Baroque and Rococo


Baroque and Rococo Art Map

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Charles Le Brun


Charles Le Brun

born Feb. 24, 1619, Paris, France
died Feb. 12, 1690, Paris

Le Brun also spelled Lebrun painter and designer who became the arbiter of artistic production in France during the last half of the 17th century. Possessing both technical facility and the capacity to organize and carry out many vast projects, Le Brun personally created or supervised the production of most of the paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects commissioned by the French government for three decades during the reign of Louis XIV. Under his direction French artists created a homogeneous style that came to be accepted throughout Europe as the paragon of academic and propagandistic art.

A protégé of the chancellor Pierre Seguier, Le Brun studied first with the painter Guillaume Perrier and then with Simon Vouet. In 1642 he went to Rome, and during the four years hespent there he learned much from Nicolas Poussin, Pietro da Cortona, and other contemporary Baroque painters. On his return to Paris he was given large decorative and religious commissions; his work for the Hotel Lambert and for Nicolas Fouquet, the influential minister of finance, at Vaux-le-Vicomte in the 1650s made his reputation. His first commission from Louis XIV dates from 1661, when he painted the first of a series of subjects from the life of Alexander the Great. “The Tent of Darius” delighted Louis, who liked to think of himself as a latter-day Alexander. Le Brun was made first painter to the king, given an enormous salary, and until his death occupied a position of paramount importance in the artistic life of France not equaled until the advent of the painter Jacques-Louis David at the end of the 18th century.

Fouquet's successor as minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was quick to recognize and to use Le Brun's organizing capacities to the greatest advantage. In 1663 Le Brun was appointed director of the Gobelins, which, from being a small tapestry manufacture, expanded into a sort of universal factory supplying all the royal houses. From the 1660s, commissions for decoration of the royal palaces, notably Versailles, were given automatically to Le Brun andhis assistants, and in 1663 the Academy of Painting and Sculpture was reorganized with Le Brun as director. In 1666 he organized its satellite, the French Academy at Rome, which played an influential role in the artistic affairs of France for more than a century. These institutions gave French art its characteristic homogeneity.

Le Brun's own painting style was a more dramatic and sensuous version of Poussin's static and monumental manner—seen in “Horatius Cocles Defending Rome” (1644)—which became dulled and generalized when applied to large surfaces. As a portrait painter, however, he was consistently distinguished, as in “The Banker Jabach and His Family” (1647). His position declined after Colbert's death in1683, although he continued to receive the king's support.

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Charles Le Brun

The Chancellor Seguier

after 1660


A careerist bathes in the Sun King's radiance


Chancellor Seguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660
c. 1661
Oil on canvas, 295 x 351 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris




The aged Chancellor, shown on horseback with an entourage of young, fleet-footed pages, cuts a dignified figure. In stiff robes of gold brocade, Pierre Seguier, Duke of Villemor, has all the makings of an idol or a Chinese mandarin. In fact, his swagger was the official pose of the Lord Chief Justice of France and head of that country's civil service in the mid-17th century; above all else, the grandeur of the portrait by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) shows how Seguier wished the world to see him. The painting, measuring 2.95 by 3.57 metres, hangs in the Louvre, Paris.
Two violet silk parasols sway above Se-guier's head. Conspicuous insignia of his rank, these also provided welcome protection against the scorching sun under whose burning heat Paris sweltered on that 26th August 1660. Indeed, so great was the heat, according to one contemporary chronicler, that the Chancellor, contrary to official protocol, was obliged to allow his entourage to don their hats now and then. The representatives of the state chancellory were participating in a procession that moved gradually through a Paris decorated with triumphal arches and obelisks, while at His Majesty Louis XIV's side, his newly-wed wife Maria Theresia celebrated her entry to the capital.
The 21 -year-old French monarch and the daughter of Philip IV, King of Spain, had been married shortly before in a town at the border. The purpose of the match was to seal the peace between the two states. France had emerged victorious from the struggle for European hegemony which had marred relations between the two countries for almost 30 years, but it had emerged almost as exhausted as the vanquished Spain.
Before Louis XIV came of age, the nobility and parliament had endeavoured to augment their respective power at the cost of the monarchy, plunging the country into civil war in the process. France was bankrupt; there was a depression; the population had been decimated by invading armies, famine and epidemics were rampant. It was time for a change.
The orderly procession was intended as a sign to the cheering Parisians that a new epoch of peace and glory had dawned. It was led by the retinue of His Eminence, the all-powerful minister, Cardinal Mazarin, who had arranged the peace treaty and wedding. Next came the royal household and then the royal stables. Following them, in fourth place, came the representatives of the chancellory. Besides Seguier himself, counsellors, treasurers and secretaries, as well as those at the bottom of the hierarchy, the beadles and court ushers, all took part in the procession. Their appearance is captured in an ironic description of the event by Jean de la Fontaine, written in rhvming verse:
"The sires of Council a splendid sight, in their midst was the Chancellor, a pillar of might, dressed from his head to his toe in brocade, while his retinue made the splendid parade ..."
The parade was an impressive testimony to the power of a healthy monarchy. It was one of the first great manifestations of this kind to take place under the auspices of the young king. Louis XIV soon proved a master of the art of using pomp and circumstance for propagandistic purposes, in the service of absolutism as well as his own fame.


