The Evolution of Kingly Representation in the French Art: Music, Literature and Theatre


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Addressing the first assembly of the Academie royale de peinture et de sculpture Louis charged its members with preserving the crown: “I entrust you with what I value most—ma gloire!” At first established to arbitrate in feuds over artistic representation, the Academie and, later, its subsidiary academies, would eventually also be responsible for setting forth a “royal style” by which artists would abide to flatter the king. The evolution of kingly representation in art as it relates to the political trajectory of Louis XIV’s reign has been a popular topic among art historians and musicologists alike. The general nature of these studies, much like the deliberations of the Academie, reveals an imbrication of philosophy, politics, and aesthetics. That is, artistic output is judged by its capacity to advance or resist its political and philosophical context. As such, this paper takes as its primary assumption the direct implication of the creative process in philosophical and political discourses.

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Of primary concern for this study is the corpus of works that emerges during the final decades of Louis’ reign and the socio-political climate of that period. The matter of royal representation was complicated, as Downing Thomas notes, in the king’s final decades by a looming awareness of his mortality. Existing representational norms were brought into question for their capacity to impress on posterity the king’s grandeur. In particular, the allegorical treatment of the king that constituted the majority of royal art until this point concerned the Academie; for it risked fictionalization by future generations who might not be immediately compelled to liken the gods and goddesses of mythology it depicted to Louis XIV of France.

In 1678, an obvious shift in representation testifies to Charles LeBrun’s own concern with eternalizing the crown by didactically ranking Louis’ reign with timeless stories of antiquity, interpolating scenes of mythology with contemporary war scenes. Louis appeared in Roman garb, amidst allegorical and historical scenes in an effort to “blend representations of a fictional, timeless present.” However, as Paul Duro notes, that these portraits necessitated accompanying written translations for contemporary audiences immediately divulges a failed effort to create something that would effectively guarantee the lionization of Louis’ regency. Poetry, valued as the most resilient of mediums, presented a similar problem in that it risked being fictionalized. A biographical panegyric, as it was proposed by Chapelain, however, would entail divulging the secrets of statecraft that “survive only through secrecy and in the shadow of profound silence.”

In this light, the tragedies en musique of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault seem an obvious solution. Stimulating the “privileged sense of sight,” these spectacles also benefitted from that “most eternal” medium of poetry, producing “peintures parlantes,” as Michael de Pure describes them. Thomas notes, however, that inasmuch as the tragedies served to reconcile the shortcomings of the genres it encompassed, they would prove at odds with seventeenth-century French aesthetics. As such, this paper takes as its second assumption that, from their inception, the tragedies balanced precariously on the skirt of seventeenth-century French aesthetics.

Perhaps the most apparent problem is the plights of dubious heroes at the center of the tragedie’s plot. Indeed, these heroes’ paths to victory, periled by the questionable morals and shortsightedness, stand in stark contrast to the automatic heroism Louis was depicted to epitomize in the paintings of LeBrun. The Academie’s efforts to mend the gap between perfect and imperfect heroism are apparent at the outset in the prologues by which the genre would be identified even after Louis’ death. These ostentatious introductions provided a sort of errata in which personified virtues whose aid might have saved the heroes of the tragedies proper sing the praises of a king who so perfectly embodies them. Thomas argues that the tragedie was destined to falter for its operatic ancestry, as the inevitable attempt by Lully to push music’s representative capabilities would undermine the aesthetics of seventeenth-century France. Thomas has traced through the trajectory of the Lully-Quinault’s tragedies this “rise of music” as a representative power from a subordinate art form to a representative medium of its own; and, pointing to a shift in the subject of critical literature from the poetic to the musical, he argues that the pair’s final collaboration, Armide, punctuates music’s rise to primacy in the tragedies.

What drives me to contribute to an already inexhaustible body of literature on this work is the disintegration of the spectacle that runs parallel to the rise of music that Thomas has interrogated. Spectacle culture, as I will demonstrate, provided the framework for royal representation. I argue that by creating a scene in Armide (II.v.) that necessarily pits the spectacular and the intellectual against one another, Lully and Quinault actively participate in seventeenth-century anti-absolutist philosophical discourses that ancitipate the so-called cult of sensibility. As such, I will examine the ways in which aesthetic experience is intimately and necessarily tied to the political and ideological; that is, the ways in which aesthetics is implicated in a political and ideological dialogue. If the creative process is inextricably tied up in the philosophical and ideological, as I hope their convergence on the aesthetic object of the tragedie will demonstrate, then I propose that Lully and Quinault’s treatment of the merveilleux as secondary to Enlightenment aesthetic values in Armide implicates them in a direct resistance to absolutism.

