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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002

Louis XIV understood power, absolute power

Reinforced by iconography, the rule of the Sun King brought France under his sway

Special to The Japan Times

Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (composed 8 A.D.) described the palace of the sun, tall-columned and fashioned from precious metals, inside which sat the radiant god Apollo on a throne studded with emeralds. The Roman poet's description was pure fantasy, but Louis XIV, King of France from 1643-1715, seemed set on turning Ovid's myth into reality. The palace of the sun would become the king's official residence of Versailles -- and Louis himself, like the radiant Apollo, was named the "Roi Soleil (Sun King)."

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"Louis XV en costume royal" by Jean-Martial Fredou
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"Louis XIV" by Charles LeBrun
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Scale model of a carriage with the arms of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV

The vast scale of what became the Palace of Versailles (its creation began in 1661 as an expansion of Louis XIII's hunting lodge) was unprecedented in Europe in the 17th century, and by the time of Louis XIV's death, it would be the seat of a court numbering nearly 5,000 people. More than a magnificent architectural feat, it was deft political strategy on Louis XIV's part, as it removed the aristocracy from the bickering and political intrigues of Paris and enabled him to reinforce his supremacy as the sovereign of France. The palace at Versailles was an undertaking that would project the absolute rule of the monarch in all things, be they political, societal, or mere matters of taste.

A new exhibition, "Fastes de Versailles," showing till Dec. 25 at Kobe Municipal Museum, then at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Jan. 25-March 30, draws together a dazzling array of artworks and palace finery from Versailles. Its aim is to examine the evolution of art commissioning and collecting under three kings: the Sun King himself, and his successors Louis XV and Louis XVI.

And the story this exhibition tells is not unlike the sun's passage across the sky: There is the dawn of a dynasty that would impress and intimidate Europe; a peak of grandeur under Louis XIV; then the curve of ascent turns with the Sun King's death in 1715, with a gradual decline under his sussessors.

The portraiture in the exhibition illuminates this rise and fall especially clearly. One youthful portrait of Louis XIV, by Charles LeBrun, is a dark, unassuming picture in which the stare of the youthful king trails off into the distance. But it is, perhaps, a gaze that is fixed on something -- maybe a vision of a glorious future?

Hyacinthe Rigaud's portrait of Louis XIV, painted when the king was 63, depicts Louis in magisterial pose, robed in monarchial finery emblazoned with the royal symbol of the fleur-de-lis. It is an image of a single-minded sovereign who has attained the status and power of his youthful vision.

Throughout his reign, Louis XIV deployed a sophisticated iconographic program to bolster his vision of divinely-appointed absolute monarchy. By identifying himself with the sun and with Apollo, god of solar light, Louis was claiming divine lineage for himself.

This retrieval of a heroic and mythological past applied not only to portraits of Louis himself, but to all royally commissioned art. Louis XIV's control over the arts was institutionalized through his minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who, in 1663, reorganized the national Academy of Painting and Sculpture and set up a further academy to monitor royal iconography.

The king's understanding of the connection between art and power was well-founded: His command of the arts would prove as strong as his hold upon the monarchy.

In the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, there is a general departure from the artistic vigor of Louis XIV's vision. What follows, the viewer feels, are fanciful imitations of an earlier, more successful model.

Jean-Martial Fredou's portrait of Louis XV refers us back to Ligaud's portrait of Louis XIV -- its clear model in composition, color and its subject's attire. And where Ligaud's portrait of Louis XIV had shown a self-reliant monarch who created an empire, the portrait by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis of Louis XVI shows a monarch stepping into a role for which he has been groomed. Indeed, the young king shows a faint smirk of privilege at having done so.

Under the later reigns of Louis XV and XVI, painting becomes less political and allegorical, instead becoming increasingly sentimental and romantic. In the portraits of children by Francois-Hubert Drouais and Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-LeBrun, the subjects' eyes are wide and expectant, their cheeks blush in rosy pastel hues.

In the painting of this later period, the contours and tones soften, and in the sculpture there is an indulgence in gilded detail and a penchant for the elaborately decorative. Alongside the paintings on show at this exhibition are a number of ornate items used by members of the royal household -- a gilt pendulum clock, a red velvet stool, a scale model of the carriage used by the Dauphin, son of Louis XV.

The rituals of court life were extravagantly stage-managed and themselves became the subject of artworks, as shown by canvases depicting the coronation of Louis XV in 1722, or the same king in the act of bestowing the Order of the Holy Spirit on the Count of Clermont.

The sun finally set on Versailles in 1789 when Revolutionary mobs hauled Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette off to Paris to be guillotined. The artworks of the palace were subsequently taken to the Louvre, where they formed the basis of the French national collection.

But the legacy of the Bourbon monarchy lived on as the monarchy perished. Louis XIVs personal vision and his legislating of taste through his academies set the course for French art in his own lifetime and beyond. Thanks to his lavish expenditure on the arts, during his long reign the European center of artistic patronage shifted decisively from Rome to Paris, and the city would remain the center of the art world until World War II.

"Fastes de Versailles" runs till Dec. 25 at Kobe City Museum, a 10-minute walk from Motomachi and Sannomiya stations on the JR and Hanshin lines. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Monday. Admission 1,300 yen. For more information, call (078) 391-0035 or visit www.hanshin.or.jp/network/ichihaku.html The exhibition then runs Jan. 25-March 30 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 8-36 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 3239-5500.

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