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  • The Knowable Unknown:Female Figures, Louis XIV, French Court Art, and Dutch Realism

Within the rich visual culture that marked the reign of Louis XIV, the juxtaposition of French court art and Dutch realistic art bears witness to a history of exchanges that evaded political boundaries and national frontiers. In France the commission, collection, and display of art engaged monarchs and members of the elite. Paintings served not only as visual documentation and décor but also as diplomatic gifts and signs of privilege. From the perspective of the French court during this period, the circulation of Dutch works, while more limited than that of French and Italian art, is a striking phenomenon.1 Dutch realism represented an alternative intellectual force for the French monarchy, which famously remained dedicated to allegorical themes in tribute to Louis XIV. The French were indebted to Northern realist techniques for many royal portraits as well as for images that documented public ceremonies involving the king and the battles he waged against foreign enemies. Art historical influences and exchanges between Northern and French painters, however, do not erase the underlying tension that existed between competing systems of representation, the diverse systems for organizing information that shaped visual culture in France during this period.

I propose to take the measure of the impact of Northern realistic painting on French court culture by attending to the pivotal role of women in three paintings, two French and one Dutch. Madame de Montespan with Her Children, from the workshop of Pierre Mignard, alludes to but does not show the king. Louis XIV Receiving the Ambassador of the Shah of Persia, Mohammed Reza Beg, in the Hall of Mirrors, 19 February 1715 records a diplomatic event that occurred at the end of Louis's lifetime.2 Art serves the interests of the crown; paintings that document the period promote the image of the king's glory. Both paintings contribute to the "portrait of the king," as Louis Marin defined it, that the monarchy constructed to impose its will in France and to enhance its influence abroad.3 Images of Louis XIV were omnipresent in Paris and at Versailles, and portraits of other royals contributed to his aura and authority. The creation of the king's image as part of the monarchy's propaganda efforts relied on a system of representation that subordinated all identities [End Page 47] to his. By attending to the secondary role of women in the paintings, I argue that this process was neither simple nor complete.

These paintings highlight the role of female figures outside the royal family. The first does so in dramatic fashion via a beautiful portrait of the king's mistress with their children. The second image features members of court society as part of a ceremony intended to showcase the grandeur of the monarchy. Both images suggest the agency of women represented near but not at the center of power. Within official court history Louis XIV's portrait serves as the unifying locus. Female figures in this pair of images, however, evidence a more complex reality. Even as they contribute to the myth of the Sun King, they bring other influences into focus. The second painting, in particular, offers a more empirical approach, a descriptive art that does not 'rub out' anomalous elements of the scene. Portraits of women in these paintings recall and encourage an interpretation that is consistent with Dutch realist art from the same period. The Terrace, an example of Dutch illusionism, and the third painting considered here, invites the viewer to scrutinize details that, although they accurately depict physical appearances, fail nonetheless to focus the viewer's attention on a single interpretation of the scene. The various elements of the image do not coalesce into a transparent narrative. The viewer scrutinizes the image without knowing precisely all that occurs. Any ambiguity is disarming. Applied to the French court, such an 'unknowing' or epistemological wavering has the potential to destabilize the power conveyed through the king's image. The female figures in the paintings that I discuss do more than simply reinforce Louis XIV's authority. They offer hints of uncertainty and fluctuation within art whose grand design to celebrate the king tolerates no variance from standard protocol, no resistance, and no deviance from prescribed meanings.

Official court art during Louis XIV's reign promoted a heroic narrative. Allegorical works likened the king to the immortal gods and heroes. Realistic works celebrated the king through an emphasis on rank, privilege, and conquest. However accurately they recorded people and events, and however skillful their imitation of the real, artists did more than document history. Individually and collectively, they contributed to the idea of the king as an unassailable force, a godlike hero of mythic proportions. Dutch art in France did not upend the French court's efforts to exploit the arts for political gain, but it quietly endorsed another style of painting based on precise observation and imitation of the real. Dutch painters catalogued their world. Their images had the potential to subvert the propaganda of the French monarchy celebrating the king. They recorded daily life rather than the trappings of power evident [End Page 48] in the court of Louis XIV. More significantly, Dutch artists focused on the defining features of each object within a vast repertoire of items, with an emphasis on the differences between things rather than a single subject like the king. Even as they perfected images of everyday life, often idealizing domestic and natural settings, Dutch painters remained committed to precise description. Representational accuracy, however, did not preclude ambiguity or the sense that some elements of the image had no function other than to attest that they, too, were present in the scene, part of an experience whose meaning could not be fully determined. The female figures in the French paintings that I examine assume added value when understood in the broader context of the "knowable unknown" of Dutch realism.

