NEVER before or after, excepting perhaps under Pericles, has a government so stimulated, nourished, or dominated art as under Louis XIV. Artes virumque cano.
Richelieu’s fine taste and judicious purchases had helped the recovery of French art from the Religious Wars. During the regency of Anne of Austria private collectors—nobles and financiers—had begun to vie with one another in gathering works of art. Pierre Crozat, a banker, had a hundred paintings by Titian, a hundred by Veronese, two hundred by Rubens, over a hundred by Vandyck. Fouquet, as we have seen, amassed paintings, statues, and lesser objects of art at Vaux, with more discrimination than discretion. Louis, destroying him, inherited his acquisitions; and in time several other private collections were gathered into the Louvre or Versailles. Mazarin had put part of his hoard into art more likely than money to escape depreciation. His fine Italian taste shared in forming the classical bias of the King, and it was probably he who taught Louis XIV that it redounded to the glory of a ruler to accumulate, display, and foster art. These collections provided the stimulating exemplars and stabilizing norms for art education and development in France.
The next step was to organize the artists. Here too Mazarin led the way. In 1648 he founded the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture; in 1655 this received a charter from the King, and became the first in a series of academies designed to train artists and direct them into the service and adornment of the state. Colbert took up where Mazarin left off, and brought to a head this centralization of French art. Though himself laying no claim to artistic judgment, he aspired “to make the arts flourish better in France than anywhere else.” 1 He began by buying for the King the tapestry works of the Gobelins (1662). In 1664 he acquired the post of superintendent of buildings, which gave him control of architecture and its ancillary arts. In that year he reorganized the Academy of Painting and Sculpture as the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Henry IV had housed in the Louvre a guild of artisans to adorn the royal palaces; Colbert made these men the nucleus of the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne—the Royal Manufactory of Furniture for the Crown (1667). In 1671 he established the Académie Royale de l’Architecture, where artists were induced to build and decorate in le bon goût approved by the King. In all these societies the artisans were brought under the direction of artists, and these under the guidance of one policy and style.
To reinforce the classical bent that French art had received under Francis I, and cleanse it from Flemish influences, Colbert and Charles Le Brun set up in Rome the Académie Royale de France (1666). Students who had won the Prix de Rome in the Paris academies were sent to Italy, and were maintained there for five years at the expense of the French government. They were required to rise at five o’clock in the morning and to retire at ten o’clock at night; they were trained in copying and imitating classical and Renaissance models; they were expected to produce a “masterpiece” (in the guild sense) every three months; and when they returned to France the state had first option on their services.
The result of this fostering and nationalization of art was an impressive, overwhelming production of palaces, churches, statues, pictures, tapestries, pottery, medallions, engravings, and coins, all stamped with the pride and taste—often with the features—of Le Roi Soleil. It was not a subjection of French art to Rome, as some complained; it was a subjection of Roman art to Louis XIV. The style aimed to be classical, for that style agreed with the majesty of states and kings. Colbert poured French money into Italy to buy classical or Renaissance art. Everything was done to transport the glory of the Roman emperors to the King and capital of France. The result amazed the world.
Louis XIV became the greatest patron of art that history has known. He “gave greater encouragement to the arts” (in the judgment of Voltaire) “than all his fellow kings together.” 2 He was, of course, the most openhanded collector. He enlarged the number of paintings in his galleries from two hundred to twenty-five hundred; and many of these pictures were the product of royal commissions to French artists. He bought so many pieces of classical or Renaissance sculpture that Italy feared artistic denudation, and the Pope forbade the further export of art. Louis engaged men of talent like Girardon or Coysevox to make copies of statues that he could not buy; and seldom have copies so rivaled their originals. The palaces, gardens, and parks of Paris, Versailles, and Marly were peopled with statuary. The surest way to the King’s favor was to present him with a work of unquestioned beauty or established repute; so the city of Aries gave him its famous Venus in 1683. Louis was not stingy; each year, in Voltaire’s estimate, he bought French art products to the value of 800,000 livres, and made gifts of them to cities, institutions, and friends, 3 aiming at once to support the artists and to disseminate a sense of beauty and a feeling for art. The taste of the King was good, and immensely benefited French art, but it was narrowly classical. When he was shown some paintings by the younger Teniers he commanded, “Enlevez-moi ces grotesques! Take away these crudities!” 4 Under his favor artists rose considerably in earnings and social status. He gave the cue by personally honoring them; and when someone complained of the patents of nobility that he conferred on the painter Le Brun and the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansard, he replied, with some warmth, “I can make twenty dukes or peers in a quarter of an hour, but it takes centuries to make a Mansard.” 5 Mansard was paid eighty thousand livres per year; Le Brun reveled in the opulence of his mansions at Paris, Versailles, and Montmorency; Largillière and Rigaud received six hundred livres per portrait. “No artist of worth was left in poverty.” 6
In honoring and rewarding art the provinces emulated the capital, and nobles followed the lead of the King. The cities developed art schools of their own—at Rouen, Beauvais, Blois, Orléans, Tours, Lyons, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Bordeaux. The role of the nobles as patrons diminished as the state absorbed the available talent, but it continued; and the trained taste of the most developed aristocracy in Europe contributed to establish the exquisite style of art productions under Louis XIV. Men and women born to privilege and wealth, and reared in good manners amid handsome surroundings and objects of beauty, acquired standards and tastes from their elders and their environment; and the artists had to meet those standards and satisfy those tastes. As moderation, self-restraint, elegant expression, graceful movement, and polished form were ideals of the French aristocracy in this age, it demanded these qualities in art; the social structure favored the classic style. Art profited from these influences and controls, but it paid a price. It lost touch with the people, it could not express them as Dutch and Flemish art expressed the Netherlands; it became the voice not of the nation but of a class, the state, and the King. We shall not find in the art of this period much warmth or depth of feeling, not the rich tints and abundant flesh of Rubens, nor the profound shadows enveloping Rembrandt’s rabbis, saints, and financiers; we shall see no peasants, no workers, no beggars, but only the pretty happiness of the top of the world.
To the joy of Colbert and his master, they found in Charles Le Brun a man who could be at once a zealous servant of the government and a dominating magistrate of this classic style. In 1666, on Colbert’s recommendation, Le Brun was made chief painter to the King, and director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts; a year later he was put in charge of the Gobelin factory. He was commissioned to superintend the education and operation of artists, with a view to developing in their products a harmony of style distinctive and representative of the reign. With the help of likeminded subordinates Le Brun established in the Academy (1667) the conférences, or lectures, by which the principles of the classic style were inculcated with precepts, examples, and authority. Raphael among the Italians, Poussin among the French, were the favored models; every painting was judged by the canons derived from their art. Le Brun and Sébastien Bourdon formulated these rules; they exalted line above color, discipline above originality, order above freedom; the task of the artist was not to copy Nature but to make her beautiful, not to mirror her disorder, imperfections, and monstrosities as well as her incidental loveliness, but to select those features of her that would enable the soul of man to express its deepest feelings and highest ideals. The architects, the painters, the sculptors, the potters, the woodworkers, the metalworkers, the glassworkers, the engravers were to utter with one harmonious voice the aspirations of France and the grandeur of the King.