The king dances: Louis XIV and the staging of absolute power

The king dances: Louis XIV and the staging of absolute power

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Title: Royal Ballet of the Night. Louis XIV as Apollo.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1653

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Watercolor, graphite, wash, heightened with gold

Storage place: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Picture reference: 00-020079

Royal Ballet of the Night. Louis XIV as Apollo.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: September 2013

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

Court ballet, political entertainment

The great tradition of court ballets in France was inaugurated by the Queen's comic ballet (1581), created by the Italian Baldassarre da Belgioioso (Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx) at the court of Catherine de Medici. Between 1581 and 1670, the court ballets helped to form the ideal courtier; essayist Jean-Marie Apostolidès observes that "in preparing these shows, the privileged of the three orders realize that they are forming a group that has a common taste. The monarch often performs there, in the sense that an actor is said to perform on stage, but also in the sense that the prince produces his own solar image in the performance. " The dance was, in fact, a real political instrument in the hands of Louis XIV (1638-1715). Like his father Louis XIII, who liked to regulate the ballets himself, the young ruler trained regularly and, since the age of thirteen, performed in shows at court.

In February 1653, Queen Mother Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin witnessed the triumph of Louis XIV in the Royal Ballet of the Night, presented at Petit-Bourbon. The ballet was ordered by the Sieur Clément, intendant of the Duke of Nemours, to a libretto by Benserade, with music by Cambefort, Boesset and Lambert, the choreographies by Raynal, Vertpré and Dolivet, the sets by Giacomo Torelli as well as sumptuous costumes. , in perfect harmony with the taste for pomp which already characterized Louis XIV.

The young king performed six roles, surrounded by the highest personalities of the court, such as Monsieur, the Duke of York and the Duke of Buckingham, and professional dancers, including Beauchamps, Des-Airs, Mollier and Lully. The ballet was a great success and was performed on February 25 and 27, then on March 2, 4, 6 and 16, in front of an audience which included many foreign diplomats. Three decades later, Father Ménestrier, responsible for ballets and tragedies in several Jesuit colleges, wondered in his treatise Ancient and modern ballets according to the rules of the theater (1682), "if ever our theater will represent anything so accomplished".

The Royal Ballet of the Night consisted of forty-five entrances, divided into four vigils, where allegorical, mythological, exotic and chivalrous episodes alternated with picturesque and comical scenes, in the city and in the country. At the end of the fourth watch, the Star of the daybreak (Sir) appeared on the scene, followed by Aurora in her chariot carrying the dew and the twelve hours of the day; then all withdrew when the rising Sun (the king) appeared, announced by the story of Aurora: "The Sun following me is young LOUIS. The king then danced the final "grand ballet", accompanied by the geniuses of Honor, Grace, Love, Valor, Victory, Fame, Justice and Glory.

There is nothing to identify the author of the stage costumes, and the same is true of the author of the gouache depicting Louis XIV in Apollo. In the preparation phase of shows, it was common to design costumes and sets before making them.

Image Analysis

Louis XIV and the two faces of Apollo

This gouache, however, arouses particular interest because, although it is not an official portrait and its production is in the typical style of stage costume designs, it offers a real portrait of Louis XIV, the face of the young king being quite recognizable.

The sovereign, without mask or wig, advances on the stage with elegance and dignity: his open arms and his hands gracefully raised, palms down, underline the balance of which he claims to be the absolute emblem. The position of the legs and feet was taken over half a century later by Hyacinthe Rigaud in the official portrait of the king.

From the tiara adorned with feathers to the shoes, the stage costume obsessively takes up the motif of the radiant sun, highlighted by the golden color. Beyond its luxury, this outfit refers to the double allegorical meaning of the character embodied, more than interpreted, by Louis XIV: Apollo, the god of the sun and the arts. A light that is both physical and intellectual emerges from the young king, a miraculous child by his unexpected birth, called to a great destiny which is also that of France according to the theory of the double body (physical and symbolic) of the king, as the Louis XIV himself affirmed: “The nation is not one in France, it resides entirely in the person of the king. "


The staged ideology

After the performance of Royal Ballet of the Night, Louis XIV made the sun his favorite emblem. Dance remained one of his greatest passions, as evidenced by the founding of the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661, which eight years before the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music; however, the professionalization of dance on the one hand, and state affairs on the other, prompted the king to bid farewell to the stage in 1670, in the comedy-ballet by Molière and Lully The Magnificent Lovers, where he danced - only for the first performance - the roles of Neptune and Apollo.

The court ballet had now accomplished its mission: to make the spectacle a "concretized ideology", to use Apostolidès' expression, and to affirm in the collective imagination the figure of Louis XIV as absolute monarch through the allegory of the triumphant Sun .

  • absolute monarchy
  • Louis XIV
  • Paris
  • Anne of Austria
  • dance
  • allegory
  • costumes
  • music
  • Mazarin (cardinal of)
  • ballet
  • Acadamy of Arts


Jean-Marie APOSTOLIDÈS, The Machine King. Spectacle and politics in the time of Louis XIV, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, coll. "Arguments", 1981.

Philippe BEAUSSANT, Louis XIV artist, Paris, Payot, coll. “Intimate portraits”, 1999.

Philippe BEAUSSANT, with the collaboration of Patricia BOUCHENOT-DÉCHIN, The Pleasures of Versailles. Theater and music, Paris, Fayard, coll. "The paths of music", 1996.

Marie-Françoise CHRISTOUT, The Court Ballet under Louis XIV. 1643-1672. Staging, Paris, Picard, Center national de la danse (coll. “New dance library; Musical life in France under the Bourbons kings”, no 34), 2005.

Jean-Christian PETITFILS, Louis XIV, Paris, Perrin, coll. "Tempus", 2002.

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "The king dances: Louis XIV and the staging of absolute power"


  • Academy of Fine Arts: Created in 1816 by the union of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648, the Academy of Music, founded in 1669 and the Academy of Architecture, founded in 1671. Institution which brings together artists distinguished by an assembly of peers and usually working for the crown. It defines the rules of art and good taste, trains artists, organizes exhibitions.

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