Madame de Montespan with her children

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, Dame d'honneur de la Reine Marie-Thérèse, was long the king's favorite. Consistent with the style of the day, in this painting the marquise poses her offspring in a natural setting. A popular website describes "un portrait de famille sans figure paternelle."4 Although absent, the king, the missing father in question, is the obvious referent for the painting. Pictured here are four 'adulterous' children of Athénaïs, as she was known, and Louis XIV. Voluptuous, exceptionally fertile, and a perfect beauty by contemporary standards, she possessed a sensuality, albeit natural, that made its effects felt within the political sphere. Inevitably, her history with the king meant that their children were actors within a larger drama of royal privilege and succession.

Louis XIV bestowed his name upon each child, and the portrait recognizes their connection to the sovereign and his legitimation of them beginning 1673. The painting features Louis Auguste, Duc de Maine (1670–1736), Louis César, Comte de Vexin (1672–1683), Louise Françoise, Mademoiselle de Nantes, Duchesse de Bourbon (1673–1743), and Louise Marie Anne de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Tours (1674–1681).5 The child standing toward the back wearing red is the Duc de Maine. Based on age and size, the figure on the left partially concealed by the foliage is Louis-César. Louise-Françoise holds flowers in her dress on the lower right, and on the lower left appears Louise Marie Anne. Boys and girls in this period both wore dresses, so size matters. While an artist might associate flowers with girls, in this pastoral setting the distinction appears not to hold. Louise Marie Anne would have been about four years old when the painting was made. Her draped but nude 'baby-like' portrait supports the theme of a natural cycle of renewal and (re)birth, a [End Page 49]

Figure 1. Anonymous, workshop of Pierre Mignard, Madame de Montespan with Her Children, c. 1678, Château de Versailles, .
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Figure 1.

Anonymous, workshop of Pierre Mignard, Madame de Montespan with Her Children, c. 1678, Château de Versailles,

symbolism all the more meaningful for the history of the French crown as it would play out. This unhealthy child would die at the age of six, just years after the painting was completed. Generations of Louis's direct heirs would also predecease him, as I discuss below.

Both the Marquise de Montespan's allure and that of her dress impress the viewer. In 1731, Mignard's biographer noted that "ce n'étoit pas seulement peindre une très belle personne, c'étoit peindre la noblesse, l'esprit & la beauté même."6 The children direct their eyes at the viewer, but the Marquise looks off to the right. Her gaze invites us to connect her with the absent king/father of her children and underscores her influence with the sovereign. The king's image unifies this painting. Although his absence reinforces his mistress' secondary status and that of her children in comparison with the primary roles held by the queen and the crown prince, the aesthetic qualities of the painting, and the beauty of its central figure, empower her. [End Page 50]

Figure 2. Coypel, Antoine (1661–1722) (school of), Louis XIV Receives Mehemet Raza-Bey, Special Ambassador to Shah Tahmasp II of Persia, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, February 19, 1715. Oil on canvas, 70 × 153 cm. MV5461. Photo: Christophe Fouin. Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. .
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Figure 2.

