By Mikayla Knutson
French reverence of the monarch shifted dramatically between Louis XIV to Louis XVI as the pendulum shifted from extreme character enhancement to rampant character assassination. Under Louis XIV (1643-1715), a comprehensive program glorified the Sun King and engineered his reputation and image to further his political power. This initiative channeled French elite cultural and academic capacities into luxury goods, technology, industries, imperial expansion, and engineering projects. Reaching unprecedented heights of state control over culture, this apparatus reinforced his heroic image. Yet under his successors, Louis XV (1715-1774) and Louis XVI (1774-1793), a counter-cultural revolution ruptured the foundations of Sun King image culture. The increased roles of the press, academic meetings, and salons stimulated new artistic and literary activities, as writers operated in defiance of state censorship, while newfound influential “celebrity” identities operated independent of royal largesse. By the eve of Revolution in 1789, the last vestiges of Louis XIV’s control over political culture gave way to emancipated writers and artisans poised to demolish the Ancien Régime.
Part I: Image Control and Character Enhancement under Louis XIV
Though the Sun King’s reign began in 1643, from 1661, Louis XIV and his advisers operated a “department of glory” tasked with creating the king’s (and his reign’s) image. Louis reinforced his role as patron of art, history, and the sciences. With the assistance of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis constructed a machine for his personal glorification with a system of state-endorsed organizations that mobilized scholars, writers, and artists for the king. New academies were founded (such as the Académie de Danse (1661), the Académie des Sciences (1666), the Académie d’Architecture (1671), and the Académie Royale de Musique (1672)) in which most writers and artists worked for the monarch, produced works to glorify the king and held competitions for works best representing Louis’s “heroic actions”.
Louis brought historians on military campaigns to facilitate official interpretations of battles. He sedulously controlled information flows about his exploits and ensured that military successes appeared as personal accomplishments. For instance, Jean Racine (royal historiographer), created a “hystorical panegyric” of Louis’s 1672-1678 conquests, the 1682 Eloge historique du roi Louis XIV sur ses conquêtes, which depicted the Dutch as insolent provokers who inflicted Louis’s wrath upon themselves for allying with France’s enemies and oppressing Catholics (despite that skeptical observers might have regarded the king’s actions as expansionary and unprovoked).
Louis ensured that major successes of this campaign were immortalized in various media. A commemorative medal celebrated the capture of four fortresses (Orsoy, Burick, Wesel, and Rheinberg) in a single day. Newspapers, such as the Gazette de France of 1672, praised the “glorious action” of their “marvellous monarch”. The Gazette depicted the Sun King’s Rhine crossing as an achievement surpassing that of Caesar, reasoning that while Caesar used bridges, the king – “more able than the Caesars to resolve every difficulty” – conquered obstacles without reliance on mechanical aids.
State-supported artists and poets immortalized successes in images and verse. Charles-Claude Genest’s ode and Boileau’s Forth Epistle both noted the river-god’s trembling. In 1672, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture made Louis’s passage of the Rhine its prize competition’s theme. In the 1680s, Lebrun painted nine depictions of the Dutch War in the Grande Galerie at Versailles. Sculptor Michel Anguier created an allegorical representation of the feat, with Holland represented as a seemingly frightened woman sitting on a lion. Grand celebrations to honor the conquest erupted at Versailles after the king’s return (1674). The triumphal Paris arch of Porte St. Martin, with its inscription “LUDOVICO MAGNO” and reliefs of the Sun King became a permanent celebration of the king’s victory.
Any attempts at distribution of materials critical of the Sun King or challenging the Sun King’s carefully formulated public persona were met with swift retribution. For example, Louis XIV executed a Paris bookseller and printer in November 1694 for an irreverent account of royal sex life.
In the 1680s, Versailles and the court transformed into a sort of machine – with Louis physically and figuratively at center. From the chateau, the Marquis de Louvois undertook large-scale projects to further project the king’s majesty. He oversaw construction plans for buildings to house the academies and Royal Library on the Place Vendôme and doubled Versailles’s expenditures. Louis ritualized activities and the functions of court with himself at its center, attaching great importance to simple actions (e.g., sitting next to or being spoken to by the king). Further, the Sun King established associations between material objects or royal routines with the monarch; these items became sacred because they represented Louis. For instance, it became an offence to turn one’s back on the king’s portrait – just as it was an offence to turn one’s back on the king.
Royal presentations and practices created a mystical image of the monarch, and Louis’s actions reinforced these messages. Louvois endorsed an artistic campaign to place statues of Louis (typically a triumphant depiction of the king on horseback) in Paris’s public squares and in provincial towns with celebrations at the unveiling of each monument. Louvois’s initiative demonstrated central government officials’ increased preoccupation with Louis’s image in the provinces.
Louis’s officials, such as Louvois, also initiated literary and artistic campaigns to ease any backlash against unpopular monarchical policies. Official state art sought to create support for the king’s 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes. A painting by Guy Louis Vernansel shows Louis defending the Church, depicted as a woman, whilst heretics fall to the ground or flee. Louis coupled this artistic support with paeans from the clergy, famously in a sermon by Bossuet, in which he described the king as “this new Theodosius, this new Marcion, this new Charlemagne”. Nevertheless, the policy tarnished the royal image in the face of hostile reactions within and outside of France.
By revoking the Edict of Nantes, Louis might have overplayed his hand. With his Sun King image, he believed himself armed against anti-monarchical dissent – even while threatening religious peace. Ironically, Louis’s opponents employed sun imagery to portray discontent. In a 1691 engraving, protestants depicted Louis – represented as a hooded sun – as a sinister figure.
For all the monarchy’s control over political culture and the royal image, dissent appeared. Yet to the end of Louis’s reign, despite late calamities and struggles, he maintained personal control over the iconographic projection of his authority.