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Monday, April 4, 2011

Louis XIV

King Louis XIV, 1701, Hyacinthe Rigaud 

One of the largest, most elegant portraits ever painted was done by the French artist Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701. The painting measures over 9 feet in height and nearly eight feet in width. And anyone who has ever studied French history of the time has undoubtedly seen it.  The incredible tour-de-force of painting depicts a life-size Louis XIV regaled in all his ermine-lined robes of royal splendor amidst a theatrical display of scarlet drapery that can only be called "fit for a king".  

Painted when the "Sun King" was no longer exactly in his prime, the 63-year-old monarch still cuts quite an impressive figure of stalwart royalty. Probably the most notable feature of the portrait is the king's elegantly graceful legs (of which he was obviously quite proud). They're shown exposed to well past the mid-thigh, and clad in white hosiery. On his feet are a pair of red, high-heeled shoes (a good two-inch heel) which he invented himself to compensate for his shortness. Were the image anything other than royalty we might be tempted to call the pose effeminate. Complete with a massive, sheathed sword and gold walking stick, the king seems to literally be "strutting his stuff." The French fleur-de-lis pattern in the royal robes matches the upholstery of both the royal throne and royal ottoman upon which rests the royal crown.    
Despite the pompous pose and the distracting magnificence of the setting, the direct gaze of the man behind the legend makes the portrait movingly human. Rigaud's great talent rested in his uncanny ability to minimize his figure's less-attractive features while still managing to maintain a good likeness. His handling of fabric and textures is nothing less than exquisite, even though to our eyes, the whole painted extravaganza borders on the hilarious.

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