French Painting – Absolutism And The Sun King

WHEN Louis XIII, a child of nine years old, was raised to the throne in 1610, the country was still torn asunder by Leaguers and Huguenots. The leaders of both factions encroached upon the royal power; there was as yet no middle class strong enough to assert its rights and the masses of the people were practically serfs. Authority existed nowhere. Under the circumstances, if it were to exist at all, it must be in the person of the sovereign. Louis XI had realized this and intrigued successfully to achieve it. Under his successors, however, what he had won was dissipated, and at no time was the crown more impotent than in the early years of the seventeenth century. The queen regent, Marie de’ Medici, was of weak character and sought refuge from the insolence of the nobility in Italian favorites. When she married her son at the age of fourteen to Anne of Austria, it was to introduce another feminine influence no less weak and unprincipled. There were two queens at court but no king, for Louis from the start, while not without ability, lacked all capacity of concentration and persistence. He was as completely a roi fainéant as any of the later kings of the Carlovingian dynasty, and the equivalent of a mayor of the palace appeared in Cardinal Richelieu.

From his appearance at court in 1619 until his death in 1642 Richelieu worked with one end steadily in view the revival of the policy of Louis XI. His own ambition found its scope and satisfaction in converting the monarchy into an absolutism, which he wielded on behalf of the royal puppet. The latter survived his great minister only one year, having in the meantime followed Richelieu’s dying admonition to give his confidence to Cardinal Mazarin. Again, as so often in French history, the new king was a minor and during the life of his minister Louis XIV showed little sign of independence. He subserved the intrigues of Anne, the queen mother, and Mazarin by marrying Maria Luisa, the daughter of Philip IV of Spain; the ceremony being conducted on the Isle of Pheasants, in the little frontier river of Bidassoa. Velasquez had charge of the preparations and festivities and was so exhausted by the ordeal that he died a few months later. By the terms of the marriage contract both Louis and his bride for-swore for themselves and their heirs all pretentions to succeed to the Spanish crown. This agreement, by the way, in 1700 on the death of Charles II, the last of the Hapsburg line of Spanish Kings, Louis XIV, then in the plenitude of his power, found it convenient to ignore, thus precipitating the War of the Spanish Succession.

Before he submitted to the political exigencies of this marriage with the Infanta, the young king had been enamored of the nieces of his cardinal minister. He was now allowed to solace himself with the charms of Madame de la Vallière. But an end of mere dalliance was at hand. Mazarin died during the year which succeeded the Spanish marriage; regretting chiefly that he must be separated by death from the magnificent pictures and works of art, which he had set the fashion of collecting. When the council met and the secretary inquired of Louis to whom he should present his reports in the future the king’s curt reply was Moi. There and then, at the age of twenty-three, he adopted the principle, that he upheld for fifty-five years, l’état c’est moi. His first act was to appoint Colbert Minister of Finance, whose long and faithful service put the treasury on a basis of certainty and affluence, which enabled Louis to satisfy his ambition to triumph in war and to shine as le Roi Soleil among obsequious courtiers. Without going into particulars it is enough to recall that Louis XIV justified his title of’ le Grand Monarque by raising France to a position of influence in the politics of Europe which made her everywhere respected. It was not until in the decline of his personal vigor, when he had married Madame de Maintenon, the widow of the writer Scarron, who had been tutor to his illegitimate children, and under her influence turned devote and came under the control of the Jesuits, that the splendor of The Sun King began to decline. The War of the Spanish Succession proved disastrous to the French armies, which were successfully opposed by Marlborough; the re-sources of the kingdom, no longer husbanded by Colbert, became absorbed in deficits, and a series of deaths in the royal household, which the suspicion of the times attributed to poisoning, instigated by the king’s dissolute nephew, the Duke of Orleans, darkened the old king’s end.

Meanwhile, le grand Siécle, le Siécle de Louis Quatorze, was prolific both in art and letters. The king himself affected to be the autocrat of both. The temper of the time was official. As the chaos of society yielded to the formative and consolidating influence of the royal authority, the aftermath of the French Renaissance grew to be systematization. The Roman element in the French genius asserted itself and set its definite and enduring impress upon French art and letters.

For the genius of Rome had been displayed less in originality than in judicious adaptation of a variety of examples to its own needs and circumstances. And this involved a systematizing of means to ends which, while it did little to encourage individual artists, trained up a host of competent craftsmen; a system of standardized style and widely comprehensive practical efficiency.

Richelieu had established about 1629 the Académie Française, for the purpose of controlling the French language and regulating literary taste. The trend, thus set, was furthered in Louis XIV’s reign by the recognized critical influence of Malherbe and Boileau. Its immediate result was to replace the imaginative and singing qualities of the earlier French poetry with a system of metrical versification, sometimes rising to heights of grandeur and beauty, but more usually characterized by its fitness for narrative description, as in La Fontaine’s Fables and, for heroic dialogue as in the dramas of Corneille and Racine. With both these dramatists individual characterization is replaced by types of character; quick interchange of dialogue yields to lengthy speeches and action on the stage is supplanted by descriptions of what has occurred off stage and by elaborate reflections and dissertations on the part of the actors. In all these respects Corneille differs radically from his older contemporary, Shakespeare, and Racine, coming later, fixed these traits on the so-called classic drama of France.

