IV. PAINTING

Two pictorial stars of the second magnitude fall into the outer orbit of this age: Philippe de Champaigne and Eustache Le Sueur. Philippe came from Brussels at the age of nineteen (1621), shared in decorating the Palais du Luxembourg, and made not only the full-length Richelieu in the Louvre, but the bust and profiles of the Cardinal in the London National Gallery. His sympathetic flair as a portrait painter brought him as sitters half the leaders of France in the generation that succeeded Richelieu: Mazarin, Turenne, Colbert, Lemercier . . . He had already, before coming to France, portrayed Jansen and accepted Jansenism; he loved Port-Royal, and made portraits of Mère Angélique, Robert Arnauld, and Saint-Cyran. For Port-Royal he painted his greatest picture, Les Religieuses(Louvre)—Mère Agnès, somber yet sweet, with the artist’s nun daughter Suzanne. Champaigne’s range was limited, but his art comes warmly to us with its feeling and sincerity.

A kindred but more orthodox piety made Eustache Le Sueur uncomfortable in an age whose painting was dominated by his rival Le Brun and by a pagan mythology dedicated to the deification of a not-yet-pious King. The two artists studied together under Vouet, worked together in the same cellar, used the same model, and were alike praised by Poussin on his visit to Paris. Le Brun followed Poussin to Rome and imbibed the classical spirit; Le Sueur tied himself to Paris with a fertile wife, and seldom escaped from poverty. About 1644 he painted five pictures, describing events in the life of Eros, for the ceiling of the Cabinet de l’Amour in the palace of his patron Lambert de Thorigny; and in another room of this Hôtel Lambert he executed a major fresco, Phaeton Asks to Guide the Chariot of the Sun. In 1645 Le Sueur stumbled into a duel, killed his man, hid himself in a Carthusian monastery, and there painted twenty-two pictures from the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order; in these the artist reached his apogee. In 1776 the series was bought from the Carthusian monks for 132,000 livres; today they occupy a special room in the Louvre. When Le Brun returned from Italy (1647) he carried everything before him, and Le Sueur fell back into poverty. He died in 1655, only thirty-eight years old.

Charles Le Brun ruled the arts in Paris and Versailles, because he had the ability to co-ordinate and direct as well as to conceive and execute. Son of a sculptor who had painter friends, he grew up in an environment where he learned to draw as other children learn to write. At fifteen, with a neversleeping eye to the main chance, he painted an allegory of Richelieu’s life and success; the minister leaped to the bait, and commissioned him to paint some mythological subjects for the Palais-Cardinal. Taken to Rome by Poussin, he steeped himself in the mythologies and decorations of Raphael, Giulio Romano, and Pietro da Cortona. When he reappeared in Paris his style of luscious ornamentation was fully developed. Here again Fouquet gave Louis a lead by engaging Le Brun for the palace at Vaux. The brilliance of the resulting frescoes, the voluptuous grace of the female figures, the rich detail in cornices and moldings appealed to Mazarin, Colbert, and the King. By 1660 Le Brun was painting frescoes from the career of Alexander for the royal palace at Fontainebleau. Louis, pleased to recognize his own features under Alexander’s helmet, came daily to watch the artist at work on The Battle of Arbela and The Family of Darius at the Feet of Alexander—both now in the Louvre. The King rewarded him with a royal portrait inset with diamonds, made him his premier peintre, and gave him a pension of twelve thousand livres a year.

Le Brun did not slacken his industry. In 1661 fire ruined the central gallery of the Louvre. Le Brun designed the restoration, and painted the ceiling and cornices with scenes from the legends of Apollo; hence the name Galerie d’Apollon. Meanwhile the ambitious artist studied architecture, sculpture, metalwork, woodwork, tapestry design, and the diverse arts that were now conscripted to adorn the palaces of the great. All these arts were fused in his varied skills, so that he seemed made by fortune to bring the artists of France into unified action to produce le style Louis Quatorze.

