185 – To finish the King.

Rosalba Carriera, King Louis XV of France, 1720-21. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

If I’m honest, it’s not been the best week. To start off with, last week I said I would be doing a play in February: I’m not. It’s a long story, but not something I needed to lose my head about, though, and fortunately neither I, nor today’s subject, did (that was his grandson). Here we have Louis XV as painted (see below) by Rosalba Carriera, one of the most successful, innovative and influential artists of the 18th Century, about whom I will be speaking on Monday 30 January when I ask if her work, and that of her contemporaries, constitutes A Vindication of the Arts of Women?

It is a bust-length portrait of King Louis XV, who must have been ten when it was painted (see below). He had succeeded his great grandfather Louis XIV five years earlier, and, until he reached his majority (at the age of 13) in 1723, his great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, was regent. The painting is often listed as Louis XV as Dauphin, which is odd, as he was Dauphin (heir to the throne, the French equivalent of the Prince of Wales) from the age of two until he became King at five. He is clearly older than that here. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (‘Painting Gallery of Old Masters’) in Dresden, which has the best collection of Carriera’s work, and to which this painting belongs, correctly calls him King. I say ‘painting’ advisedly, as pastels have always, traditionally, been called paintings, even if they are done with crayons rather than brushes. My primary school training (painting is with brushes, drawing with pencils and crayons) fights against it, but there you go. Pastels are, like paint, a pigment supported in a medium. The pigments are the same, but for pastels the medium is gum arabic (or an equivalent), mixed with a ‘filler’, often kaolin (a type of clay). The medium supports and protects the pigment, as well as fixing it to the support, just as it does in a paint, and the technique is used, as it is with a paint, to colour broad areas of the support – which, for pastels, is a thick, prepared paper. Rosalba Carriera was the early master of the developing medium – but more about that on Monday.

Her control of the technique was second to none, and you can see that here in the subtle variation of tones across the King’s face, modelling the form in three dimensions while not making it too solid and sculptural. It is possible to blend different coloured pastels together, either with the fingers or rolls of paper (a process known as ‘stumping’), but you cannot mix them freely on the surface as you can with oils. This means that, if you want a greater degree of subtlety, you need a large number of different crayons covering the whole range of hues and tones (colours and shades). As well as her subtlety of tone, Carriera was also remarkably adept at suggesting that you can see things which aren’t actually there – the hair for example. The locks on the right of the image were built up on a very deep brown, which is just shading – there is nothing especially ‘hair-like’ about it: it’s almost plain, unmodulated black. But then the swift strokes of auburn on top of it, tipped with touches of butterscotch, give it all the lustre of youth and build it into vibrant curls. All of this encourages the mind’s eye to fill in details for the almost black shadows which, in reality, have no detail. The King’s eyes are given catchlights with the smallest dab of a white crayon, and the mind expands these to fill the whole surface of the eye, white and all, with a liquid glow. The catchlights also help to focus the eyes on us – or maybe, looking just past us.

The lace of the stock is also a marvel of abbreviation. Using a white crayon again, she would have run the length of it across the surface, creating a white haze, almost like a semi-transparent gauze. Then, using a sharpened end, she would have drawn in a few loops of white around the edges to create the sensation of lace. For the water silk of the sleeve the orange/red base was elaborated with darker red lines, and some of the spaces then filled with freely drawn white lines of different strengths to suggest different intensities of reflected light. Where there is less reflection, the base shows through more.

The King’s status is made clear at the bottom of the painting. Wrapped around his back and across his left arm is an ermine-lined cape, telling us that he is King. He is also wearing a light blue ribbon, and a Maltese Cross-shaped badge. These are the accoutrements of the Order of the Holy Spirit, established by Henry III of France in 1578: by this point he considered the older Order of St Michael to be somewhat devalued. In French ‘blue ribbon’ is cordon bleu. The order was supposed to have had such lavish banquets that before long the their nickname – ‘Les Cordons Bleus’ – became synonymous with haute cuisine. Well, that’s one theory. The badge shows the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove mounted on the Maltese cross, the details of which are all symbolic (with numbers relating to the gospels and the beatitudes, for example), although Carriera, for probably obvious reasons, shows it only schematically.