It has been remarked, no doubt with justice, by a French writer that only a Frenchman, and by no means all Frenchmen, can appreciate at its proper estimate the value of Racine. The latter is, in fact, the product of a quality in the French genius that is enduring in the race, to-wit, its heritage of the Roman tradition. This must unquestionably be taken into account by every conscientious student of French art, who would try to reach its inwardness through putting himself as far as may be, in the mental attitude of the French themselves.

Among the organized influences of the period that of the coterie or salon played an important role. The most famous of them, the Hotel de Rambouillet, had been established some fourteen years before the. institution of the Academy as a protest against the puerility and license of society and as an encouragement of literary taste and style. The ladies of the group called themselves Les Precieuses, the men, Esprit Doux. This coterie, comprising among others, Richelieu, Descartes, the reformer of Philosophy in France, Corneille, Bossuet, La Rochefoucauld, the famous author of the Maxims, and Madame de Sevigny, one of the most brilliant of letter writers, exercised at first a salutary influence. But in time the effort to devulgarize the French tongue lead to the invention of literary conceits, such as strew the pages of Mademoiselle de Scudéry and other writers of heroic romances; and justified the satire of Molière, whose “Precieuses Ridicules” gave the cult its deathblow.

In summing up the literary aspects of the period George Saintsbury says: “In the special characteristics of the genius of the French, which may be said to be clearness, polish of form and expression, and a certain quality which perhaps cannot be so well expressed by any other word as by alertness, the best work of the seventeenth century has no rivals. The charm of precision, of elegance, of expressing what is expressed in the best possible manner belongs to it in a supreme degree.”

The same words are applicable to describe at least the trend of the development of French painting during this period; for its actual attainment of the above qualities belongs rather to the eighteenth century, when the French spirit was able to express itself more freely. Under Louis XIV French art had not only a patron, but an arbiter, who imposed his own will and taste upon obsequious courtier painters. Art was officialized, firstly by the autocratic personality of the monarch, whose standard, if not so expressed was virtually l’art c’est moi; and secondly by the royal establishment of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

What Fontainebleau had been as an expression of the Italianized spirit of the French Renaissance, Versailles became to the Roman tendency of the seventeenth century. The former grew up at the call of three kings ; the spirit of woman still haunts it; it lies embosomed in the natural beauties of the Forest. Versailles, on the contrary, is the climax of artifice; summoned into being by one man and loaded with his personality. For one needs to be reminded that Louis XIII commenced the Palace and Louis Philippe added wings to it. To the imagination Versailles means Louis XIV. Nature had supplied a waste of sandy tract ; he bid Le Nôtre convert it into terraces, esplanades and fountains, bordered by a mimic forest, with artificial lakes, water-falls, rocks and glens. With a Roman’s largeness of plan and repetition of design, he summoned the façades of the palace into rigid uniformity of line fronting the parade ground of extended terraces. Everything is grandiose and oppressively monotonous and artificial. It entombs the autocracy of Louis Quartorze and the formalism of “Le Grand Siécle” as unmistakably as the Escorial does the body of Philip II and the soul of Spanish Catholicism.

Yet inside and outside the Palace the French genius proclaims itself in an exuberance of invention, facility and skill. Le Notre is still unrivaled as a landscape architect, while Le Brun and his regiment of painters displayed as inexhaustible a resourcefulness in the interior decorations. That they were courtier-flatterers, obsequiously producing pictorial rhodomontade to extol the one man needs no enforcement; or that their output affects one with impatient fatigue. Yet it would be heedless to overlook the exuberance and the facility that these men displayed, symptomatic at least of the fecundity of the French spirit after it had been fertilized by Italian influence. What they would have made of themselves if they had been free of the régime of the Court, as were Poussin and Claude Lorrain, can be only conjectured. Perhaps, however, they had in themselves that Roman element which leaned toward and found its best capabilities in the regimental system.

This also may be true of the Court portrait painters headed by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743) and Nicolas Largillière (1656–1746) , although on the whole, these two exhibit more individual character than the decorators. Rigaud, particularly, is a strong man whose virile personality comes to the surface of the prodigious amount of display that the circumstances of the time compelled him to adopt. Observe, for example, his (981) Portrait of Louis XIV in the Louvre. Painted in 1701, it represents the king at the age of sixty three, when his days of gallantry were passed. The puffy face is not imposing under its brown perruque. Stiffness and pomposity characterize the pose of the figure, planted on its white silk-encased legs; the exaggerated superbness of the blue velvet mantle, heavy with silver fleur-de-lys, massed upon the floor and turned back to reveal the sumptuousness of the ermine lining; and the paraphernalia of the throne, crimson canopy, column and the Crown and Hood of Justice, lying on a stool. Yet it is a shallow study that does not discover beneath all this panoply of ostentation the essential force of physical and mental manhood which made it possible for the Grand Monarch to impose his will so absolutely. That it does assert itself to a degree which explains and almost justifies the obsequiousness of its acceptance by his subjects is the measure of Rigaud’s bigness. None but a painter who himself was endowed with mental and physical force could have interpreted the subject so plausibly ; nay more, with such convincingness.

