The Influence of Art on History, Part 1: Versailles

For centuries, artists of every genre have been using their craft to express their opinions in an attempt to influence others to follow those opinions. Artists have used their works to demonstrate superiority, incite political unrest and bring awareness to societal issues. In this paper we will be discussing three works from history and how these works have been used in the service of politics. We will discuss the backgrounds of King Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, Paul Revere’s engraving, The Bloody Massacre, and Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, along with the influence each had before moving on to discuss how each piece relates to each other in terms of similarity, difference and influence. In the end, we will see how art can be a powerful tool to influence the masses and bring about change.

King Louis XIV, 1701.
Public Domain

The first work we are going to explore is the Palace of Versailles. This palace is a clear and lasting monument to the power and superiority of King Louis XIV of France. What began as a small hunting lodge in the middle of the country developed into the grandest and most elaborate chateau Europe had ever seen. Whether this was an intentional representation of King Louis’s reign or just a coincidence, the parallels are quite striking. King Louis gained the throne of France at the age of 4 during a time of political unrest, though he didn’t start ruling by himself until he was 22. When Louis took control of France in 1661, it was a country poised on economic collapse. After a series of civil wars, years of governmental excess, and embezzlement by the Superintendent of Finance, the country was in shambles and the people wanted change. King Louis was ready to oblige and began sweeping changes across the board. To solidify his position as well as consolidate political authority, King Louis XIV immediately began instituting administrative, fiscal, legal, economic, and military reforms. As he did this, France began to grow in solidarity, economic strength, and financial security.

One of the first changes he made was to begin working on the palace that would become the symbol of his absolutism and reign. Calling upon the talents of Charles Le Brun, a painter; Louis Le Vau, an architect; and André le Nôtre, a landscape architect; he set about transforming that small country lodge into the grandest palace in Europe. Once the Palace of Versailles was completed, it stood proudly as the physical embodiment of King Louis XIV’s image, power, and authority.

Painting of Versailles, 1668.
Public Domain

While the grandness of Versailles is indisputable, one may wonder what a grand building has to do with France’s politics and how it affected their history. It wasn’t the fact that Versailles was grand that made it so influential, but how it was used. Every aspect of the palace from the grounds to the placement of his bedroom represented his position as the heart and soul of France. His moniker of the Sun King was clearly represented in the symmetrical layout of the garden with pathways radiating from the palace as well as adorning gates, walls, and statuary. His bedchamber was relocated from a side section of the palace to the very center of the palace to symbolize his role as the center of all that was France and several daily rituals took place there.

Gardens of Versailles
King Louis XIV Bedchamber
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Another way the palace was used to influence both citizens and non-citizens was through the Hall of Mirrors. This grand hall was designated as a ceremonial reception room for visiting heads of state and filled with paintings portraying King Louis XIV in the role of a Roman emperor, a wise administrator, and a military genius as a means of impressing upon those visitors the overwhelming power of the King. Those entering through this hall could not help but be in awe of the regality and splendor within and thus associating power and authority with King Louis.

Hall of Mirrors
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The palace was also full of paintings and sculptures of King Louis in poses that conveyed his absolutism and superiority. And it wasn’t just the Hall of Mirrors that was majestic and imposing. The entire palace was built on a grand scale, adorned with the latest artistic styles and using the highest quality materials available in order to convey the King’s wealth and majesty. Everywhere one went, they were met with symbols and testaments to the divine power of King Louis XIV. This helped solidify in the minds of the people his right to absolute power and ushered in an era of absolute monarchy. Would this have been possible without the splendor and ostentatiousness of Versailles? Perhaps. But it cannot be denied that the constant visual assault of King Louis’ power and prestige helped impress upon the minds of the French citizens that he was a powerful ruler.

Along with the physical structure and layout of the palace, the events within the palace grounds were designed to impress upon the country that King Louis XIV was the prevailing authority and absolute power of France. The 1653 dance Ballet de la Nuit (Ballet of the Night), in particular, was a powerful promotion of King Louis’s power and authority. Many performances in which the king took part were meant to promote the image of his absolute monarchy and the glory of France under his rule along with being expressions of his power, but the Ballet de la Nuit did this in a very clear and succinct way which could not be misunderstood.

Louis XIV as Apollo, 1653
Public Domain

In this dance, the fourteen-year-old Louis took on 5 separate roles, most notable of which was the Sun God, Apollo. It was this performance which led to his being titled the Sun King. In taking on the role of Apollo, Louis was making a bold declaration of his power and reinforcing the idea that the whole of France revolved around him. This performance also signified his coming of age with the assertion that he would soon be ruling alone, without a regent. He achieved this through a pivotal scene in which he stood on a raised tableau in the middle of the stage with the rest of the actors orbiting around him just as the planets orbit around the sun. His position was clearly one of power with a bearing of confidence and authority. This scene was a singular statement of his importance and helped support in the minds of the people that he was the center of France and that he was ready to lead the country with power and authority.

What also helped reinforce these ideas were the extravagance of the set, the costumes and music for the dance. King Louis’ costume was that of the sun, created with all the decadence that signified his rule. And in keeping with the theme of supporting King Louis’s importance and authority, the music was composed by the lead musicians of the day. Every aspect of this ballet was meant to demonstrate the preeminence of France and the supreme importance of her King. By doing so, it was a clear support of the King as the prevailing authority.

After taking part in this ballet, King Louis embraced his role as the ‘sun king of France’ and ordered various depictions of the sun around Versailles. These can be seen on the gates, gildings on the walls, in sculptures, woven into tapestries, and included in paintings. Some inclusions are subtle, like the layout of the gardens, but others were more ostentatious, like the emblems on the gates.

Other depictions that showed King Louis in positions of power and authority and the link between him and the prosperity of France include sculptures of him in conquering poses, the way he designed and named his private apartments after Greek gods, the sculptures of Lady France (known as Liberty or Marianne) carrying a cornucopia overflowing with food, depictions of angels carrying crowns of leaves over paintings and sculptures of him, and sculptures of Lady France carrying a cornucopia overflowing with food while sitting on an image of starvation.

Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Palace of Versailles was brimming with symbols and representations of King Louis’ greatness. Every artistic avenue that could be used to express King Louis’ superiority, such as dance, theater, music, interior décor, and landscape, was used to the fullest. All of this ostentatious symbolism was for the sole purpose of reinforcing the idea that all power and goodness emanated from him and that by and through him France would achieve great glory. And it worked. King Louis XIV had a largely successful 72-year rule that solidified absolute monarchy in France as well as increased French influence around the world. His reign has been heralded as the greatest age of French history and even now there are governments and private citizens who seek to emulate his achievements. His use of art to convey his position of power and the absolute authority he held went a long way in achieving his goal and allowing him the power he needed to bring France from a place of despondency to an era of enlightenment and prosperity.

Thank you for reading my analysis of how King Louis XIV’s use of various mediums of art affected French history. This is Part 1 of a 4-part series examining the historic influence of art. Next week we will look at how Paul Revere used art to alter the course of American history and changed the relationship between America and Great Britain.


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