Coypel, Antoine (1661–1722) (school of), Louis XIV Receives Mehemet Raza-Bey, Special Ambassador to Shah Tahmasp II of Persia, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, February 19, 1715. Oil on canvas, 70 × 153 cm. MV5461. Photo: Christophe Fouin. Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

The King, the Beg, and the women at court

On February 26, 1715, Louis XIV presided over one of the most magnificent ceremonies of his end of reign, the reception for the Persian ambassador Mohammed Reza Beg representing the Safavid Empire, whose commercial and military interests prompted the visit to France. The French court received Oriental ambassadors with lavish pomp, far more than they showed European ambassadors, for whom events tended to be less elaborate and, over time, more routine.7 Members of the French court gathered to view the exotic visitors, and such occasions provided the monarchy with opportunities for the king to promote his own status internationally as well as within France. In his memoirs, the Baron de Breteuil, who served as Louis XIV's officer in charge of organizing court receptions (a position known as the Introducteur des ambassadeurs) during this period, describes the many tensions and sources of conflict that marked the Beg's visit.8 Susan Mokhberi observes that conflicts arose between the two nations despite a largely favorable impression of Persia within France at this time: [End Page 51]

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Catholic literature portrayed Persia as a Muslim country that was tolerant toward Christians, and even imagined the conversion of the Safavid Empire and its Shah. The image of Persia as open to Christianity attracted European visitors to the Safavid Empire, such as Pietro della Valle, who wrote a positive appraisal of Shah Abbas in which he was depicted as a courtly figure. In the reign of Louis XIV, the crown's commercial plans and royal propaganda schemes encouraged travels to the Safavid Empire, prompting a surge of writings and information on the country that portrayed Persia as more civil than the Ottomans and more akin to the French. This tendency to view Persia as a mirror of France was further developed in adaptations of Persian texts that flowed into the royal library thanks to the efforts of French travelers and missionaries.

(Mokhberi 75–76)

The Beg's visit, in fact, was marked by struggles over protocol from the start. The Persian ambassador's stay in France began in Marseilles and included considerable time in Paris. The undisputed highlight of this visit was the reception with Louis XIV that took place at Versailles represented in this painting. The ambassador entered the Galerie des glaces through the Salon de guerre. Along the wall across from the windows, members of the court, wearing, at the king's request, their most elegant clothing, were seated on stands that had been installed for the occasion. The king, in a diamond-studded outfit, was seated on a throne at the other end of the gallery surrounded by members of the royal family, including the future Louis XV, in white, to his right. Their presence makes this official portrait as much about the Bourbon legacy as it is about the diplomatic exchange between France and Persia. The image captures the sovereign at a moment when history appears to honor his eventual passing even as it commemorates his reception of the ambassador. Of all the striking details in this painting, however, the inclusion of several female figures, princesses of the court and other royals, is particularly telling.

Saint-Simon provided details of the ceremony and those in attendance:

Les cours, les toits, l'avenue, fourmillaient de monde, à quoi le roi s'amusa fort par ses fenêtres, et y prit grand plaisir en attendant l'ambassadeur, qui arriva sur les onze heures dans les carrosses du roi, avec le maréchal de Matignon et le baron de Breteuil, introducteur des ambassadeurs. Ils montèrent à cheval dans l'avenue, et précédés de la suite de l'ambassadeur, ils vinrent mettre pied à terre dans la grande cour, à l'appartement du colonel des gardes, par le cabinet. Cette suite parut fort misérable en tout, et le prétendu ambassadeur fort embarrassé et fort mal vêtu, les présents au-dessous de rien. Alors le roi, accompagné de ce qui remplissait son cabinet, entra dans la galerie, se fit voir aux dames des gradins; les derniers étaient pour les princesses du sang. Il avait un habit d'étoffe or et noir, avec l'ordre par-dessus, ainsi que le très peu de chevaliers qui le portaient ordinairement dessous; son habit était garni des plus beaux diamants de la couronne, il y en avait pour douze millions cinq cent mille livres; il ployait sous le poids, et parut fort cassé, maigri et très méchant visage. Il se plaça sur le trône, les princes du sang et bâtards debout à ses côtés, qui ne se couvrirent point. On avait ménagé un petit degré et un espace derrière le trône pour Madame [End Page 52] et pour Mme la duchesse de Berry qui était dans sa première année de deuil, et pour leurs principales dames. Elles étaient là incognito et fort peu vues, mais voyant et entendant tout. Elles entrèrent et sortirent par l'appartement de la reine, qui n'avait pas été ouvert depuis la mort de Mme la Dauphine. La duchesse de Ventadour était debout à la droite du roi, tenant le roi d'aujourd'hui par la lisière. L'électeur de Bavière était sur le second gradin avec les dames qu'il avait amenées; et le comte de Lusace, c'est-à-dire le prince électeur de Saxe, sur celui de la princesse de Conti, fille de M. le Prince. Coypel, peintre, et Boze, secrétaire de l'Académie des inscriptions, étaient au bas du trône, l'un pour en faire le tableau, l'autre la relation. Pontchartrain n'avait rien oublié pour flatter le roi, lui faire accroire que cette ambassade ramenait l'apogée de son ancienne gloire, en un mot le jouer impudemment pour lui plaire.9

