Published in Art Quarterly, Spring 2017
Picture an artist working across a wide range of media, notorious for outsourcing much of his production, and criticised for the high prices and pretension of his work, and you’re probably not imagining a seventeenth century French painter. Yet much about Charles Le Brun’s life and work has a familiar ring. As Premier peintre to King Louis XIV, Le Brun was responsible for articulating the king’s public image, which, in those times as in ours, was inextricable from the personage of the king himself. So intertwined, in fact, were the fates of Louis and Le Brun that later historians, aghast at the opulence of Versailles – whose most opulent bits were designed by Le Brun – tended to consign him to the dustbin of history. Anthony Blunt even dubbed him the ‘dictator of arts in France’. It’s about time, then, for a reassessment of Le Brun’s prolific and dizzyingly varied output, and Wolf Burchard’s book The Sovereign Artist is just that.
What didn’t Le Brun do? Painter, theorist, designer of furniture, carpets, tapestries, palaces, fountains, and staircases: few artists, save his Italian counterpart and sometime rival Gianlorenzo Bernini, have had such wide-ranging success across the visual arts. In fact, so busy was Le Brun that his so-called ‘Self-Portrait’ now hanging in the Uffizi was handed over to a younger artist to paint. As with Bernini and Pope Urban VIII in Rome, Le Brun and the Sun King were born for each other. Louis’ vision of himself as the heavenly body around which his entire nation orbited found its ideal expression in Le Brun’s opulent baroque classicism. Attuned to the theatricality of power, Le Brun designed interiors as stage sets for the performance of kingly duties, every painted, sculpted, embroidered or inlaid surface a note in a harmonic symphony of absolute power. Everything meant something, even the doorknobs.
As director of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Le Brun was committed to the elevation of these practices as liberal arts on an intellectual par with poetry and philosophy. Like Joshua Reynolds at the Royal Academy a century later, Le Brun’s teachings both set the standard of fine art education in his country and provided later generations with something to kick against. Yet as Burchard is at pains to point out, Le Brun seemed as at home in the craftsman’s workshop as in the life drawing studio or lecture hall. His apparently hands-on involvement at the Gobelins and Savonneries workshops, where furniture, tapestries and carpets were manufactured to his designs, suggests an artist willing to harness any available medium in the service of his patron. Addressing distinct artistic projects in each chapter, Burchard’s book frames Le Brun as a relentlessly versatile force of nature. Like the king to whom he dedicated his life, Le Brun was, in the words of a contemporary writer, ‘rather like the sun in its system… [giving] warmth to the arts of painting and sculpture.’