The portrait box of Louis XIV

By Michèle Bimbenet-Privat

In 2009, at the sale of items from the Yves Saint Laurent- Pierre Bergé collection, the Musée du Louvre acquired an exquisite miniature portrait of Louis XIV in enamel paint, encrusted with 92 diamonds. Known as a boîte à portrait, this seventeenth-century locket is exceedingly rare; it was one of hundreds of such gifts created on Louis XIV’s orders to be presented to allied monarchs, foreign diplomats, loyal servants, artists and even to particularly worthy enemies faced on the battlefield. Although over three hundred such lockets are recorded in the official accounts from Louis XIV’s reign, only three more or less complete examples are known to survive today, with the majority of recipients having simply stripped off the most valuable parts: the diamonds.

Inspired by the practice of wearing miniature portraits for private, sentimental reasons, in the king’s hands these lockets became a formidable political weapon: the story behind each one can be reconstructed thanks to the archives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which still house the original records. Typical of the gifts dispensed by Louis XIV, these little wonders of luxury craftsmanship were created by the royal goldsmiths and jewellers, tasked with assembling delicate compositions using diamonds taken from the crown collections.

The number and value of the diamonds used would depend on the intended recipient. Detailed analysis of the precious stones, essential in this context, has established that the surviving diamonds on the Louis XIV locket held in the Louvre are of Indian origin. This analysis has also taught us much about the techniques used to cut and polish the diamonds. Further research has focused on the enamel-painters who created the miniature portraits used in these lockets, particularly Jean Petitot the Elder, who was still celebrated in the eighteenth century as the “Raphael of enamel painting.” This talented artist, who worked from printed engravings of the great official portraits of Louis XIV, faithfully chronicled the evolution of the king’s features, from the resplendent beauty of youth to the sad decline of his latter years.

Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, Head Curator of Objets d’Art Department, Musée du Louvre.

On Wednesday 14 October 2015 at 12:30, join Michèle Bimbenet-Privat (Musée du Louvre) and François Farges (Natural History Museum) for the conference ‘Wearing the King around your neck: the Louis XIV locket’, as part of the Louvre at Lunchtime series of discussions in the Auditorium.

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