To the glory of the King: 17th Century portraits of Louis XIV

By Vanessa Selbach et Rémi Mathis

300 years after his death, the Sun King lives on in people’s memories, a fact due in large part to royal authority itself. During the second half of the 17th century there was an unprecedented increase in output of prints in France. Styles were developed and large portraits became the height of fashion, the biggest of which were produced during the reign of Louis XIV.

Portraits are not only a way of perpetuating the memory of a person and their features, but above all of giving a certain image of them, that is inevitably the product of social and symbolic perceptions. The convergence of the monarch’s interests with those of certain artists leads to the glorification of the figure of the sovereign, in which prints played a key role because they could reach a large number of people.

Some such undertakings were managed directly by the royal authorities, which aimed to maintain a certain control over the production of images, and engravers in France were by no means given free rein: in 1667, a decision by the Council decreed that only specific artists could make depictions of the royal palaces and their collections. The Cabinet du Roi was created by Colbert and the State became a publisher of prints, spreading images relating to its reputation, residences, works of art and military success by itself and to its own glory. These prints were produced by the best artists of the time, making the king patron of his own image.

However, glorifying the king was not solely the sovereign’s work and did not depend entirely on a few talented artists. More common prints such as those found on board games also lauded the King, and private publishers needed little encouragement to treat topics that were popular among the public. Mural almanacs, which were published regularly during the reign of Louis XIV, are a typical example. These large prints were fixed directly to the wall and comprised a calendar of the current year and the main events of the previous one, with headings that sometimes sounded like veritable slogans and iconographic productions that were at times very simple or even burlesque, and at times very elaborate or even erudite.

For more information, the exhibition Images du Grand Siècle (Images of the 17th Century) on French prints during the time of Louis XIV will be held at the French National Library from 3 November 2015 to 31 January 2016.

By Vanessa Selbach curator at the French National Library, head of ancient engraving and of the reserve and Rémi Mathis curator at the French National Library, in charge of engraving of the XVII century and editor in chief of Nouvelles de l'estampe.