From burgher to duke



Chancellor Seguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660 (detail)


The Chancellor takes obvious pleasure in his appearance on this occasion. According to the anecdotal "Histories" of the writer and worst gossip of the 17th century Tallemant des Reaux, he was "greedy for glory", avaricious, and "driven by such extraordinary vanity that he was incapable of raising his hat to another person." Nobody attached quite so much importance as he did to "external appearances ..., and he could hardly walk two feet without calling for his lackeys and an armed guard." Like most of his contemporaries, Tallemant was not particulary fond of the Chancellor.
Seguier, who held his exalted office for 37 years and exercised power ruthlessly, was one of the most hated men in France. In 1648, while civil war raged in Paris, he was obliged to hide from the people, who "wanted to tear him to pieces", in the lavatory of a private house until troops came to his rescue. The Marquise de Sevigne, famed for her correspondence, likened the Chancellor to the spiteful figure of Tartuffe, the hero of a comedy by Moliere, first performed in 1664. It was not until 1672 when Seguier, with due composure, died the edifying death of "a great man" that the lady felt bound to remember his more positive qualities: piety, wit, a talent for oratory, and a remarkably good memory.
Seguier -was undoubtedly an unusually gifted lawyer and administrator, abilities which rendered his services indispensible to two prime ministers in succession. As their "most loyal lackey", as Tallemant contemptuously put it, "a man who could swallow anything", he served Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, who ruled France under Louis XIII and during Louis XIV's youth.
Like many 17th-century politicians, the Chancellor was from a bourgeois background. His family came from Parisian merchant stock and had slowly climbed their way up the administrative ladder by marrying into the right circles and using their money to buy profitable public positions. It was quite normal at the time for public offices to be bought and sold; such posts were seen as a form of capital investment, offering their owners both income and independence: civil servants could be neither transferred nor dismissed.
The Seguiers supported each other wherever they could. In 1612 one of his relations lent Pierre, born in 1588 and made an orphan early in life, 56,000 livres for the purchase of his first public office. He became Counsellor of Justice to the Parisian parliament. Then, using the dowry of his wife, the daughter of a wealthy army treasurer, who brought 80,000 livres into their marriage, he purchased the office of President of the Parliament for the bargain sum of 120,000 livres. This allowed the career-minded public servant to recommend himself to Cardinal Richelieu by steering various political trials in an opportune direction. Having caught the minister's attention, Seguier rose rapidly in rank and position from then on.
In 1634 Seguier's daughter was married to Richelieu's nephew. To be connected with the house of such a powerful man brought advantage and honour, but it also meant the ambitious burgher was obliged to provide a dowry of 500,000 livres, an enormous sum of money. In the following year he was made Chancellor - a non-purchasable office - and remained so until his death. He survived, practically without damage to position or person, both the transition into Mazarin's service following Richelieu's death in 1642, and the confusion of the civil wars. In 1650 he was made Duke of Villemor. By his death in 1672 Pierre Seguier had amassed a fortune of over four million livres.
But the apotheosis of Seguier's career had come in 1639/40 when Richelieu, investing him with the power of a viceroy, sent him to Normandy at the head of a punitive force whose task was to subdue the revolt of the so-called "nu-pieds" -poverty-stricken rebels who went barefoot — against the war-tax. Suppressing the uprising with unprecedented ruthlessness, the Chancellor entered the conquered town of Rouen in triumph, sourrounded by his generals and saluted by cannon. This time he was not part of another's entourage, but the most celebrated figure present.