Derived from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, Armide stages the tale of the heretic enchantress Armida, who has long threatened Godfrey’s Crusade camp by drawing its soldiers into imprisonment with her charms. The curtain rises on an anguishing Armida, who voices her chagrin at the notorious Rinaldo’s indifference to her charms (Since he has not found my gaze charming enough).” Unassuaged by her bounty of prisoners (Sidonie: “What if one captive escapes your victory, / Your jails contain enough witnesses to it; / And with one fewer slave, / such a great triumph will lose little glory”) Armida remains fixated on the enemy. He is the object of a dream in which she sees herself fall victim to his sword. Soon after, Aronte enters to deliver news that Rinaldo has freed her slaves (“An indomitable warrior / Has freed them all”). Enraged and aware that her eyes are useless against Rinaldo (And he alone, still invincible, / Glories in showing me his indifference.), she recourses to magic and enlists the aid of her furies to enchant him. Intoxicated by her spell and helpless against her hate, the unconscious Rinaldo lays before Armida. But moments from delivering the blow to her enemy, she is rendered immobile by sudden affection and incapable of carrying out the execution. Unable to shake her feelings and aware of her entrancement, Armida seeks counsel from Hate, who offers to extract love from her. Once again, however, she succumbs to love’s allure and interrupts him. The enraged Hate banishes her from Hades, vowing never again to aid her and prophesying Rinaldo’s return to glory. Having resigned to love’s affliction, Armida hurries to her palace to embrace Rinaldo; but she finds him sobered of her spell and returning to Godfrey’s camp, and, after a declaration of vengeance, orders the destruction of her palace and flees.

In order to understand what is at stake in Lully and Quinault’s treatment of spectacle in Armide it is necessary to discuss the political and philosophical underpinning of seventeenth-century French spectacle culture. Indeed, the tenants of the spectacle and their societal roles were of central concern to writers of the Academie. In many senses, the seventeenth-century spectacle preserved the integrity of the ancient rituals and ceremonies from which it was derived. In his Dicionnaire universel of 1690, Antoine Furetiere writes that spectacle “refers to public rituals and cultural performances.” Similarly, the Dicionnaire de l’Academie francoise, in 1694, describes the spectacle as “everything that arouses public attention.”

A pervasive concern with sensuality, however, reveals a disparity between the seventeenth-century French definition of spectacle and that set forth by Aristotle and Plato. As Oostveldt demonstrates, where Aristotle had argued that the visual and poetic were equally important to the effects of spectacle, seventeenth-century writers derived from these ancient rituals their sensuous impact. Michel de Pure, among those most concerned with the spectacle, expounded upon the sublime element in his Idées de spectacles anciens et nouveaux. De Pure goes so far as to argue that the sublime encounter engendered by the spectacle is more important than plot the story itself. Rather than any effort toward plot cohesion, he is concerned with the spectacle’s capacity to enthrall spectators with overwhelming sensory stimulation as a means for asserting the king’s grandeur.

Van Oostveldt and Bussels argue that the political aim of the spectacle is to simultaneously impose le magnifique and le mystérieux. Within the narrative genre of spectacle, magnificence, as de Pure notes, could be experiential as much as a quality to define abundant opulence. That is, the spectacle had the power to transport its spectator to a “heightened state” where the subject could come into contact with the king. The power of the spectacle was, in other words, associative: it was meant to give the impression that its lavish components were the natural furnishings of the king, much like the Gardens of Versailles were meant to represent nature on the holy grounds of the Sun King’s dwelling.

The mysterious element discussed by Oostveldt and Bussels is directly tied up in the magnificent. In fact, it could be considered its byproduct. As de Pure writes, “magnificence functions literally as a synonym for the sublime, giving the sublime a political valence that suggests the enormous and overwhelming power of royal sovereignty.” The two historians point toward the virtual conflation of the term magnificence with le-je-ne-sais-quoi, or awe. Bussels and Oostveldt have interrogated the metaphysical implications of the Dicionnaire’s definition of the spectacle as a disruption of the mundane; the authors argue that its aim in setting itself apart from the quotidian reveals an effort to disassociate itself from the human. That is, by occupying the privileged sense of sight with abundant opulence, the spectator could be rendered at a loss for words. The religiosity of the whole experience bolstered the king’s deity by framing the spectator’s encounter with the sovereign within the ecstasy of the spectacle.

It was this very disarming of the intellect that defined the seventeenth-century notion of “awe.” Once treated as the locus of curiosity and philosophy by Aristotle and Plato, Descartes and Hobbes adhered to an Augustinian definition of the term as a sublime encounter, associating it with the miraculous. The term was used most often by philosophers in association with the arresting concept of infinity that the cosmos presented. By framing the subjects’ encounter with the king in the awe-inspiring spectacle, Louis’ regency joined the ranks of the infinite and miraculous, topics of pensée sublime. This element of le-je-ne-sais-quoi advanced the king’s politics of war in a similar manner: as Bussels and Oostveldt note, the awe incited by the spectacle extended beyond the king to his statecraft and military exploits, at once rendering them, too, events of divine providence delivered by the Sun King.

To discuss the spectacle without its effects on the spectator would be to overlook a large part of its philosophical undercurrent.

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