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A Royal Acquisition for the MMFA

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has just acquired a remarkable work: the modello, or painted sketch, for the famous Portrait of Louis XIV in Royal Ceremonial Robes by Hyacinthe Rigaud (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

“We are pleased that we were able to acquire this iconic painting on the art market. It is the modello for one of the most famous portraits in the history of Western art,” said Nathalie Bondil, the MMFA’s Director General and Chief Curator. “Often copied and even imitated, the painting is the origin of a rich iconographic lineage in the history of state portraiture. It is an important addition to our collection of historical international art, since Louis XIV enabled New France to evolve from a trading outpost to a populated settlement.”

The work is on display on Level 2 of the new Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace in the galleries of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French, Italian and English schools.

The modello of the Sun King’s portrait

In November 1700, the duke of Anjou (1683-1746) acceded to the throne of Spain under the name Philip V, an advantageous move for France, late in the reign of Louis XIV, the duke’s grandfather. Just before the young Philip left France for Madrid on December 4, 1700, Louis XIV expressed a wish to have a portrait painted of his grandson. Philip responded by commissioning  the same artist to paint a portrait of his grandfather, so he could take it to Spain with him. Perhaps because it was so successful, the portrait of Louis XIV would remain in Versailles.

The principle of the modello was to show the commissioning body – in this case, the king’s Administration des Bâtiments du Roi and the monarch himself – a sufficiently completed sketch to present in detail but in a scaled-down format the manner in which the final canvas would be composed and executed. For an official portrait, the iconography of which had to be precise and clearly defined in order to be politically effective, the execution of a modello was essential. Certain differences with the final painting show that this canvas cannot be a copy but was in all likelihood rendered beforehand.

“We were wondering about the status to be assigned to the small canvas that was offered for sale at Leclère in Hôtel Drouot, Paris, on April 18, 2016. Mr. Coatalem invited us to re-examine it following its restoration, and what had until now been a hypothesis was confirmed: we believe the small canvas is indeed the modello commissioned from Rigaud prior to his execution of the large portrait of Louis XIV in royal regalia that, over time, became the royal icon par excellence of the Old Regime.” Ariane James-Sarazin, specialist and author of Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), Dijon, Editions Faton, 2016, vol. II: Catalogue raisonné, p. 254

The fascinating iconography of power

Louis XIV stands before a throne, with the calm, proud and somewhat disdainful look of supreme authority. The pose makes perfect sense in the context of a portrait of a French absolute monarch. In the Catholic France of the Old Regime, the king acceded to the crown and his body was consecrated upon the death of his predecessor. The king’s personal and corporal sanctity was one of the most important aspects that Rigaud emphasized in the portrait. Louis XIV is the king, the untouchable and superior body called to reign over the foremost country in Europe and its territories, and the majesty of his pose, and the sumptuous setting and garments reflect this.

But if this splendour helps to illustrate the king’s political authority, how could the artist evoke the monarch’s corporal sanctity, the religious principle on which the very legitimacy of the heir of the Capetians was based? Rigaud had the brilliant idea of borrowing a detail from Van Dyck’s Charles I but giving it an entirely different meaning: the right hand is shown bare, without the silk glove the king is holding in his other hand. And the right hand is not depicted holding an ordinary cane but the royal sceptre, held head down in an apparently casual manner.

The king is painted standing, in contradistinction with the Medieval tradition of depicting the sovereign seated on a throne. The throne, an ornate armchair of gilded wood, is evoked not as an object of prestige for the monarchy but as a secondary device to confirm that the king does not need to be seated on a throne to reign. Rather than depict the king in a static pose, the artist has chosen to show him moving slowly in a dignified manner, resting his hand on the sceptre. Thus, Louis XIV is shown moving in the direction indicated by God.

Biography of Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), painter of kings

Born in Perpignan in 1659, Hiacinto Rigau was a Catalan who trained in Montpellier before leaving for Paris in 1681. Wanting to make a name for himself in Parisian art circles, he added the “d” to his surname to make it look more French. In Paris, Rigaud completed his apprenticeship under Le Brun, the all-powerful director of the Académie Royale. When Rigaud won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1682, Le Brun encouraged him to establish himself as a portraitist, as it was more lucrative than history painting.

He initially found his clients among the Parisian bourgeoisie, but caught the attention of the Court in 1688 when he received commissions from members of the royal family. The painting of the king’s portrait in 1701 was thus the culmination of the princely favour Rigaud had already enjoyed for several years. The artist’s reputation reached new heights under the reign of Louis XV.

This modello is without a doubt the finest and most prestigious portrait of Louis XIV conserved in Canada. Only one other painting of the king, attributed to the workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud, is included in the collection of the Senate of Canada. Rigaud’s works are exceedingly rare in public collections: the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa has one of his family portraits.

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Modello for the Portrait of Louis XIV in Royal Ceremonial Robes, 1701, oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm, MMFA, Purchase, gifts of W. Bruce C. Bailey in honour of Hilliard T. Goldfarb, and of Dan Mayer, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Volunteer Association Fund, the Museum Campaign 1988-1993 Fund, and the Serge Desroches, Hermina Thau, David R. Morrice, Mary Eccles, Jean Agnes Reid Fleming, Geraldine C. Chisholm, Margaret A. Reid, Eleanore Morrice, Harold Lawson, Marjorie Caverhill, Harry W. Thorpe and Mona Prentice Bequests