Saint-Simon refers to the "prétendu ambassadeur" and recounts the pathetic spectacle that the French created to flatter the king in his declining state. The presence of Madame de Ventadour, the governess of the future Louis XV, presents its own complex series of referents. The young heir's presence justifies hers. Like the organizers of the ceremony itself, the artist inserted into the historical record of the reception evidence of Louis XIV's command of the international stage, and also, within France, his presence as head of the Bourbon legacy. The latter was saved in extremis after two generations of heirs apparent had been eliminated, including Louis XIV's son and the future king's grandfather, who had died from smallpox four years earlier, as well as the child's parents from measles, three years before. Madame de Ventadour occupies a singular role in this history, having protected the future Louis XV from bleeding by the doctors, which action was believed by many to have saved him. Her presence to the right of the king reminds the viewer that, although portrayed as a vibrant figure that belies his advanced years and ill health, Louis XIV, as Saint-Simon's far less flattering account insinuates, had been looking death in the face for some time. The artist unambiguously portrays Madame de Ventadour's honor through her proximity to the royals, but she also invokes the fragility of the Bourbon legacy via her connection to the young heir.

In other cases the discrepant notes associated with female figures cannot be as readily integrated into an image of the king's grandeur. A woman stands with her back to the king just behind the man on the far left of the dais. Another man, scarcely visible, appears behind her. It is impossible to judge the distance between these two figures, but it is not impossible that she is embracing him. The very suggestion of such indecorous public behavior among the royal ranks would be consistent with her turning away from the king. This female figure does not view the ceremony from the intended perspective, respectfully, indeed reverentially, with all eyes on the king as he received the ambassador. Whatever her amorous relations, this woman [End Page 53] appears, literally, in a compromising position with her body turned away from the king. Her inclusion in the painting nevertheless adds further empirical emphasis. The detail of the female figure helps to make the ceremony appear an active scene. Moreover, she constitutes a pleasurable distraction for the attentive viewer of the painting. She fails to seek the king's light, and through her the artist represents a subtle challenge to the monarchy's imposed ceremonial etiquette. Her position thus has further implications for the monarchy's imposition of order and the portrait of the king within the painting. The woman's indifference to the king, registered through the unceremonious act of her turning her back to him as he presides over the official visit, is tantamount to a refusal to recognize the king's aura/authority. The scene that the artist records was dynamic, a tribute to the king, but the artist fixes the moment of the woman's lapse, and his decline, forever.

A third woman just before the first set of mirrors on the left seems to have fallen asleep or is swooning; she appears collapsed against the wall. This figure, too, animates a background intended to shore up the sense of celebration and validation of the king's royal presence. Her attention to the honors paid to the king, however, is clearly flagging. Whether the artist was having a bit of fun (perhaps in a preliminary version of the painting) or recording an actual bit of history (the royal ladies would have been identifiable to members of the court), the three women, especially the second and third figures, capture the engaged viewer's attention. The discordant notes associated with these women would trigger associations with the many discordant aspects of the ambassador's visit.

Saint-Simon recounts that the Beg's credentials as an ambassador were in doubt. While the king received him as a legitimate ambassador, the memorialist insists that the Beg may have been an ordinary merchant sent to France by a provincial governor. In a further mark of his illegitimacy, Saint-Simon notes disparagingly that Louis XIV was disappointed in the gifts that the Beg presented to him on behalf of the Shah:

Personne déjà n'en était plus la dupe que ce monarque. […] Les présents, aussi peu dignes du roi de Perse que du roi, consistèrent en tout en cent-quatre perles fort médiocres, deux cents turquoises fort vilaines et deux boîtes d'or pleines d'un baume qui est rare, sort d'un rocher renfermé dans un antre, et se congèle un peu par la suite du temps. On le dit merveilleux pour les blessures.

