Charles Le Brun was the dominate force in the decorattive arts during the Long reign of King Louis XIV. Le Brun is certainly an important artist, however, he is not a great artist. He dictated art stnandards and conventions to the rein of Louis XIV. Le Brun studied art in Italy. After returning to Paris he establish a reputation as a leading artist and he was raised to the nobility in 1662 and given the title of "Premier Peintre du roi". He was appointed director of the Gobelins factory in 1663. More importantly for French art, he was also appointed the director of the reorganized Académie. Le Brun proceeded in making the Académie an instrument for imposing his views and judgements onto French artists. He codified a system of art and discouraged innovation and experiment. Le Brun is one opf the reasons that French art in the 17th century compares adversely to that of neighboring countries. One portrait is of special interest to HBC as it shows King Louis XIV and the pages of the royal court.
We know nothing about Le Brun's earlyblife at this time.
Le Brun trained as a painter with Vouet. He went to Rome in 1642 to view the work of the great master (1642). While in Rome he worked under Poussin. He accepted Poussin's views on art as a kind od definitive statement.
Le Brun returned to Paris (1646). He soon establish a reputation as a leading artist. Nicolas Fouquet, the minister of finance was the most important and controversial of Louis' advisers. It was Foquet who in the 1650s commissioned Le Brun to decorate his chapel at the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Foquet was impressed and so was the the King when he saw it. It was as a result of this work that the King summoned Le Brun to Fontainebleau (1660).
The successor to Louis XIII was his aclaimed son, Louis XIV (1643-1715). The famed Sun King whose ruled marked the apogee of royal absolutism in France and in fact Europe. Louis dominated European afffairs during the late 17th and early 18th century. Louis was born in St. Germain-en-Laye in 1638. He was at the time called le Dieudonné, the gift of God, because his parent's mairrage had for so many years been barren. Many Frenchmen had dispaired of a heir. Few French kings had such illustrious ancestors, the much loved Henry IV on his father's side and Phillip II, the somber, pious master of the Spanish Armada. The consciousness of his ancestors and the fact that he became king at such an early age that he could hardly recall a time when he had not been king. Early in his reign, a young Louis XIV was threatened by Le Fronde a revolt of the nobility against absolutist central control by the monarchy. Louis went on to become the epitome of an absolutist ruler in Western Europe. Louis held the most glitering court in Europe. He lavished money on the arts seeing artistic expression as one area of France's meaning his dominanance in European affirs. Louis was not an educated man, but his court and did dominate European arts. The groundwork for the balet as an important medium of artistictic expression was laid in Louis' court. French literature dominated European letters as never before or since. Louis made Racine his playwright, Corneille his biographer, and La Fontaine his First Poet, Historians wonder why he would choose Le Brun, a competent but relatively uninspired artist to become not only "The First Painter of the King", but a virtual national art dictator. One art historian surmises that Louis although having little artistic appreciation knew what he liked. (As did Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin in a later age.) What Louis liked were grandiose, espspecially those in whivh he was a key figure such as some great battle. This Le Brun could and did provide and he was willing to subject his work to the King's will, perhaps more easily than other important French artists of the day such as Vouet and Poussin. Together Louis and Le Brun created le style Louis Quatorze. (Notice that the word "style" itself is a French word.) An art historian describes it as "the first unified decorative style" which became established in France and was emensely influential throughout Europe. [Johnson, pp. 398-399.] Here art historians debate who was the greater influence, Louis or Le Brun.
King Louis XIV raised Le Brun to the nobility and given the prestigious title of "Premier Peintre du roi" with a substantiakl salary (1662). He was also appointed director of the Gobelins factory in 1663. This tapestry factory had been a relatively small family enterprise. Le Brun expanded it to a substantial work house churning out not only tapestries but furniture and other decorative pieces for the royal palaces. It was a useful tool of patronage in the French art world. The factory required large numbers of cartoons (drawiongs) on which the tapestries were designed. Tapastries were at the time still an important artistic medium. He was the General Custodian of Paintings and Drawings, giving him the ability to control what went into the royal collection. Through these appointments, Le Brun's tastes came to permeate design and decoration in virtually every aspect of the decorative arts in France. Le Brun for almost 30 years personally designed or oversaw the production of paintings, sculptures, and decorative works (including furniture) commissioned by the royal court. Not only the importance of Louis' court, but the level of spending lavished on the arts gave both Louis and Le Brun enormous influence. He worked as both a painter and designer at the various royal palaces, including Fontainebleau and the Louvre. His influence is especially notable at newly rebuilt Versailles. This vastvpalace had to be filled with art and decorative pieces of all kinds. Le Brun not only painted some enormous works, but supervised the other art work and decorfative pieces done for the palace. Le Brun was the anthisthesis of the starving artist. Le Brun in the process dictating French art amassed a huge fortune. He was perhaps the richest artist since Rubens. [Johnson, p. 398.]
Most importantly for French art, he was also appointed the director of the reorganized Académie. Le Brun proceeded in making the Académie an instrument for imposing his views and judgements onto French artists--largely theories based on Poussin which had so influenced him. He codified a system of art and discouraged innovation and experiment. He lectured at the academy and these art discourses came to be accepted as official standards. He promoted discussions over the relative merits of Rubensisme and Poussinisme and of course Poussin emerged the victor. Le Brun's lectures came to be accepted as providing the official standards of artistic expression. This was important because the crown was such an important element of patronage and so indluential. Thus if an artist wanted to obtain lucrative commissions, he needed to conform to Le Brun's standards. Le Brun for his part was quite willing to conform to the King's tastes. He also strongly believed that artistic expression could be reduced to a series of rules and teachable elements. The King apparently approved of this idea. Le Brun prepared a maanual "Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions" published in 1698, several years after his death. It was an attempt to reduce the depiction of emotion to a series of rules.
Le Brun worked in the Baroque style. He was a competent if not especially gifted painter. He was not a great painter and despite his enormous influence, few art historians would place his works among notable European masterworks. His paintings are certainly well drawn and there are some excellent portraits, there is, however, a lack of feeling and emotion in his works. Many seem to lack insppiration. He is know for his flamboyance and decorative style. Some of his notable works for King Louis XIV were the "Galerie d'Apollon at the Louvre" (1663), and the "Galerie des Glaces" (1679-84) and the "Great Staircase" (1671-78) at Versailles. One of the best paintings is the work here depicting the King and the royal pages. Le Brun in a self portrait included himself as one of the pages of the royal court (figure 1). Here we see the strengths of Le Brun on display, his abilities as a portraitist and as a meticulous draughtsman.
Le Brun is one of the reasons that French art in the 17th century compares adversely to that of neighboring countries. Le Brur certainly influenced French art, directing it toward the Grand Manner so favored by KIng Louis XIV. Le Brue also layed built the foundation for what art historians call academicism or the control of artistic expression by an established academy. Most important French artists of the next generation trained in his studio under the influence of Académie. This was in part because Le Brun appreciated talent and in part because there was little future for French artists who did not submit to the authority of Le Brun and the Académie.
Johnson, Paul. Art: A new History (Harper Collins: New York, 2003), 777p.
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