The seal of state on a magnificent steed


Entering Paris with the royal couple, Chancellor Seguier was preceeded by a magnificent steed sporting a feather head-dress and decked with a lilac silk sha-braque embroidered with lilies. The horse was unmounted and carried on its back a gold-plated casket containing the French seal of state, the instrument of Seguier's power. Four "chauffe-cires" (wax-warmers) held silk cords to steady the casket. Their work, heating the wax and applying the seal, could apparently be done only by illiterate nobles. This was thought to prevent abuse of their office.
Drawn in ink and red chalk, the scene is one of 14 drawings in Stockholm which, laid out in series, show the entire chancellory department of the procession. They include a portrayal of Seguier's immediate group that is identical to the group in Le Brun's painting. The drawing mentions by name several of the counsellors and secretaries in the Chancellor's company. The same names are recorded in lists, dating from the period, of chancellory employees.
The drawings probably formed part of a project commissioned by the Chancellor and carried out by one of Le Brim's collaborators. A display of chancellory personnel with its dignitaries dressed in the pomp of office must have been a welcome prospect to the vain Seguier, with all his concern for external appearances. Whether the sketches were intended as preliminary studies for a series of prints or oil paintings is unknown. Only the Seguier group found its way onto canvas.
It was the Chancellor's solemn duty twice a week to preside over the application of the seal - given such lavish pride of place in the drawing - to royal correspondence, decrees and documents. Without the seal, sentences, pardons and elevations to noble rank remained null and void.
If necessary, the Chancellor could refuse to apply the seal, for he was answerable only to the king, who, in person, had appointed him for life. He combined the functions of a viceroy and Chief Justice, and as head of the civil service he also had various executive powers. However, his main function was as the king's official spokesman.
"I have come to bestow my good will upon the parliament. The Chancellor will tell you everything else." Thus Louis XIV's dignified utterance on the occasion of his first political appearance in 1643, following the death of his father. He was four years old.
Seguier, together with the queen-mother and Mazann, held a seat in the regency council. He occasionally took a personal interest in the infant king's upbringing. "My Lord the Chancellor was here", writes one courtier in his memoirs of 1651, "to see the king at his studies. He was highly satisfied and exhorted the king to continue." Ten years later, Seguier's condescension towards the king would have been considered quite inappropriate. The day after Mazarin's death, the king, though previously so submissive, threw off the shackles of patronage. On 10th March 1661 at seven o'clock in the morning, according to one report, he called for his ministers and addressed the Chancellor in a tone worthy of a man who was "Lord over himself and all the universe": "My Lords, I have asked you to assemble here to let you know that ... the time has now come for me to govern my own affairs. You shall come to my aid with your council should I require it... I demand of you, indeed I order you, Lord Chancellor, to put my seal on nothing, and to do nothing in my name, until we have spoken of the same, but to act solely at my command."
The old Chancellor continued to serve the young king for several years before his death. On his deathbed, he asked his confessor to convey his undiminished loyalty to Louis XIV and had his seal returned to the king: it was Seguier's last official act.


Artist with a parasol


Chancellor Seguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660 (detail)


