By Mikayla Knutson
In the early years of Louis XV’s minority, Louis XIV’s memory conjured backlash to contemporary political culture. This marked the first departure from extensive control of royal image under Louis XIV. In L’Enseigne de Gersaint, Antoine Watteau depicts Louis XIV’s image being boxed up in favor of new, non-monarchical art. The king and his image were no longer the focus of artistic production or consumption.
Nevertheless, culture and art remained under the influence of monarchy. One political use of art by Louis XV’s regime was Edme Bouchardon’s equestrian statue of the sovereign. The regime conceived of the statue as a commemorative monument to French victory in the 1740-1748 War of Austrian Succession, but it was unveiled after French defeat in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). In this context, the monument was a commemorative feature of celebrations of the 1763 Peace of Paris; Paris municipal magistrates and Louis XV’s minister intended to restore public confidence in a monarchy beset by domestic scandals and military defeat. The statue became a centerpiece of a media campaign, including music, theatre, and the visual arts.
In contemporary French political culture, the raising of a monument was an expression of loyalty and submission to the monarch. Bouchardon’s statue mirrored eighteenth-century royal iconography’s transition from depictions of kings as military conquerors to leaders with paternalistic and pacific virtues. The monarch remained at the heart of political and cultural life, but not to the degree that art and culture centered around Louis XIV.
Unlike Louis XIV, Louis XV’s public perception efforts competed with the emergence of new “celebrity” figures (e.g., Voltaire) who changed literary and artistic standards. While Voltaire conformed to some of Louis XIV’s traditions (e.g., Siècle de Louis XIV, in which the Sun King was praised for turning from medieval superstitions and toward advancements in art), he criticized conditions of his own time. The new “invention of celebrity” meant that non-monarchs could be famous and heard. Though Louis XIV’s era saw famous nobles, they did not wield the same political clout and popularity as literary celebrities under Louis XV. Cultural authority now derived from the ordinary (not the monarch or nobility).
With respect to Voltaire, his face was as famous as his name. Multiple portraits, engravings and busts of him circulated widely – increasing after 1760. Prior to the eighteenth century, portraits of living persons were representations of power – social and political. A king’s portrait was a facsimile of his authority; his ability to fashion and disseminate his representation was power in itself. But in 1772, Jean Huber painted a series of images depicting Voltaire engaging in everyday activities, such as playing chess and drinking coffee. One of these paintings, a depiction of Voltaire getting out of bed, became popular in Paris and London. Where distributed images during Louis XIV’s reign would have been of the king, Louis XV’s reign saw the popularity of the image of a non-royal person.
With the French Enlightenment, subversive thought towards monarchical authority undermined political culture centered on the indefeasible authority of kingship. Though Bouchardon’s 1763 portrayal of Louis offered the public a more enlightened sovereign image in the context of contemporary philosophical and constitutional debates, the king failed to overcome rising public criticisms.
Efforts to control the king’s image struggled. Rumor and scandal that would have been quashed outside court by Louis XIV persisted under Louis XV. For example, Louis attempted to suppress the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers’s production and revoked its privilege in 1759. Nevertheless, the project continued, in part because of its well-connected supporters, such as Madame de Pompadour. A work publicly prohibited by the government continued production and did so through the assistance of influential courtiers. In sharp contrast to the previous king’s reign, art and literature were no longer intended solely for the promotion of the monarch. By the end of his reign, criticisms of Louis XV’s paramours persisted with the monarch depicted as manipulable by women. Despite Louis’s attempts to provide domestic and international leadership, the public’s confidence deteriorated irreparably. The Bouchardon monument, once praised for its elegant classicism, became a frequent target of graffiti and public scorn as the monarch lost control over the popular and political culture that Louis XIV once firmly held in his grasp.