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A royal acquisition for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Hyacinthe Rigaud, Modello for the Portrait of Louis XIV in Royal Ceremonial Robes, 1701. Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm.

MONTREAL.- 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.”

Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Senior Curator of Old Masters, had this to say about the work: “The canvas is in very good condition and has not been refixed. The exquisite execution succeeds in concentrating formidable power into a small format. The attention paid to the textures is admirable and is to some extent more impressive than the large final version: look attentively at the rendering of the ermine and the velvet and also the way in which the fleurs de lys, following the curves of the folds in the cloak bend and twist, catching the light, something that is not evident in the final version.”

“By representing the contact of the king’s skin with the regalia, the painter is accentuating his special status among men,” added Sylvain Cordier, Curator of Early Decorative Arts. “Louis XIV is the only one who can touch with his bare hands the sacred instruments that confirm his royalty: anyone looking at the painting was aware of this. In our world, awash in political images, it is exciting to look at the composition of an official portrait as emblematic as this one, which uses specific codes and a profusion of detail to depict his royal majesty and legitimacy as a ruler in the seventeenth century. We are the inheritors of this past, which also raised profound questions that led to the rise of democracy and citizenship. Today, as we view this ‘icon,’ it feels both familiar and distant.”

“The acquisition of this key work in the history of state portraiture is a significant addition to our collection from a historical point of view, given Louis XIV’s role in the administration of New France,” said Jacques Des Rochers, Curator of Quebec and Canadian Art (before 1945). “Under his rule, it became a royal province the same as other French provinces, with a similar administrative structure: governor, bishop, intendant and sovereign council, which ensured better control over its development. Sendng the Carignan-Salière regiment to defend the colony — one-third of its soldiers and officers would stay permanently — as well as the King’s Daughters, young marriageable women who were in short supply, underscores the importance of his efforts to populate the colony. Although limited to the new continent, it was without precedent. In 1701, the year in which Rigaud painted the king’s portrait, numerous attempts to achieve peace between the kingdom of France and some forty indigenous nations culminated in the signing of the Great Peace of Montreal. In Quebec’s collective imagination, these facts are essential building blocks in our identity.”

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.

There is a second signed version conserved at the Château de Versailles. This portrait is a remarkably significant example in the history of art. The canvas was recently rediscovered at the European Fine Arts Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht by art dealer Éric Coatalem.

According to specialist Ariane James Sarrazin, a painting with the same dimensions as ours, which until recently was considered to be the modello (Musée Condé de Chantilly), is in fact a ricordo (rendered after completion).

“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 coronation in Rheims served only to legitimize his sanctity. 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. His movement is not random: it follows the direction indicated by the hand of justice, the other ceremonial staff which, among the coronation regalia, symbolized the blessing on the sovereign. Thus, Louis XIV is shown moving in the direction indicated by God.

The fact that Louis XIV is depicted alone is a further evocation of his unique position at the head of the kingdom. The king is set in an environment filled with objects assembled by Rigaud to create a rich and coherent iconography of royal authority. Showing the king in the architectural context of a palace, an imaginary one, conveys a particular symbolism. The king reigns over his kingdom and his people, but he does so in a contained and rationally circumscribed environment. The architecture alludes to solidity, stability, balance and magnificence, thereby upholding the concept of just government.

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.

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