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Louis XIV protector of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture
© Palace of Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin
Publication date: February 2017
Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director
Commissioned by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture
On February 27, 1666, members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture commissioned Henri Testelin to paint a portrait of the king to adorn the assembly hall. Almost two years later, on January 7, 1668, the artist delivered a large canvas which aroused the admiration of his colleagues, as evidenced by the analysis of the historiographer of the Academy, Georges Guillet de Saint-George.
Coming from a family of painters, Henri Testelin embraced the career of a court painter. In 1648, he participated with his brother Louis in the creation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, of which he became secretary in 1650.
A pupil of Simon Vouet, he produced popular portraits inspired by the art of his friend Charles Le Brun. We owe him in particular a portrait in majesty of Louis XIV as a child (1648), in which he inherits a framing and an iconographic type of which he systematizes the use: columns, wall hanging, stepped throne, frontal presentation, mantle royal ajar on a right leg sheathed in white and finished in a shoe with a big bow.
During the second half of the 1660s, many almanacs reproduced and disseminated this representation of the king, seated and in majesty. To commission the Academy, Henri Testelin therefore uses this figurative motif.
Louis XIV, king of the arts
At the center of the composition, seated and staring at the viewer, Louis XIV appears in all his sovereign power, with the pageantry of power and magnificence. He appears in coronation costume, in a large fleur-de-lys coat embroidered with ermine, the collar of the Order of the Holy Spirit in evidence. The king holds in his right hand the shaft of "Charlemagne's" scepter, a long staff surmounted by a fleur-de-lis on which sits a portrait of the emperor in majesty, cruciferous globe and scepter in hand. His left hand is resting on the head of a child who holds the Academy's shield, signifying the personal relationship between the monarch and the artistic institution. Accentuating the structuring diagonal of the composition, the right leg, sheathed in white and protruding, obeys an artistic convention, symbol of majesty, which offsets the king's face slightly to the left.
This expresses a serene firmness and a quiet assurance, which guarantee protection to the symbolic objects occupying the foreground. The celestial globe, instrument of the astronomer, refers to the recent creation of the Royal Academy of Sciences and the construction of the Observatory, the construction of which began in 1667. The bust of Alexander evokes both the merits of ancient sculpture and military glory, to which that of Louis XIV may be associated. The open book on a geometric figure and the measuring instruments symbolize the art of perspective and geometry, while the canvas presents the sketch of an upcoming painting of the king.
In the background, open beyond an arcade worked in the antique style, is the fountain designed by Charles Le Brun for the courtyard of the Louvre, which will never be built.
The king protects the arts, the arts glorify the king
In Henri Testelin's canvas, Louis XIV appears as a prince who is a lover of the arts, thus completing the image of a sovereign to whom no domain escapes.
The very year of the making of this painting (1667), the king shows himself as a victorious king of war and peace in Flanders, and as a king of justice establishing a new code of civil procedure (the Louis code) - in the description that he makes of the painting, Georges Guillet de Saint-George also indicates that Louis XIV's outfit (coronation coat on the red straitjacket) is the one he wears when he sits in Parliament during the judicial beds .
In this portrait, which takes up many artistic codes of representation of sovereign power, the king therefore participates in a “figurative strategy of the French monarchy” (G. Sabatier), which exalts the prince as protector of the arts.
Sitting in majesty on his throne, Louis XIV is both the man king with a realistic face (he was then almost 30 years old) and the timeless king who manifests himself in conventional and explicit glory. Henri Testelin brings together all the arts - astronomy, painting, sculpture, architecture, geometry - around a prince protector and patron, who benefits, in return, from the use of the arts in the service of his glory - Henri's canvas Testelin is in itself a manifesto of the links maintained between the king and the artists, between the king and the arts. Significantly, the creation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture some 20 years earlier marked a turning point in the institutionalization and ordering of the arts in the service of the king.
Henri Testelin continued his career as the King's painter until 1681, when his Reformed faith forced him into exile in the United Provinces. He died there in 1695, expatriated by the policies of a king whose glory he had ironically helped to exalt.
- Louis XIV
- absolute monarchy
- Acadamy of Arts
- official portrait
- Academy of Sciences
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MILOVANOVIC Nicolas, MARAL Alexandre (dir.), Louis XIV: the man and the king, cat. exp. (Versailles, 2009-2010), Paris, Skira-Flammarion / Versailles, Palace of Versailles, 2009.
SABATIER Gérard, The prince and the arts: figurative strategies of the French monarchy, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, coll. “Epochs”, 2010.
To cite this article
Jean HUBAC, "Louis XIV, protector of the arts"