Portraits in coronation costume: from Louis XVI to Charles X

Portraits in coronation costume: from Louis XVI to Charles X

  • Louis XVI, King of France (1754-1793).

    DUPLESSIS Joseph-Siffred (or Siffrein) (1725 - 1802)

  • Napoleon I in coronation costume.

    GERARD, Baron François (1770 - 1837)

  • Louis XVIII, King of France and Navarre (1755-1824).

    BIG Jean-Baptiste-Louis (1793 - 1870)

  • Charles X, King of France (1757-1836).

    GERARD, Baron François (1770 - 1837)

Louis XVI, King of France (1754-1793).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Napoleon I in coronation costume.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Louis XVIII, King of France and Navarre (1755-1824).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Charles X, King of France (1757-1836).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: January 2006

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Portraits in coronation costume: from Louis XVI to Charles X

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Historical context

Fifty years of political upheaval

Between the portrait of Louis XVI (1776) and that of Charles X (1825), half a century has passed. While the regimes are vastly different, the official representations of successive rulers visually remain the same: the conditions and exercise of power changed a lot between 1776 and 1825, but the official codes have not changed or have changed little. It was only after the revolution of 1830, when Louis-Philippe and then Napoleon III exchanged the grand habit of the coronation for the military uniform, that the royal or imperial portrait underwent a real evolution.

Image Analysis

Images of power

Since Louis XIV, portraits of sovereigns have adopted the same criteria of representation. The most renowned painters, with proven talent, are responsible for carrying them out: Joseph-Siffrède Duplessis (1725-1802) for Louis XVI, François Gérard (1771-1837) for Napoleon I and Charles X, Antoine-Jean Gros (1770- 1835) for Louis XVIII. The canvases used are large, on average more than 2 meters high and 1.50 meters wide, which gives grandeur and majesty to the monarch who dominates the viewer.

Represented full-length and three-quarters so as to present the greater part of his person, the sovereign is dressed in the grand costume of the coronation and the coat lined with ermine in blue velvet fleurdelisé for the kings, purple with bees seedlings of gold for Napoleon I. If Louis XVI, absolute monarch, seems to take no interest in the spectator, Louis XVIII, Charles X, although more distant and haughty, and Napoleon look at him and present themselves as sovereign protectors who turn to their subjects. The most prestigious decorations adorn their breasts: large necklace of the Holy Spirit for Louis XVI, Charles X and Louis XVIII which also bears the Order of Saint Michael and the English Garter; Newly created Legion of Honor necklace for the Emperor.

The scepter is held in the right hand except for Louis XVI. The Regalia, closed crown and hand of justice, rest on a stool placed on the left. The hand of justice is absent in the portrait of Duplessis (Louis XVI) and the closed crown is replaced by a globe (orb) alongside Napoleon. If the throne remains in the background, its craftsmanship differs from painting to painting. Louis XVI had himself represented beside a simple, albeit very luxurious, armchair; Jacob-Desmalter's furniture, round back and laurel twist, is clearly visible behind Napoleon; the throne of Louis XVIII is adorned with the arms of France and Navarre crowned and surrounded by solar rays; that of Charles X has carved uprights in the form of a winged lion bust.

Interpretation

Permanence of representation codes

By setting the court at Versailles, Louis XIV broke with the tradition of itinerant courts. The dissemination of images of the sovereign, paintings, sculptures, engravings, becomes essential. If the portraits "in majesty" after 1774 are visually similar, certain details highlight the personalities and particularisms of the different reigns.

The place and importance given to Regalia are particularly significant. In the portrait of Duplessis, Louis XVI occupies the foreground. His person and his legitimacy are the guarantors of his power. The absolute monarchy is not yet in question, and the heir to Louis XIV, king by divine right, does not feel the need to consolidate his power.

Things are quite different for Napoleon, who is seeking to establish his new dynasty. Heir to the Revolution, he is based on two traditions: the Ancien Régime (bees of Charlemagne, use of the coronation) and ancient Rome (wreath of laurels, eagles). The globe and the hand of justice are placed to his right very slightly behind; come to power by his own merit, he is the true guarantor of the Empire. However, Napoleon is part of a historical lineage which links him to the kings of France while standing out through the choice of new symbols.

Louis XVIII, however strong in his legitimacy, accepts the principle of a constitutional monarchy. The Regalia are placed in the foreground, on the same line as the king; the arms of France and Navarre are perfectly visible above the scepter.

As for Charles X, he goes back and tries to reconnect with the monarchy of the Ancien Régime. Unlike Louis XVI, he had to convince and impose his dignity by strengthening the royal image. The crown is placed in the foreground. The primary symbol of royal dignity, it is the support of the monarch who leans on it. The throne also acts as a pillar. The Regalia form the support of the new reign supported by the clergy and the ultra fraction of the nobility.

The aura of the royal person has changed. The Regalia, which became incidental at the end of the Ancien Régime, are being enhanced. Their symbolism, sacredness and royal power, is used to support the new reigns weakened by the dissemination of democratic and republican ideas.

  • Charles X
  • Louis XVI
  • Louis XVIII
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • official portrait
  • Restoration
  • Napoleon III
  • Louis Philippe

Bibliography

Claire CONSTANS, The Paintings. National Museum of the Palace of Versailles, Paris, RMN, 1995.Louis MARIN, The King's Portrait, Paris, Midnight, 1981.Muriel VIGIE, The Official Portrait in France from the 5th to the 20th century, Paris, FWW, 2000.

To cite this article

Delphine DUBOIS, "Portraits in coronation costume: from Louis XVI to Charles X"


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