- 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...