(Saint-Simon, vol. 12, ch. 1)

During the Safavid embassy's audience at Versailles, moreover, the ambassador breached French protocol by approaching the monarch and handing the letter from the Shah directly to Louis XIV. French etiquette forbade [End Page 54] the ambassador from directly presenting his credentials to the king. A notable exception had been made previously, however. The 1669 visit of the Ottoman envoy, the muteferrika Suleiman Aga, involved a clash over the presentation of his lettre de créance during his audience with Louis XIV. Citing his orders from the Sultan, the Ottoman ambassador appealed to the king, who ultimately granted his request.10 In the case of Breteuil's fraught relations with the Beg, the fact that the ambassador handed his letter directly to the king appeared to be a minor affront. Saint-Simon nevertheless found the Beg's behavior to be consistently opprobrious (Mokhberi 79). In an egregious slight, the ambassador failed to open the meeting with the customary speech in praise of Louis XIV. Such breaches of protocol required the intercession of the French official, who explained the ambassador's lapse in terms of cultural differences. In Persia the ruler always spoke first, and for this reason, Breteuil argued, the Beg remained silent while presenting Louis XIV with his credentials (Mokhberi 79; Breteuil 132). While far more consequential than the background disturbances in the painting, these slips in protocol are reinforced by the artist's depiction of the compromised positions of the two ladies.

The women whose attention toward the sovereign lags in the painting are details, minor elements that nevertheless evoke aspects of the ambassador's visit that challenged, and arguably tarnished, the royal image. Part of that history included the Beg's relations with ladies of the court. Whatever his diplomatic qualifications, the Beg enjoyed the attentions of the French elite, including many admiring and aspiring women. The stories are legion, and I will include just one, recounted by Maurice Herbette (1871–1929), a French diplomat and ambassador, whose research was based on Breteuil's account.11 With all the prejudices that Herbette's early twentieth-century French audience might be expected to hold against Christian women consorting with Muslim men, Herbette describes Madame de Roussy, who apparently set her daughter up to please the Beg in order to obtain financial gain. He recounts that Madame de Roussy's daughter, the Marquise d'Épinay, "était âgée de dix-sept ans et fort jolie. Élevée dans un assez grand monde, accoutumée aux plaisirs de Paris, chrétienne de religion, ses faiblesses pour Mehemet Riza Beg ne s'expliquent guère encore aujourd'hui" (Herbette 224). The French were scandalized by the idea that the daughter might well have been "livrée et vendue par sa propre mère" (Herbette 224). Moreover, once their connection with the Beg was established, the women adopted Oriental customs during their visits to him:

Dans la journée cette petite personne et Mme de Roussy, déposant leurs souliers au bord du tapis de Son Excellence, s'asseyaient sur des coussins au fond de la chambre de Mehemet Riza Beg, à l'exemple de ce qui se passait dans les sérails de Perse. N'éprouvant aucune [End Page 55] honte de leur position, elles se donnaient ainsi en spectacle à tous ceux, hommes ou femmes, qui venaient visiter le Persan. À huit heures du soir l'appartement se fermait, et la mère, comme la fille, restaient seules, pour ainsi dire captives, avec un demi-sauvage ignorant le français, comme elles le persan (Herbette 226–27).

Prejudices aside, the sense of unbecoming behavior could not be more apparent in this account of what likely explained a French lady and her daughter spending so much time in such intimacy with the Beg. Their association was all the more troubling because they shared no common language, and thus could make no claim to participate in the more enlightened conversation that characterized aristocratic sociability, notably in salons. The rumor spread that the Beg himself was lacking funds and could give the mother only what Louis XIV had given him:

L'ambassadeur ne pouvait lui donner que ce qu'il épargnait sur les 500 francs qu'il touchait du roi tous les jours. La vérité est qu'il faisait mourir de faim ses domestiques, pour fournir à cette mère qui, suivant les dires des gens qui étaient auprès de Mehemet Riza Beg, n'a pas tiré plus de 15.000 ou 16.000 francs de lui, somme modique pour tant de beauté et pour une aventure si affreuse (Herbette 227–28).

