of French artistic independence. In the field of sculpture, artists as Jean Wairin flourished. Wairin was a bronze-bust designer, like Girardon and Coseyvox,  who created the great tombs for Cardinal Richelieu and Manzarin. But we cannot forget about the genius dragging the train across the railroad: Le Brun. The conception of The Queen of Persia at the Feet of Alexander the Great, was incredibly influential in French art. In fact it was such a hit that in 1661 it was engraved so those artists with no access to the king’s gallery could study it as part of their educational process.

However, of course, the jewell of French design was the king’s palace. And from this magnificent structure the most amazing feature, I would dare say is the so-called Galerie des Glaces – possibly the most amazing work of mirrors ever – (I was going to discuss the issues of mirrors between France and Venice…But I have done that already: ). Another fantastic feature of the palace is its garden. Now garden decorations were starting to be a big thing in European design, and an important feature even for the smallest country house worthy of awe. Versailles gardens were created by Le Nôtre – who pursued to impose the Neoclassic spirit of man-made harmony on nature itself. This in fact cause many like Saint-Simon to consider the garden aberration. 

Nevertheless, this art machinery which was fuelled by the puppet master Colbert, came to an end as so did the 17th Century, for Colbert died and was replaced by Louvois. Now, many consider this was disastrous for France –  and perhaps, they are right. However, Louvois carried on with the development of the arts, and succeeded to create master pieces. The lasts major works done in Versailles happened during his time as minister. The most important was the Grand Trianon which became the most creative piece of art of the whole régime despite of its ad-hoc nature…The truth is that the Trianon is just one element in the chain of artistic innovations that occurred in France at this time. The creation of a more relaxed creative environment, made possible to question the strict Neoclassic tendencies. So there came a period of opposition in the arts promoted by the Poussinistes and the Rubénistes. The first favoured the art of drawing as a reflection of the mind’s design, while the latter favoured colour use above all, as they believe it transmitted feelings and emotions best. Then there were also issues between the Ancients and the Moderns, which challenged the supremacy of classical tradition and pushed for naturalism. In the end, both the Rubénistes and the Moderns won their battles, and France oozed with creativity once more, becoming somewhat more baroque. The best example of this is the dome of the Invalides by Charles de la Fosse, and the Salon d’Hercule, at Versailles, by Lemogne, which pretty much Rococo.  Perhaps in a way, France truly witnessed its artistic peak during the régime of Louvois. He was the figure that actually allowed all that creative potential to shine, and used it! If the entire point of the enterprise was to develop a truly national French style, then there was no point in making another renewal of what the Greeks and Romans had already achieved.

Of course, this is all a matter of taste… Traditional or not, what cannot be denied is that the 17th century was a key moment in French artistic development. From then on the country would be at the lead of every new tendency and artistic movement. Whether that was thank to Louis vain glory, or his ministers efforts…Well, that, is another story…


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