Even before appointing him director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Louis gave him a free hand and purse to decorate Versailles. There he labored for seventeen years (1664–81), co-ordinating the art work, designing the Ambassador’s Staircase, and himself painting, in the Halls of War and Peace, and in the Grand Gallery, twenty-seven frescoes describing the glories of the King from the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) to the Treaty of Nijmegen (1679). Amid a profusion of gods and goddesses, clouds and rivers, horses and chariots, he showed Louis in war and peace: hurling thunderbolts, crossing the Rhine, besieging Ghent, but also administering justice and finance, feeding the poor in famine, establishing hospitals, nourishing art. Individually these pictures are not masterpieces; the classical basis is overgrown with baroque profusion of ornament; but taken together they constitute the most brilliant work done by French painters in this age. The exaltation of the King offends us as revealing in him a hybris of pride, but such adulation of princes was in the manner of the time. No wonder Louis, seeing some paintings by Le Brun near others by Veronese and Poussin, said to his painter, “Your works sustain themselves well among those of the great masters; they require only the death of their author to make them more valued. But we hope they will not soon have that advantage.” 14 Through all the jealousies with which Le Brun was soon surrounded, the King supported him, as he was supporting the harassed Molière. It was characteristic of Louis that when he was in administrative conference and word was brought to him that Le Brun had come to show him his latest work, The Elevation of the Cross, 15 he excused himself from the conference to go and examine the painting and express his pleasure; then he invited all the conferees to come and join him in viewing the picture. 16 So, in this reign, government and art went hand in hand, and artists shared rewards and plaudits with generals.

Le Brun’s artistry, though it stemmed from Italian decoration, was something new; it was a decorative composition in which a dozen arts were brought together to make one aesthetic whole. When he tried his hand at individual canvases he slipped into mediocrity. As the King’s victories turned into defeats, and his mistresses gave way to priests, the mood of the reign changed, and the gay ornaments of Le Brun fell out of place. When Louvois succeeded Colbert as superintendent of buildings, Le Brun lost his role as master of the arts, though he remained president of the Academy. He died in 1690, a symbol of glory finished and gone.

Many artists rejoiced to be freed from his authority. Pierre Mignard in particular had resented that domination. Nine years older than Le Brun, he had preceded him as a pilgrim coming with palette to Rome; like Poussin, he so loved the Eternal City that he decided to live there the rest of his life, and he did remain there for twenty-two years (1635–57). His portraits so pleased their sitters that at last Pope Innocent X, who may have resented the face that Velazquez had given him, sat for Mignard, who interpreted him more amiably. In 1646, aged thirty-four, Mignard married an Italian beauty; but he had barely settled down to legitimate parentage when he received a summons from France to come and serve his King. He went reluctantly. In Paris he rebelled against accepting directions from Le Brun, refused to join the Academy, and fretted to see the younger man reaping ribbons and gold. Molière recommended him to Colbert, but the minister was probably right in preferring Le Brun; Mignard would not rise to the grandiose scale that the grand siècle required. However, Louis, then twenty, wanted a fetching portrait of himself with which to lure a bride from Spain. Mignard obliged, Louis and María Teresa were charmed, and Mignard became the most successful portrait painter of the age. One after another he pictured his contemporaries: Mazarin, Colbert, de Retz, Descartes, La Fontaine, Molière, Racine, Bossuet, Turenne, Ninon de Lenclos, Louise de La Vallière, Mmes. de Montespan, de Maintenon, de La Fayette, de Sévigné; and he did justice to Anne of Austria’s hands, which were considered the most beautiful in the world. She rewarded him with a commission to decorate the vault of the dome in the Church of Val-de-Grâce; this fresco was his masterpiece, which Molière celebrated in a poem. He painted the King many times, most famously in the equestrian portrait at Versailles, but we find him there at his best in the lovely portrait of the Duchess of Maine as a Child. After Colbert’s death Mignard at last triumphed over Le Brun; he succeeded his rival as court painter in 1690, and was made a member of the Academy by royal decree. Five years later, still painting and fighting, he died, aged eighty-five.

A dozen other painters labored for the all-absorbing King. Charles Dufresnoy, Sébastien Bourdon, Noël Coypel and his son Antoine, Jean François de Troy, Jean Jouvenet, Jean Baptiste Santerre, Alexandre François Desportes—they beg to be listed as also present at the feast. Two others stand out commandingly at the end of the reign. Nicolas de Largillière followed Mignard as the favorite painter of the aristocracy, not only in France but for a time (1674–78) in England. He won Le Brun’s heart with the splendid portrait of him that now hangs in the Louvre. His rosy colors and light touch illustrate the transition from the somber decline of Louis XIV to the gay Regency and Watteau.

Hyacinthe Rigaud was of tougher fiber; he too buttered his bread with portraits (see his fine Bossuet in the Louvre), but not with flattery. Though his dominating figure of Louis XIV, rising at the end of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, appears at a distance to be a compliment, we note, at closer range, the hard and swollen features of the King, standing at the top of power and on the edge of fate (1701). It was the best-paid, as it is the best-displayed, picture of the time. Louis gave Rigaud forty thousand francs for it ($100,000?)—perhaps as much as he had paid for the awesome robes that here adorned his decay.

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