Louis XVI, King of France (1754-1793).
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais
Publication date: March 2016
Grandson of Louis XV to whom he succeeded in 1774, Louis XVI was hardly prepared to assume the royalty. Impervious to new ideas despite a real interest in the progress of science and technology, indecisive and easily influenced, the king did not have the courage to support the reforms proposed by his ministers: his reign was marked by a series of of political and economic crises which were to lead to the destruction of the Ancien Régime.
In 1789, under pressure from the Third Estate, he had to accept the transformation of the Estates General into a National Assembly as well as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. On September 14, 1791, he accepted the Constitution and swore loyalty to the nation: stripped of his thousand-year-old power of divine right, he was now only the king of the french.
Louis XVI is represented on a prancing horse. He wears a red coat on which we can see the orders of the Holy Spirit and the Golden Fleece. On his hat is the tricolor cockade, an insignia uniting the white of the monarchy with the blue and red of the City of Paris, which the king, in a gesture of prudent conciliation, had agreed to display, as of July 17, 1789, at City Hall. In his right hand he holds a sword on which we read: The law. In the lower right, on a stone, this signature: Carteaux Peintre du Roi, officer of the Parisian Cavalry 1791.
The deserted landscape (only an acanthus adorns the foreground in the lower left corner) seems in opposition to the traditional conception of the heroic portrait with a military background, which the prancing horse nevertheless suggests. Likewise, the resigned air of the monarch, with a beautiful psychological truth, testifies to the artist's real distance from the art of the official portrait.
The romantic personality of Jean-Baptiste-François Carteaux, painter and man of war, deserves to be underlined here: only the Revolution could offer a personality of this caliber such an eventful career. He was introduced to painting by Gabriel-François Doyen while he was working on the vault of the dome of the Invalides, where Carteaux was learning the profession of arms under the guidance of his father, a dragon.
This equestrian portrait representing the constitutional monarch is undoubtedly the culmination of the various attempts that the painter made to establish himself as an official portrait painter: indeed, before painting Louis XVI, Carteaux had approached the Prince of Georgia, had passed through Dresden and , in 1787 in Berlin, had carried out the portrait of the King of Prussia, after an eventful journey which had already brought him to Saint Petersburg and Warsaw. No doubt the strangeness of this Prussian portrait reflects the artist's own visual culture. Nevertheless, the political content of this work cannot escape the eye of the historian: after having supported the constitutional monarch, Carteaux broke away from it and joined the people on August 10, 1792. The end the idealization of the sovereign represented here as a citizen guarantor of the Law announced the painter's commitment to the sans-culottes party, thus anticipating the fall of monarchical power.
- Louis XVI
- constitutional monarchy
- Civil Constitution of the Clergy
- Days of October 1789
- equestrian portrait
- French Revolution
Edmund BURKE, Reflections on the French Revolution, Paris, Hachette, "Pluriels", 1989. Claire CONSTANS, National Museum of the Palace of Versailles. The paintings, 2 vol. Paris, RMN, 1995 François FURET and Mona OZOUF, Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution : articles "Louis XVI", "Procès du roi" Paris, Flammarion, 1988, rééd.coll. "Champs", 1992.Evelyne LEVER, Louis XVI, Paris, Fayard, 1985 Collective, Exhibition catalog, The French Revolution and Europe 1789-1799, Paris, Grand Palais, 1989.
To cite this article
Robert FOHR and Pascal TORRÈS, "Louis XVI as citizen king"