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The Sovereign Artist: Charles Le Brun and the Image of Louis XIV

The Sovereign Artist: Charles Le Brun and the Image of Louis XIV


The first monograph to examine the wide artistic production of Louis XIV’s most prolific and powerful artist, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), illustrating not only his paintings but the magnificence of the interiors and decorative works of art produced according to his designs. Revealing Le Brun’s extraordinary versatility and exploring his work at the Academy, the Gobelins and Savonnerie manufactories, and the royal building sites of the Louvre and Versailles,  it is also the first book to explore in depth his artistic relationship to the Sun King. 


In his joint capacities of Premier peintre du roi, director of the Gobelins manufactory and rector of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Le Brun exercised a previously unprecedented influence on the production of the visual arts – so much so that some scholars have repeatedly described him as ‘dictator’ of the arts in France. The Sovereign Artist explores how Le Brun operated in his diverse fields of activities, linking and juxtaposing his portraiture, history painting and pictorial theory with his designs for architecture, tapestries, carpets and furniture. It argues that Le Brun sought to create a repeatable and easily recognizable visual language associated with Louis XIV, in order to translate the king’s political claims for absolute power into a visual form. How he did this is discussed through a series of individual case studies ranging from Le Brun’s lost equestrian portrait of Louis XIV, and his involvement in theQuerelle du coloris at the Académie, to his scheme for 93 Savonnerie carpets for the Grande Galerie at the Louvre, his Histoire du roytapestry series, his decoration of the now destroyed Escalier des Ambassadeurs at Versailles. 


One key theme is the relation between the unity of the visual arts, to which Le Brun aspired, and the strong hierarchical distinctions he made between the liberal arts and the mechanical crafts: while his lectures at the Académie advocated a visual and conceptual unity in painting and architecture, they were also a means by which he attempted to secure the newly gained status of painting as a liberal art, and therefore to distinguish it from the mechanical crafts which he oversaw the production of at the Gobelins manufactories. His artistic and architectural aspirations were comparable to those of his Roman contemporary Gianlorenzo Bernini, summoned to Paris in 1665 to design the Louvre’s East façade and to create a portrait bust of Louis XIV. Bernini’s failure to convince the king and Colbert of his architectural scheme offered new opportunities for Le Brun and his French contemporaries to prove themselves capable of solving the architectural problems of the Louvre and to transform it into a palace appropriate “to the grandeur and the magnificence of the prince who [was] to inhabit it” (Jean-Baptiste Colbert to Nicolas Poussin in 1664). The comparison between Le Brun and Bernini, made in the book, not only illustrates how France sought artistic supremacy over Italy during the second half of the 17th century, but further helps to demonstrate how Le Brun himself wanted to be perceived: beyond acting as a translator of the king’s artistic ambition, the artist appears to have sought his own sovereign authority over the visual arts.

  • Wolf Burchard

    with a foreword by Christopher Le Brun


    November 2016

    Hardback, 280 x 240 mm

    288 pages, 200 colour illus.
    ISBN: 9781911300052

  • About the authors

    Wolf Burchard is Associate Curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he oversaw the renovation of the museum’s galleries for British art and design (2020) and curated Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts (2021). Prior to joining The Met, he was Furniture Research Curator at the National Trust (2015-18) and Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Collection (2009-14), where he co-curated The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy, 1714-1760 at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace (2014).

    Christopher Le Brun is President of the Royal Academy of Arts.

  • In the press

    "Burchard nimbly guides his readers through a dizzying array of objects and ideas in such a way that his beautifully illustrated monograph serves both as an indispensable introduction to Le Brun and a critical summary of a large body of specialised literature ... invaluable."  –The Burlington Magazine


    "Beautifully presented book … Insighful analyses … Burchard's most fascinating insight is his analogy between Le Brun's designs and frontispieces for Early Modern Books … This insightful analogy forms a thread that not only connects the chapters of the book, but provides a coherent characterisation of the artist's approach to representing Louis XIV across all media"—Art Newspaper


    "It's about time for a reassessment of Le Brun's Prolific and dizzyingly varied output, and Wolf Burchard's book is just that … The Sovereign Artist frames Le Brun as a relentlessly versatile force of nature." —Art Quarterly 


    "Assesses [Le Brun's] achievement across disciplines, from painting to interiors and tapestry design." —Apollo 


    "This is the best book on this "universal man", as some contemporaries called him, in English. Wolf Burchard brings to this labour of love the knowledge that comes from a lifelong fascination with Versailles and the reign of Louis XIV ... The Sovereign Artist is a fascinating, readable account of a supreme moment of French and court art ... This wonderful book proves, yet again, the vital importance of courts and monarchs for the arts." —Literary Review


    "Wolf Burchard's book is very rewarding for anyone with an interest in seventeenth-century court art, and it raises important questions about how art, architecture and decoration actually contributed to forming the image of the King."—The Court Historian


    "Impressive new study … well-researched and beautifully-produced … particularly valuable in emphasizing the importance of Le Brun’s work beyond the confines of history painting."—Journal18


    “Burchard’s book… succeeds in revealing the mechanisms of Le Brun’s authority and its artistic fruits. This engaging book rehabilitates the artist…” – Renaissance Quarterly


    "A welcome addition to the scholarship on Le Brun ... For once, the phrase 'lavishly illustrated' is correct, but even more so one should add 'intelligently illustrated', for here the pictures really do help tell the story and help bring Le Brun's achievements to life ... a significant contribution to reconsidering Louis XIV's Premier peintre and encourages us to understand more fully the close relationship between all the arts in the seventeenth century." —The Furniture History Society Newsletter


    "Burchard offers interesting reflections helping to understand the complex personality of the artist in the service of Louis XIV ... Henceforth, this publication will constitute an unavoidable work of reference due to its numerous explanations and the considerations of the artists production in all its diversity." ("Burchard is parvenu à proposer d’intéressante réflexions … permettant de cerner la personnalité complexe de l’artiste au service de Louis XIV … cet ouvrage constitue désormais une référence incontournable par ses nombreuses mises au point et la prise en compte de la production de l’artiste dans toute sa diversité)  –Revue de l’art


    "Beautifully produced ... The Sovereign Artist is an invaluable discussion of Le Brun's varied activities within a larger political framework ... It will prove extremely useful to future scholars on Le Brun and French seventeenth-century art." —The Sixteenth Century Journal 

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