The Sovereign Artist

Charles Le Brun and the Image of Louis XIV

Wolf Burchard

Date Published :
January 2017
Publisher :
Paul Holberton Publishing
Contributor(s) :
Christopher Le Brun
Illustration :
200 color illustrations
No associated books available.


This monograph examines the wide artistic production of Louis XIV’s most prolific and powerful artist, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), illustrating the magnificence of his paintings and focusing particularly on the interiors and decorative art works produced according to his designs.

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 the Querelle du coloris at the Académie, to his scheme for 93 Savonnerie carpets for the Grande Galerie at the Louvre, his Histoire du roy tapestry series, his decoration of the now destroyed Escalier des Ambassadeurs at Versailles and the dramatic destruction of the Sun King’s silver furniture.

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. 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 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.

About The Author

Wolf Burchard is an art and architectural historian. He is the National Trust’s Furniture Research Curator and was formerly Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Collection Trust.

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


"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

"Beautifully presented book … a welcome addition to the growing body of literature re-evaluating the artist's oeuvre."

- The Art Newspaper

"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, July 2017

"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, August 2017

"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."

- Revue de l'art, No. 197, Autumn 2017

"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: A Journal of Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture, November 2017

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.

- Louis Marchesano, The Burlington, April 2018

"Burchard is commendably attentive to court relations, objects, and theory throughout his six chapters … 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."

- Sixteenth Century Journal, Winter 2017

"Wolf Burchard's book is 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." 

- Court Historian, June 2018

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