The elegantly poised figure in shining white linen holding the parasol is said to be Le Bran's self-portrait. Showing himself in the Chancellor's company was realistic enough; the son of a Parisian sculptor, he had enjoyed Seguier's patronage since his childhood. The arts and sciences not only fell under Seguier's official brief, he was also a patron of the arts in his own right - hoping, no doubt, to "have his praises sung", griped Tallemant.
The Chancellor had become acquainted with the talented young lad in 1631 or 1634, at an early stage in the latter's career. He provided lodgings for him at his town palace, where he had also set aside a number of stipends for writers. He sent Lc Brun to study under well-known masters and was soon able to show his work at court: a drawing, executed in 1638, celebrating Louis XIV's birth, and an allegory dedicated to Cardinal Richelieu. For his patron, the young artist painted mostly altarpieces and portraits. In 1642 Seguier sent him to Rome, equipped with letters of recommendation, expenses and a commission to make copies of Raphael's works.
Three years later, defying the orders of his patron, Le Brun returned to France. He had shown signs of insubordination before, during the years of his apprenticeship in Paris. However, once back in Paris he remained obedient, gradually adapting his personality to the dictates of an era in love with order, in which artists were required to show discipline and good manners.
Le Brun led an exemplary life. He was pious and diligent, showing little sign of passion, and none of vice. Women (other than his wife) had no place in his life or work, to which he dedicated himself assiduously. His career was favoured by the timely death of two important painters and rivals: Simon Vouet (1590-1649) and Eustache Le Sueur (1617-1655). As soon as the Sun King climbed the throne, they left the stage to Le Brun without a struggle.
Le Brun had caught the monarch's attention through his work on the palace of the Minister of Finance, Fouquet, at Vaux. The artist was responsible for the entire decorations there, from frescos to fountains in the park and displays of fireworks on festive occasions. Louis ordered the artist to paint a scene for him from the life of Alexander the Great. Le Brun executed the large heroic work to the full satisfaction of the monarch, painting it in front of his very eyes. From that time ownwards he enjoyed the king's favour and worked to spread his
sovereign's fame.
However, Lc Brun did not forget Se-guier, his first patron. Though the exact date of his portrait of Seguier entering Paris is unknown, Le Brun designed, following the Chancellor's death in 1672, the decorations for a church in which Parisian artists held a memorial mass in the Chancellor's honour. Madame de Sevigne was present, and reported as follows: "The mausoleum was as high as the dome itself, decorated with a thousand candles and several statues made up to honour the man ... with the insignia of his high rank ... the judge's cap, ducal coronet and order ... They really were the most beautiful decorations imaginable."
If Pierre Seguier really did attach so much importance to having "his praises sung", then he could not have done better than invest in Charles Le Brun.


Fashion as royal propaganda


Chancellor Seguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660 (detail)


To "lend distinction to the highest ranking courtiers", according to the philospher Voltaire (1694-1778), Louis XIV personally designed "a blue doublet, embroidered with gold and silver. To be invited to wear this piece of clothing "was considered a great honour, an occasion for pride, and it was as highly coveted as an order on a chain."
Elements of fashion such as patterns and colours, especially gold, assumed a special value under the influence of the young monarch. To help establish his absolute authority as the Sun King, he subordinated all style, form and design, as well as politics and etiquette, to the interests of his personal propaganda.
Le Brun soon emerged as the dominant figure among the group of artists employed by the king. He brought discipline to the art world, turning the Academy of Fine Art, previously little more than a loose association of artists, into a tightly-knit state organization. The Academy assumed a monopoly over the teaching of art; it awarded stipends, prizes and state commissions, imposing strict stylistic orthodoxy. Art, shown to be reducible to a universally applicable set of precepts, was required to subject itself to a doctrine of clarity and rationality explicit in the rules of French Classicism. For twenty years, Le Brun, the chancellor of the Academy, kept a dictatorial eye over the strict observance of these rules.
Le Brun was also responsible for establishing norms for the mass-production of artworks and artefacts. Under his direction, 50 painters and 700 craftsmen worked at the Royal Gobelin Factory, which opened m 1663. Here, not only tapestries, but frescos, wood panelling, furniture, vases, locks and coaches were made to Le Bran's design. Produced to the highest standards and showing excellent taste, these artefacts were intended for Versailles and for export. Le Brun was the arbiter of taste in all matters of art, design and cultural management; he created Louis XIV's official court style, which, like the French language and French fashions, quickly spread to the rest of Europe.
All this left Le Brun with little time for his own painting. His great masterpiece, the decoration of Versailles - he also influenced the architecture of the palace and gardens - proved ephemeral. He "was forced to stand by and watch as furniture and vases of silver and gold which he had designed were melted down to provide funds for Louis' wars. The unique synthesis of art and design that was Versailles may have existed to perfection only at such moments when, paying homage to the "Roi Soleil", courtiers perambulated in the galleries to the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Le Brun, who had devoted his life to his sovereign's fame, was permitted, upon his elevation to the nobility, to include Louis XIV's personal emblem in his coat-of-arms: a resplendent, golden sun.

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen

see collection:
Charles Le Brun




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