Louis XIV (1638-1715), King of France, was painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743) in his palace in Versailles near Paris in 1701. The oil painting was larger than life: 277 cm in height and 194 cm in width. The official title reads: Portrait de Louis XIV en costume de sacre. The painting is exhibited at the Louvre in Paris (INV 7492, open access), and a copy is in the Bavarian State Painting Collection in Munich.
In this portrait, the king is shown dressed in the official royal robes of the monarch, posing magnificently in front of his throne, which is placed in the background. In the painting are gathered together all of the traditional symbols of a ruler: the crown, the sword, and the ermine cloak, which uses the fur of this most precious animal.
Hyacinthe Rigaud was a famous and experienced court painter and had many assistants in his big atelier, so we do not know which parts of the picture are actually done by him. Since photography was not yet established at the beginning of the 18th century, every court employed artists specialising in portraiture to show people what their ruler looked like, or rather how he was expected to look or wanted to be seen in order to legitimise a political programme of monarchy. Specific iconographic symbols and accoutrements were used to demonstrate the tradition of rulership, which was thought to be bestowed by divine right. Rigaud fulfilled the wishes and orders of his patrons, but he also showed subtle characteristics of the people he painted.
‘Absolutism’: Paradigm of a ruling structure that today is considered a myth
Nowadays, the portrait is often used for educational purposes to visually substantialise Louis XIV as the most important representative of ‘Absolutism’ in Europe, the regime of direct rule with no control by a parliament or council: ‘L’etat c’est moi’ (‘I am the state’), he is said to have described his understanding of his place in the world. Research has discovered that he never really defined his role in this way (first in Bernier, 1988, p. 110). However, it is true that he was attributed with the image of being the central part of nature and the cosmos: as the ‘Sun King’, he was staged as the genesis and focus of all energy whence all life originates.
Scholars of the early modern era (Henshall, Wrede, Reinhard) consider ‘Absolutism’ to be a myth constructed in the 19th century. Since Gerhard Oestreich observed the ‘non-absolutistic elements in absolutism’ in 1969, many studies have pointed out that the king depended on an influential elite as well as a number of committees. A complex and effective network of groups existed as the executive authority controlling the political system, as Althoff and Stollberg-Rilinger have shown in their groundbreaking books on the political organisation of the late medieval and early modern states in Europe. In their publications, they describe the ritualised methods used in communication between the influential groups in order to find a consensus. As result of that scholarly discussion of the topos of ‘Absolutism’, Wolfgang Reinhard, like other scholars, recommends, ‘that one should abandon the term’ (p. 40). But, as it is rooted quite deeply in the historical consciousness, this does not seem so simple. Martin Wrede complains in his article ‘Absolutismus’ in the handbook Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit of the continuation of the topos, namely ‘the cliché, still firmly anchored in popular views of history as well as in textbooks, of the all-dominant, all-regulating, arbitrary state built on princely power and with a splendid façade’ [‘das in populärem Geschichtsbild wie Schulbuch nach wie vor fest verankerte Klischee des alles beherrschenden, alles reglementierenden, auf fürstliche Macht gebauten Willkürstaates mit prachtvoller Fassade’] (p. 33).
The portraits of Louis XIV and other kings are used to prove the existence of this colourful glory, whilst in reality, the monarchs were representative figures and personal symbols. During Louis’s lifetime, France expanded its territory in Europe and overseas, which brought extreme losses and financial burdens to the people. Because of that disaster, it was necessary to produce a reputation of honour for the king.
Interpreting the portrait
The portrait shows Louis XIV at the age of 63, at the height of his success. But he does not appear as a strong and resolute ruler who travels around in his country, nor an active fighter who leads battles to defend his people. Pupils today always miss a specific physical ‘masculinity’ that they expect from a king They fault this person for not being able to move, run, or ride in his heavy clothes, high heels and white tights. He is forced to stay indoors, surrounded with sumptuousness. They perceive him as ‘feminine’, as the only part of his body he is presenting is his legs, much like a young woman in a miniskirt, and the grandiose wig with its long hair hinders many activities. The entire image seems ridiculous to today’s pupils. What we see here is an old, ill, vain man who is dressing up to fulfil representative duties. What pupils remark is not just some disrespectful observation but is in line with what we know about reality. Rigaud is a superb artist to show the man in his demonstration of the ritualised courtly pageant of luxury.
There are more paintings showing Louis at different phases of his life. As all royal children, he was kept in the same pretty clothes as girls during the first six years of his life. Portraits show him even at the age of ten with facial features and accessories we perceive as feminine and fanciful, not suited to preparing for the life of a strong ruler. The official regent for Louis until he turned 22 was his mother, Anna of Austria. Louis strengthened the Catholic church but did not follow her order of monogamy: besides his six legal children, he had eleven illegitimate ones, all of whom he cared for (Bernier, Tischer, Wrede).
The ideal of masculinity during this time was the mixed one of early modern times, when gender was more hybrid than in the 19th/20th centuries, and life concepts were not sharply polarised between men and women in different spaces, placing men in the public sphere (Dinges, Lundt). Also, the central symbolic figure for the state was not necessarily masculine; there were very influential wives, concubines, and even female rulers.
In the educational process, it is important to dismantle prejudices about past ideals for masculinity as being strong, powerful and heroic. The historic examples of individual men’s glorious performances on European thrones need to be questioned. Pictures like the one of Louis XIV can help to construct a different understanding of courtly life. If it is understood against the background of a plurality of life concepts for ruling men and women, it can help us to see the limitations of their power.
- Gerd Althoff: Rules and Rituals in Medieval Power Games, Brill Academic Publ. 2019.
- Olivier Bernier: Ludwig XIV Die Biographie, Albatros Verlag 1988. English edition: Louis XIV, New Word City 2018.
- Ida Blom, Catherine Hall, Karen Hagemann: Gendered Nations. Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century, Bloomsbury 2000.
- Martin Dinges (ed.): Männer-Macht-Körper. Hegemoniale Männlichkeiten vom Mittelalter bis heute, Frankfurt am Main 2005.
- Karen Hagemann: Gender, War, and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives 1775-1830, Palgrave Macmillan 2020.
- Nicholas Henshall: The Myth of Absolutism. Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy, London 1993 (first published in 1992).
- Bea Lundt: Die Grenzen des Heros. Vielfältige Männlichkeiten in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. In: Martin Lücke (ed.): Helden in der Krise. Didaktische Blicke auf die Geschichte der Männlichkeiten, Berlin 2013, pp. 67-102.
- Gerhard Oestreich: Geist und Gestalt des Frühmodernen Staates, Duncker & Humblot-Verlag 1969.
- Wolfgang Reinhard: Geschichte des Modernen Staates, München 2007 (and elsewhere).
- Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: Des Kaisers alte Kleider. Verfassungsgeschichte und Symbolsprache des Alten Reiches, C.H. Beck Verlag 2nd edition 2013.
- Anuschka Tischer: Ludwig XIV, Stuttgart 2016.
- Martin Wrede: Absolutismus. In: Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit vol. 1, Stuttgart 2005, cols. 24 -34.
- Martin Wrede: Ludwig XIV. Der Kriegsherr aus Versailles, Darmstadt 2015.
Translated from German by Kelly Thompson.
published September 2020