The Beg's questionable diplomatic status, his refusal to conform to French protocol, resistance that on earlier occasions had threatened to become violent, and his use of the king's money to corrupt the king's female subjects all suggest a situation competing with, and ultimately detracting from, the king's majesty. Within the painting designed to honor the diamond-studded Louis XIV before whom the Beg bows in deference, some female figures reveal a less cohesive history. The Orient pays homage to France, but not without distracting some of France's nobles. The women who are depicted unengaged with the ceremony recall other discordant aspects of the Beg's stay. His seductions brought French noblewomen inside his cushioned room in Paris. They entered an exotic space, proof in and of itself that the glitter of Versailles was unable to keep all members of the court fascinated with the king's image. Such details of history would be effaced by the larger spectacle, the flattering portrait of the king, if Madame de Ventadour did not also remind the viewer how precariously the Bourbon line would survive Louis XIV's demise.

The Terrace (1660), by an unknown artist, is exemplary of the seventeenth-century Dutch realist tradition.12 The image creates an elaborate illusion. Via the window that opens onto the patio, the viewer shares a space with the figures in the painting. The vista extends through the door on the far side of the patio. It includes a table whose base also reinforces the 'look through' theme, as does the balustrade on which a pair of statues and a cachepot guide [End Page 56]

Figure 3. Anonymous. The Terrace, c. 1660. Art Institute Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund, .
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Figure 3.

Anonymous. The Terrace, c. 1660. Art Institute Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund,

the viewer across the full space of the property to the land and sky beyond. The science of perspective supports an empirical view of the world, a faithful depiction of the real. Here the view has the potential to assume an air of voyeurism, as we observe a scene of seduction that wavers between decency and defilement. Two couples, one in the patio and the other in the upper window of the building on the right, hold the viewer's attention. Military objects in the windowsill hint at the more titillating aspect of the image. The woman standing in the patio, looking on obligingly as a dapper man, likely a soldier, holds out a glass of wine, may find herself yielding to temptation. Upstairs the woman and her suitor, hat in hand, lean outward. They are not in danger of falling, physically, but the moral quotient of their exposure is more difficult to assess. Dutch genre paintings frequently depict the interloper role of soldiers shown drinking with otherwise respectable women as well as with [End Page 57] prostitutes.13 The man of the house is rarely depicted in these intimate scenes. The artist creates a setting for proper behavior as part of prosperous life, while at the same time evoking the temptation of other, more condemnable delights. For all its representational precision in providing a view of an observable scene, in imitating a certain reality, the peaceful garden mediates between the idea of a paradise gained and that of a paradise lost.

One detail in this regard serves as a potent symbol. The military gear on the window ledge, complete with sword and fringed cloth, probably a sash, has a pouch or pocket shaped like a large shoe or slipper. Marking the transition from inside the house to the outside, this sexualized form recalls van Hoogstraten's Slippers (also known as the View of an Interior), which features a pair of discarded slippers, one male and one female, that famously suggest a tryst taking place within.14 In The Terrace the slipper-shape marks the passage from the house to the patio, from moral order to disorder. The female pouch of the sash envelops the male sword, as Freud might have it. Musical instruments, an invitation to love, form part of a still life within the painting. The invitation to make music/love in perfect harmony (and decency) is coterminous with an admonition to avoid the sin of earthy indulgences. The woman becomes the focal point, the literal point of exchange through which one set of values precariously gives way to another. As objects of seduction, women mark the potential slippage from decency to dishonor. This image presents nothing comparable to the static hierarchy of official French court art, where one identity, that of the king's glory, explains all others. The Dutch image creates a central ambiguity that entices and unsettles as it trains the viewer's gaze to study the details of the painting. The artist's elaborate recording of objects and emphasis on perspective fails in the end, by design, to provide a definitive narrative, a certain knowledge.

