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Mythological portrait of the family of Louis XIV
© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / All rights reserved
Publication date: July 2016
Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director
An ambitious mythological portrait
It is not known who ordered this large canvas from the painter Jean Nocret, but contemporary witnesses explain that it was intended for the Château de Saint-Cloud, owned by Philippe d´Orléans, brother of Louis XIV.
A pupil of Jean Le Clerc, Jean Nocret distinguished himself by his talents as a decorator for the royal family, both at the Tuileries and at Saint-Cloud. A talented portrait painter, he specializes in portraits of members of the royal family, in particular those of the family of Monsieur, of which he became the first painter.
The Collective portrait in mythological transvestites, also called The Assembly of the Gods, was painted in 1670. Jean Nocret was inspired by historical painting, which in the XVIIe century a certain artistic preeminence. Louis XIV was then 32 years old, his brother Philippe 30 years old; they both started a family, whose ancient draped members complete the imaginary stage set-up.
A new pantheon
The scene is frozen in a countryside bathed in sweetness, mixed between happy Arcadia and the mountains of ancient divinities (Parnassus or Olympus). She projects the characters in affected poses, with idealized bodies but similar faces.
In the exact center of the composition, Anne of Austria links all the threads woven between the different characters either by blood or by marriage alliances. Daughter of Philip III of Spain, wife of Louis XIII, mother of Louis XIV and Philippe of Orleans, she holds a globe in her hands, a symbol of the sovereignty she exercised as regent during the king's minority. Transvestite in Cybele, maternal goddess of fertility, she is a hinge between the past and the present.
It also links the two non-competing groups centered on its two sons, the one on the left around Philippe of Orleans, the one on the right around Louis XIV.
To mark the king's absolute preeminence, Apollo-Louis and Juno-Marie-Thérèse are located to the right of the composition. They are placed on a marble platform and under a scarlet canopy carried by two Atlanteans, and fortified by the solar metaphor (the rich golden mantle echoing the scepter surmounted by a radiant sun). This theme is central in the painting, Louis XIV generating sunlight that his cousin, the Grande Mademoiselle (represented in Diane, on the right), reflects like the moon and that his brother Philippe d'Orléans (the Morning Star, seated left) announces like dawn. Everything is well organized around the royal solar figure.
Near Marie-Thérèse, the little Dauphin Louis is painted in Hymen, wearing a laurel wreath like his father, while his sister Marie-Thérèse wields a garland of flowers and his brother Philippe-Charles, represented as Cupid, s' presses their mother's knee. The family bond is thus reinforced by the theme of love.
In the background, between Louis XIV and Anne of Austria, are painted in grace the three daughters of Gaston d'Orléans, the king's uncle.
In the left part, Henrietta of England, wife of Monsieur, stands a beautiful Flora, goddess of spring, while her daughter Marie-Louise wears the butterfly wings of Iris. Finally, on the far left, Louis XIII's sister and Queen of England, Henrietta, firmly holds Amphitrite's trident. His portrait is based on a lost canvas by Peter Lely.
The children in the foreground (two children of Louis XIV in a small painting and two children of Philippe d'Orléans in love playing with a lyre) died in infancy for three of them, the fourth being Anne-Marie d 'Orleans.
The new Bourbon pantheon - whose cultural references cannot be equated with any form of paganism - finds its principle of organization in the juxtaposition of meaning and body around the king (rather than in the ties of kinship between the ancient gods ), each character participating in the monarchical glory while contributing to exalt it.
The height of the Apollonian myth
The reinvestment of the solar metaphor, commonplace of the monarchical imagination, reached its peak during the 1670s, with the revival of the Apollonian myth in the decorations of the Palace of Versailles, in particular those of the Grand Apartment. Solar glory is the object of an enhancement which imposes Louis XIV as the incarnation of the Sun King, to better express order and sovereignty, and to affirm the dependence-reverence of the men who are subject to him. However, at the same time, the king chose to gradually abandon the ancient reference and the system of scholarly correspondence in favor of a self-referencing which shows that it is sufficient in itself and that it is fully representative of sovereignty - this is what Charles Le Brun will undertake on the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors. The richness of meaning of the portraits of the king contributes to the building of a royal image that is multifaceted, but all of them produces the unalterable glory of the monarch.
Behind family harmony, resonating with the harmony of nature, the reality of the royal family is quite different. A chronological telescoping effect makes it possible to represent the members of Louis XIV's family together, in a sort of immutable present obscuring the effects of time and death like those of past dissensions (for example, during the Fronde), in a campaign soothing. However, at the date of the painting, some of the characters had already died, such as Henriette of France and Anne of Austria. Only the two children painted in a small painting in the foreground conventionally and explicitly refer to the pains of death, a daily reality of the demography of the Ancien Régime, including in the most privileged families. The hierarchies internal to the royal family are, moreover, signified by the positions (seated or standing depending on the rank) and the place occupied in the stage space. Art therefore serves a political and dynastic project, inscribed in a suspended temporality.
Representative of the taste of the nobility for Greco-Roman culture, Jean Nocret's canvas nevertheless retains great interest, due to its ambition and the great rarity of collective portraits of the royal family - interest both in terms of what this painting wants say (a contagious harmony and a certain idea of sovereignty) than by what it is (the inevitable effects of time).
- Louis XIV
- Anne of Austria
- Maria Theresa of Austria
- Grande Mademoiselle
- Great Century
- Orleans (d ') Philippe (brother of Louis XIV)
- Orleans (Gaston d ')
MARIN Louis, The portrait of the king, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, coll. "Common sense", 1981.
MILOVANOVIC Nicolas, MARAL Alexandre (dir.), Louis XIV: the man and the king, cat. exp. (Versailles, 2009-2010), Paris, Skira-Flammarion / Versailles, Palace of Versailles, 2009.
To cite this article
Jean HUBAC, " Mythological portrait of the family of Louis XIV »