Louis XIV exhibition looks at the arts behind the grandeur

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The Independent Online

Historians know him as the Sun King who ruled France for 72 years and made Versailles a European centre of power, but Louis XIV owes his royal grandeur to artists perhaps more than armies.

The first large-scale exhibition devoted to Louis XIV at the palace of Versailles opens Tuesday, exploring the paintings, sculptures, furniture and jewellery that helped France's most famous king shape his all-powerful image.

Two years in the making, "Louis XIV, the Man and the King" brings together 300 pieces, some of which have not been shown in France since the 1789 Revolution.

A 17th-century painting of the construction of Versailles is on loan from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and a large black cabinet -- the only survivor of the king's collection and now owned by the Duke of Northumberland -- is back in France after more than two centuries.

"Politically, Louis XIV belongs to a system that is outdated," said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the director of Versailles who came up with the idea of presenting a "cultural portrait" of the king in 2007.

"But it is through the arts and culture that he still belongs to all of us."

Born in 1638, Louis ascended to the throne at the age of four and reigned until his death in 1715, at the rare old age of 76. He fought three major wars and married twice while France stood as the leading European power.

During his twenties, Louis decided to turn his father's hunting lodge at Versailles into the hub of the universe, moving his court, government and military command there from Paris.

All this he did with an eye for style and image.

The king surrounded himself with creative minds: Moliere in theatre, Corneille and Racine in literature, Le Brun and Mignard in painting, Lully in music, Hardouin-Mansart and Le Vau in architecture and Le Notre in the art of gardens.

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"Louis always loved something new. He was always tearing down what he had just built, remodeling it according to the latest fashion," said Alliagon.

"He wore his black velvet clothes, dripping with diamonds and made to impress.

"He never was one to shy away from putting on a show as the greatest king in the world."

The exhibition opens with one of the king's favorite works: a marble bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini showing Louis at age 27, wearing his trademark wig of cascading curls, his eyes gazing into the distance as France's man of destiny.

Myth-making is a major theme of the exhibition as witnessed in the massive seven-piece sculpture of "Apollo Tended by the Nymphs" by Francois Girardon, the greatest sculpture of Louis' reign.

On loan from the Louvre museum, the most famous portrait of Louis shows him draped in his symbols of power: his blue coronation mantle with gold fleur-de-lys, Charlemagne's sword and his sceptre.

Perhaps the most surprising portrait of Louis is a profile made from a wax mask of his face, dating from around 1705. Toothless and frail at about age 65, the king shown here is engaged in a battle against old age.

Throughout his reign, Louis was a passionate lover of music and until the age of 32, an outstanding dancer, taking on the role of Apollo in two ballet productions in 1653 and 1662.

A ballet costume on display is the only survivor of the period when French choreography flourished as an art.

Moliere's comedies were a bit hit.

The French playwright excelled at mocking the king's doctors and Louis was known to chuckle heartily during the performances.

As a collector and patron of the arts, Louis would make visits to an artist's studio or to a construction site part of his daily routine.

He once famously interrupted a meeting of his counselors to catch a glimpse of a painting by Le Brun that he declared a masterpiece on the spot.

Curators Alexandre Maral and Nicolas Milovanovic said it was the fist time that Versailles was attempting to catch the essence of Louis XIV in a major show. Past exhibitions have stuck to one facet of the Sun King.

"Louis XIV, the Man and the King" runs until Februry 7.

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