Consequences for the French viewer

As shaped by official French court art celebrating the image of Louis XIV, female figures represent several degrees of separation from the image of Louis XIV's glory that the crown promoted. While all Louis's subjects are beholden to the king, the women studied do not hew precisely to the portrait of the king that the monarchy constructs. They are subordinate figures, but not entirely so.

The French elite was familiar with the Northern realist tradition, the Dutch artists' devotion to ordinary subjects of their immediate surroundings. Formally, the two traditions diverged. French artists designed their works so that all elements are inferior to the king with whom they bear some essential connection or likeness. Both the Marquise de Montespan and the Duchesse de [End Page 58] Ventadour appear as agents of the crown to the degree that they favor the king's interests and support the portrait of the glorious Sun King and, through this portrait, the actual power that the king wielded over his subjects. Dutch artists instead emphasized difference, variety, the complexity of disparate elements. We see this emphasis both in the still life of the musical instruments and books in The Terrace as well as in the full image, which assembles many elements to create the illusion of reality, but one that eludes a definitive interpretation or moral judgment. Similarly, the commemorative image of the Beg's visit to Versailles, for all its historical accuracy, contains unsettling elements that disturb the illusion of the king's majesty.

In the two French paintings female figures evoke tensions between the king's first and second families, the extended Bourbon lineage and its curtailment, as between direct heirs and legitimated bastards. The viewer moves from a sense of monarchic order, a model of male succession based on likeness (successive generations of Louis), to a more disparate idea of competing factions, historical contingencies, and splendid but imperfect ceremonies. Each historic image functions as a system of representation, a series of ordered thoughts designed to celebrate the king. Any crack in that unified system—any sideward glances, ambiguities, uncertain identities, unusual or inconsistent accents—creates an opening for other thoughts, for differences that deny the singular authority of Louis's portrait. As The Terrace exemplifies, Dutch genre paintings frequently emphasized not one unifying theme that explains all of the objects described so much as the limits of what one sees and can know. The artist depicts a scene whose beginning and end remain uncertain. Did the men arrive with the intention of seducing the women? Will they succeed? Dutch artists provide a view of the real through their meticulous renderings of objects, but they often stage their images in ways that preclude a definitive or comprehensive narrative. When, as in the two cases studied here, French official portraits, via the female figures, challenge or interrupt the heroic narrative, the viewer's sense of the history of Louis's illustrious reign appears less than absolute. For official court art to work as propaganda, however, the message must be absolutely certain. The king's portrait makes no allowance for extraneous, inscrutable or equivocal details. The latter include the 'flowers' of a mistress whose claims to power can either threaten the royal succession or save it if the immediate blood line dies out, two sides of the same losing coin for Louis XIV in 1715 as he pins his final hopes on the child whom Madame de Ventadour protects.15

In the three paintings that I have discussed, women figures are focal points of uncertainty. This uncertainty correlates with French court culture more [End Page 59] broadly. The monarchy cultivated the arts to promote the king's image and thereby impose a certain knowledge, the idea of his absolute power. While that idea, as supported by the beauty of various artworks, was bold and inspiring, it was always an artifice, a construct vulnerable to other influences. As alternative or secondary foci to the king, the female figures draw our attention to the instability of the king's portrait.

Louis XIV wowed his subjects with royal images underscoring his glory, but his subjects were never blind to the court's manipulations. The king and his army of artists, playwrights, and memorialists could not silence the intellect that sought to understand and explain fully how State spectacle worked, however magnificently, to honor the king and record the history of his accomplishments. For those who took in not only the spectacle of the King's many portraits but also the quieter stimulation of Netherlandish paintings like The Terrace, the knowledge assembled by the court was far richer, and far less arbitrary than that promoted by royal propaganda. French court art concentrated the viewer's attention on objects, figures, and historical narratives connected to Louis IV's glory as a transcendent power, whereas the Dutch bore witness to the diversity of things in their world. Louis XIV asserted himself within the space of representation in order to conquer time and memory: in portraits intended to shape his image for posterity he appears more vigorous than he was. Yet, as the female figures in the pair of French paintings remind us, during Louis XIV's reign positions held outside the center of power could inform a greater knowledge. Trained to interpret the king's image in ways that consolidated his authority, the French elite was also trained, quietly and unceremoniously, by the Northern realist tradition to look for the unsettling details in the images that informed their view of the world. Female figures in the works studied unsettled the king's portrait even as they helped to construct it.

