Baroque Art and Absolutism in France and Spain

The consolidation of large and powerful nation states in Europe in the 17th century led to the rise of Absolute Monarchy, where powerful monarchs claimed absolute power that came directly from god.   As secular power replaced the central position once held by the church, European monarchs relied on artists to promote their authority.  Creating the “aura” of Absolute Monarchy was largely a matter of costuming and staging, and the exuberant style of the Baroque was well-suited to the representation of monarch’s who claimed the divine right to rule.

Peter Paul Rubens, Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseilles, 1622-25

This picture is from a series of 24 paintings Rubens completed for Marie de Medici, Queen of France.  In this scene, the future queen arrives on a ship bearing the Medici coat of arms.  Angels trumpet her arrival, while she is greeted by an allegorical figure of France (note the French fleur-de-lis on her cloak).  There is billowing drapery everywhere to create drama and excitement, as if her arrival was truly a miracle sent by God!   Below, river gods and nymphs writhe with excitement.  Rubens has used all of his skill to make a mere mortal woman seem to be a living goddess!

Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici (Khan Academy)

Rubens’s Arrival (or Disembarkation) of Marie de Medici at Marseilles(Khan Academy)

Baroque Art:  Spain (1600s/17th century)

Diego Velasquez, Philip IV, 1623-1627
Metropolitan Museum

Diego Velasquez was court painter to the Spanish King Philip IV.  Velasquez’s job was to endow the Royal Family with the solemn grandeur and dignity appropriate to an Absolute Monarch — but this was no easy task, given the material he had to work with!  This portrait of Philip IV shows the famous “Habsburg lip” — a physical deformity resulting from years of inbreeding.  But the artist’s job was to make the monarch appear grand and dignified – the living embodiment of Absolutism.

Just for Fun!
Watch this video from Improv Everywhere about a Philip IV look-alike who showed up in the Metropolitan Museum to sign autographs!!!!!!

King Philip IV (Improv Everywhere)

Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

Velázquez’s Las Meninas is his most famous painting.  It is unique as a royal portrait because it lacks the pomp and fanfare typical of the era; it is more like a snapshot of everyday life at court.  To the left, the artist is at work on a large canvas that is approximately the size of the picture we are looking at.  In the foreground is La Infanta, who is attended by her maids (the meninas of the title).  The family dwarf, dog, and other members of the royal household accompany them.  All eyes seem to be on us as we enter the room – but “we” would never be permitted such intimate company with royalty (imagine paying a visit to Michele Obama and her daughters!).  But the picture was not painted for the general public; instead, it was painted for the King and Queen, who we see reflected in the mirror on the back wall.  This perhaps explains why everyone is being so attentive!

The following video from the National Gallery is long; but I recommend watching the first 2 minutes:

Diego Velasquez (National Gallery)

Status of the Artist
In many ways, this painting is about the rising status of the artist.  Velázquez shows himself as part of the inner circle of the royal family, wearing a coveted status symbol on his chest – the insignia of the Order of Santiago, which signifies his knighthood.  The king bestowed this honor upon him shortly after the painting was completed, so the insignia was added later.  According to legend, it was the king himself who painted it.

Velázquez’s Technique
Velázquez’s painting technique is unique; he did not delineate every little detail the way Caravaggio or Flemish painters did.  Instead, he painted with a loose “blob and dab” technique that evokes fugitive effects of light, and contributes to the spontaneous quality of the picture.  As we will see, this technique will influence the Impressionists in the 19th century.

Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Smarthistory

Baroque Art:  France (1600s/17th century)

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701

The most powerful monarch in 17th century Europe was Louis XIV of France, who adopted the title of “Sun King” to symbolize his status as the center of the universe.  In this portrait of the aging king, Rigaud enhances the king’s stature by surrounding him with billowing drapery and “ennobling” architecture, while his pose suggests a haughty superiority, as he gazes down at the viewer:

“Above all, Rigaud’s image of the Sun King was intended as an expression of absolute power achieved through the glorification of the monarchy. The portrait is one of pomp and pageantry in which the French king is surrounded by the ceremonial objects of rule. At the same time, the casual treatment of these objects lends the image an air of informality that not only suggests the king’s gentlemanly demeanor, but also implies the innateness of his authority.”
Louis XIV, Art Through Time:  A Global View (Annenberg Learner)

Click here for a more detailed analysis of the picture:

One of Louis XIV’s greatest projects was the conversion of an old hunting lodge at Versailles into a sumptuous palace worthy of his status.  The main function of the palace was to keep the aristocracy under his control (about 3,000 people resided here), and to keep them entertained.  Louis XIV was the center of the design, much like the sun is the center of the universe:  the three roads leading to the palace intersect at Louis XIV’s bedroom, and the bedroom was aligned with the morning sun — so when the sun rose in the morning so too did the sun king make his morning levee!

The French Glory: The Palace and Park of Versailles (Unesco/NHK)

Galerie des Glace (Hall of Mirrors), palace of Versailles, c. 1680

The most spectacular room in the palace was the Galerie des Glaces — a long hallway with windows along one wall, and expensive Venetian mirrors along the other.  It was fitted out with crystal chandeliers and furniture of silver and gold.  Sumptuous and grand, the Galerie de Glaces provided an appropriate setting for the staging of Absolute Power.

See it in 3D:

Equally spectacular were the gardens, designed by Andre Le Notre.  Anybody with a backyard knows that nature tends to run wild with plants, trees, and weeds spreading everywhere, but this was unacceptable to a control freak like Louis XIV.  Le Notre’s gardens transformed nature into impeccably manicured designs, symbolizing the king’s mastery of the disorderliness of nature.

Versailles, from Louis XIII to the French Revolution

Versailles, from gardens to Trianon palaces

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