And for corroboration and heightened admiration of Rigaud’s. greatness turn to his (783) Portrait of Bossuet, which worthily holds a place among the masterpieces of the Salon Carré. The “Eagle of Meaux,” as his contemporaries called the great preacher because of the survey and grasp that his sermons involved, was distinguished in his finest utterances by an extraordinary majesty of rhetoric and imposing grandeur of manner. Although he almost always aimed at the sub-lime, he scarcely ever overstepped it or fell into the bombastic and ridiculous. This characterization of George Saintsbury’s might be applied to Rigaud’s portrait. It is in a worthy sense a heroic canvas; but the heroic is modified, the sumptuousness mellowed, the ostentation assuaged. It is nobly assertive, yet with a refined control. And then, how genial the face with its straight and fearless glance and simple candor of expression!

Like the portrait of the king, it was engraved by the younger Drevet, one of that band of French engravers who added so much luster to the art of the period. In the logic of their line and the purity and vigor of expression they have never been surpassed. Indeed, it may be contended with much reasonableness that the French engravers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries represent in pictorial form the finest intellectuality of the period.

While Rigaud reflects the influence of his sojourn in Rome, Largillière was trained in Antwerp and later studied under Sir Peter Lely in London. His measure as a painter may be best discovered in (491) Portraits of Largillière, his Wife and Daughter. The picture betrays the affectations, as well as the excellent disposition of draperies and treatment of textures that the artist had learned from Lely. It also has a curious psychological interest in the way in which Largillière, while preserving the courtly style, has tempered it to his family group ; has, as it were, domesticated it. The figures are seated, shown to a little below the waist. The artist, in a gray, long wig and drab suit, holds a gun and fondles a spaniel, a dead partridge lying beside him. His daughter, dressed in a dove-gray gown, trimmed with gold, holds a sheet of music, while the mother, in a crimson robe with her hair powdered, carries herself with easy and gracious alertness. The whole group is painted with breadth and spirit. After one has accepted the airs and graces of the picture as characteristic of the age, one’s first suspicion of its sentimentality disappears in a recognition of the sincerity of technique and intention.

As the seventeenth century progressed French painters became the leaders in that invasion of Italy, which ultimately resulted in the general Italianizing of European art. The effects on the whole were disastrous. For, while the earlier influence of a still living Italian culture had fertilized the native spirit of the countries that it touched, this later contact with the dead-hand chilled original impulse into soulless imitation. Even in France, where the consequences were less severe, there ensued a period of Italianate conventions, represented, for example, in Simon Vouet, a mild version of the great somersault-artist, Le Brun; in the suave amiability of Le Sueur’s Raphaelesque compositions ; and in the more dramatic and interesting subjects of Bon de Boulongne (1649–1717), which suggest the influence of Caravaggio; in the flower pieces of Jean Baptist Monnoyer (1634–1699) and the game and hunting subjects of François Desportes (1661-1742).

Meanwhile, a more honestly personal note appears in Sebastien Bourdon (1616-1671). The last named varied his compilation of religious compositions with a few genuinely observed and simply rendered genre subjects and with at least one fine portrait. This is the bust (78) Portrait of the Philosopher, Descartes: low-toned, grayish flesh; large lucid eyes; a bearing and expression full of character, devoid of any display; a human record, arresting and authoritative.

Further, there are the three brothers, Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain, whose lives cover the period from 1588–1677. Natives of Laon, they preserved the independence that characterizes the French provincial, and, although they came to Paris to perfect themselves in their art, resisted alike the influence of Italy and the domination of Le Brun. Little is known of them beyond the meager facts that Antoine painted miniatures, Louis some bust portraits and that Mathieu was appointed painter of the town of Laon; while all three were elected to membership in the Academy at its foundation in 1648. This denotes broad and liberal policy in the king’s appointments, for nothing could be farther from other officially encouraged art of the day than the work of these three brothers. The examples in the Louvre are grouped in the catalogue under their combined names, since no data exists which can identify the individual pictures with any one of them. They are genre pictures, mostly of rural subjects-(540) The Forge, (541) Rustic Meal, (542) Return of the Haymakers, and so forth; executed in a tonality of gray and brown, very quiet and simple in expression, and exhibiting a direct and careful study of nature. One of them (544), Procession in a Church, is distinguished by the richness of the costumes. All are akin to the contemporary genre subjects of Holland and Flanders and anticipate the peasant genre of the nineteenth century.