Harriet Stone
Washington University in St. Louis


1. See Harriet Stone, Crowning Glories: Netherlandish Realism and the French Imagination during the Reign of Louis XIV (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2019).

2. The attribution of this painting remains unclear: "Ce tableau acquis par le château de Versailles en 1898, sans aucune indication d'auteur, de commanditaire ou de provenance, est attribué à différents peintres de l'époque dont Antoine Coypel et Nicolas de Largillière. D'une grande virtuosité de facture, il est peut-être, du fait de ses petites dimensions, un tableau préparatoire à une œuvre de grand format ou à une tapisserie. Il en existe deux autres versions de dimensions comparables, l'une au musée municipal de Niort et l'autre au musée Narodowe de Cracovie (Pologne)." "Louis XIV reçoit les envoyés de la Perse dans la Galerie des Glaces,"

3. Louis Marin, Le portrait du roi (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1981) analyzes how not the king but rather representations of him in paintings, tapestries, medals, and texts establish his royal authority. Marin describes as an act of transubstantiation the process through which the arts transform the king in his specificity as a mortal being into an enduring sign of absolute power. See also the seminal work on the king's "second body" by Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (1957) (Princeton: Princeton U P, 2016).

4. Jean Hubac observes, "Pourtant, le Roi, absent, est donné à voir sous les traits de sa descendance légitimée. La toile doit donc bien être comprise comme un portrait familial de cour. Ce sont bien les enfants qui captent l'attention par leur regard, la favorite n'étant qu'un conducteur de la présence du Roi tout entière contenue dans la transmission de son sang" ("Un portrait de cour"),

5. Montespan's first child with Louis XIV, Louise-Françoise de Bourbon (1669–1672), died before the painting was made. The last two of the seven children she had with Louis XIV—Françoise-Marie de Bourbon, Duchesse d'Orléans (1677–1749), and Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, Comte de Toulouse (1678–1737)—were not yet born.

6. Simon Philippe Mazière, abbé de Monville, La vie de Pierre Mignard premier peintre du Roy (Amsterdam: Aux dépens de la Compagnie, 1731),

7. Susan Mokhberi, "Finding Common Ground Between Europe and Asia: Understanding and Conflict during the Persian Embassy to France in 1715," Journal of Early Modern History, 16:1 (2012): 58–9.

8. Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier, baron de Preuilly en Touraine, et de Breteuil (Baron de Breteuil), Mémoires, Évelyne Lever, ed. (Paris: F. Bourin, 1992). Breteuil (1648–1728) provided a lengthy record of the ambassadorial visits that he organized for both European and Oriental nations.

9. Louis de Rouvroy Saint-Simon, duc de, Mémoires complets et authentiques du duc de Saint-Simon (Paris: Hachette, 1856–58), vol. 12, ch 1, Saint-Simon refers to Louis Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain, Chancelier de France (1699–1714).

10. Nicolas de Sainctot, Mémoires de M. de Sainctot, introducteur des ambassadeurs (1634–1702), BnF ms. français 14119, vol. 2, 92; qtd. Mokhberi, 65.

11. Maurice Herbette, Une ambassade persane sous Louis XIV, d'après des documents inédits (Paris: Perrin, Librairie académique, 1907).

12. Although this painting did not form part of a French collection, members the French elite were familiar with Northern realism. See my Crowning Glories.

13. See Richard Helgerson, Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000).

14. Samuel van Hoogstraten, The Slippers [Les Pantoufles], 1658, Musée du Louvre, I argue not that van Hoogstraaten's painting was a model for The Terrace, but rather that the association of slippers with sexuality was established.

15. In July 1714 the king placed the Duc de Maine and the Comte de Toulouse in the line of succession.

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