Portraits of sovereigns and heads of state
Key 19 Louis XVI, 1789, by Antoine-François Callet. Oil on canvas. 246 x 192 cm. Collection du musée d'art Roger-Quilliot, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand. Photo: Musée Roger-Quilliot, Clermont-Ferrand
Louis XVI, 1789, by Antoine-François Callet. Oil on canvas. 246 x 192 cm. Collection du musée d'art Roger-Quilliot, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand. Photo: The most important portrait of the monarch was made at the time of his or her coronation, since this was the moment when the human body took on the awesome responsibilities of royal authority. This dual representation of person and power meant that the symbols of royal majesty, the crown, sceptre, orb and sword of state, became as important as the actual likeness of the monarchs themselves, and both needed an appropriate setting. The prototype had been established in the seventeenth century, and was always a full-length portrait, set in a spacious interior with classical column and billowing curtain, and with gilt furniture on which important objects could be placed. Antoine-François Callet’s (1741–1823) portrait of Louis XVI provides a splendid example.
In England, where ‘divine right’ had been curbed by the constitutional settlement of 1688, there was greater restraint. The influence of Dutch group portraiture, with its emphasis on civic virtue as well as on family pleasures, encouraged aristocratic families in England and France to commission similar ‘conversation’ pieces. By the reign of George III the royal family could be presented in more relaxed, informal situations, allowing their subjects to identify with their humanity as well as their authority.
The military exploits of the most powerful ruler of the period, Napoleon, enabled artists to produce many images of a great man. In his role as Emperor, there is a conflict between his new status and his previous position as Consul of the Republic.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoléon 1er sur le trône impérial, 1806. Oil on canvas, 260 x 163 cm.
Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812. Oil on canvas, 203.9 x 125.1 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1961.9.15.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) draws on images of Greek gods or medieval emperors in his portrait of Napoleon. His stress on the symbolic functions of the role, at the expense of the human, underlines the authoritarian nature of the regime. In contrast, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) depicts a man who has worked through the night for the good of his people, defended both by the wisdom of his laws and the strength of his sword.
For the sculptor, the equestrian monument and the outdoor public statue required an emphasis on traditional images of royal power, but in the portrait bust there was a greater interest in characterisation and personality. Louis-Simon Boizot’s (1743–1809) bust of Marie-Antoinette shows her as a lady of fashion with an elaborate hairstyle, topped by a rose-studded veil and tiara. Ringlets of hair caress her much admired neck, and her bejewelled gown and fleurs-de-lys cloak create an aura of regal elegance which supports the realistic representation of her features.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication
Citizens And Kings: An Introduction to the Exhibition (0.8 MB)