Rosalba’s fame had spread from Venice as early as 1700, and she was invited to Paris by some of the leading lights in the arts. Notable among them was Pierre Crozat, a great patron, who is seen as especially important for his promotion of the work of Antoine Watteau (whose portrait Carriera painted). While in France she wrote a fascinating journal made up of regular entries which are, by turns, succinct and intriguing, informative and amusing. This has been transcribed and translated into English by Neil Jeffares, whose exhaustive Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 is (a) the go-to resource for anyone interested in the subject and (b) available for free online. For the Dictionary, click on Dictionary, and for the Journal, click on Journal.

Carriera was in Paris for nearly a year, and she makes many references to her encounters with the King, whether seeing him dine, inspect the troops, or sit for a portrait. For example, on 14 June 1721, she ‘Began the small portrait of the King’. Then six days later, (20 June), ‘Thursday, in heavy rain, went to the King, and began his large portrait’. She went back the next day: ‘I went to the King’s with a terrible headache; then went to the table of the Duke Governor, who took me by the hand, and said: “you must have been nice for the King to be so patient”. It’s hard to imagine. A ten-year old head of state of what was arguably the most powerful nation in the world, sitting still for long enough to have his portrait taken… particularly with everything that might happen (see 25 June). She was back again the next day (22 June): ‘Went with others to the King’s’. It seems to have become almost habitual. My favourite entry, though, is undoubtedly three days later: ‘25. Went with my brother-in-law to finish the King, who suffered three small accidents: his gun was dropped, his parrot died, and his dog fell ill.’ I can’t imagine how the poor little Sun King coped with it all. I’m not sure how Rosalba Carriera coped with it all either: she must have had the patience of a Saint (she does seem to have been quite religious). The ‘brother-in-law’, by the way, was Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, one of the great men artists of Venice (why does that sound stranger than ‘women artists’?), who had married her sister Angela, and had previously spent a number of years decorating some of the Stately Homes of England.

So far we have mentioned two portraits of the King – one small, one large – but there are others. On ‘First of August, Thursday. I had orders from the King to make a small portrait of him for the Duchesse de Ventadour, and on the same day I began another small portrait also of the King’ and two days later she ‘ordered ivory for the miniature of the King’. Again, on 19 August, ‘Started the small portrait of the King’. There are also references to copies… It’s hard to say which version this is, but it could be one of the four ‘small’ portraits mentioned on 14 June, 1 August (two examples) or 19 August. The last three could be the ones later referred to as copies – it’s hard to tell. Still, they were all made in 1720 so it seems safe to say he was 10. But we can’t be 100% sure.

Overall the portrait has an extraordinary sense of confidence, and even, swagger – for a 10-year-old, whose father and grandfather were both dead by the time he was two. His chest faces to the front left, with his left shoulder towards the front right, thus defining two diagonals going back in space. He turns his head to look out towards us, even if he doesn’t appear to be entirely focussed on us. Affairs of state weighing on his young shoulders, perhaps. Or a dead parrot. His stock traces a diagonal from top right to lower left, and is paralleled, however briefly, by the ermine at the bottom right corner. The blue ribbon echoes this on the opposing diagonal, the lines of both stock and ribbon also being echoed by the locks of hair falling over both shoulders. These short, overlapping diagonals, the tumbling curls of the hair, the delicacy of handling and the delicacy of colour are all features which alert us to Carriera’s importance for the development of the Rococo. I think it’s a fantastic portrait, and I am lucky enough to have seen it in the flesh three or four times now (some of you might even have been there). I also think that Carriera will be a great introduction to the women of the 18th Century on Monday.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

2 thoughts on “185 – To finish the King.

  1. So sorry to hear that you will not be on stage. I was going over there tomorrow to buy a ticket! Delighted that your head is firmly attached to your shoulders.


    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you didn’t go last week! A real pity, but their loss (and nothing to do with the OSO, by the way, who seem to be good… it was the theatre company itself). Ah well. As they say in the business: Next!


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