Louis XIV, Patron, Collector, Creator
by Dr Philip Mansel
Louis XIV had a personal passion for architecture, painting, prints, medals, sculpture and gardening, as this lecture will show. He would spare nothing, his minister Colbert wrote, to make the arts flourish in France: he was often represented as a new Apollo, distributing rewards to the arts and sciences. He not only purchased and commissioned works of art on a massive scale but also helped to design the east façade of the Louvre, as well as Versailles, Marly and the Grand Trianon and their gardens. Even on campaign, Louis XIV supervised the construction and decoration of Versailles from a distance, demanding to know ‘every detail’. When his architects queried his decisions, the King would say ‘in a loud voice and which appeared inflected with anger: ‘do what you please, but if you destroy it, I will have it rebuilt as it is, and without changing anything in it’. He continued to make alterations to Versailles throughout his reign, even in 1709 and 1710 when France faced famine and defeat.
His passion for the arts was confirmed by his personal esteem for, and close relations with, the sculptor Bernini (summoned from Rome and allowed to rearrange the King’s hair during sittings), the painter Lebrun, the architect Mansart (depicted almost as the King’s equal in an official print) and the garden designer Lenotre. Versailles became not only a royal residence, seat of government and military headquarters, but also an art gallery, displaying in the state apartments the cream of the royal collections of pictures, works of art and antiquities. The King’s and the Dauphin’s personal collections of meals, intaglios and Chinese porcelain in their private apartments could be visited, if they were away and the visitor had a letter of recommendation.
This lecture shows Louis XIV’s significance in connecting political and diplomatic history with art, collections and garden history. The recent restorations of the state apartments, sculptures and chapel (reopened 2021) of Versailles emphasise his originality as one of the greatest and most eclectic art patrons in history, a role which has been overshadowed by his military and political achievements. Contemporaries wrote that he hoped to make Versailles a show-place for French arts and an attraction for foreign visitors to rival Rome. Indeed Versailles had a huge impact across Europe, from Portugal to Russia, particularly in England, in such houses as Chatsworth, Boughton, and Petworth. 2022 is the 350th anniversary of the joint Anglo-French attack on the Netherlands in 1672 – a reminder that England was the ally of Louis XIV for much of the reign, and a cultural imitator throughout it.
Dr Philip Mansel has written seven books on French history including, most recently, King of the World: the Life of Louis XIV (2019), which has been translated into French, Dutch, Italian and German and won the Franco-British Book Prize. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research and President of the Conseil Scientifique of the Centre de recherche du chateau de Versailles.
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