For My Daily Art Display today I am returning to French art and a painting which is attributed to the French School around 1720. The title of the work is Madame de Ventadour with Portraits of Louis XIV and his Heirs. It has all the grandeur and splendour one would expect in the pre-Revolution days when French life was controlled by the Monarchy.
I suppose the first thing I should talk about is who are all these people standing before us with their dignified regal poses? In the painting we see four adults and a child in what is meant to look like an elegantly decorated room in the Palace of Versailles. In the right background we can see the lavish gardens of the palace. The people in the painting pose like actors playing to an audience and maybe we are that audience who marvels open-mouthed at such opulence. Seated centre stage, as befits the most important person of the group, is King Louis XIV, the King of France. Leaning on the back of his chair is his son, Louis, the Grand Dauphin and heir to the French throne. On the right dressed sumptuously in a red velvet coat with gold brocade is the Dauphin’s eldest son and Louis XIV’s grandson, Louis, Duc de Bourgone who is second in line to the French throne. The lady on the left is the lady of the title of the painting, Madame de Ventadour, who was the governess to the royal children and finally, the child in front of her, who is actually a boy despite the dress, and he is the great grandson of Louis XIV, Louis, the Duc d’Anjou, who would later become King Louis XV. Two other personalities are present in the painting but only in the form of busts. On the plinth in the left background we have the bust of King Henri IV, the deceased head of the Bourbon dynasty and on the plinth to the right we have the bust of King Louis XIII the deceased King of France and Louis XIV’s father. Madame de Ventadour can be seen to the left of the painting but more about her later.
Louis XIV’s father Louis XIII had an arranged marriage with Anne of Austria when he was only fourteen years of age. Anne suffered four miscarriages and the Royal couple waited twenty-eight years for their first child, Louis, to be born in 1638. Five years after the birth of his son, Louis XIII died. An amusing anecdote is related regarding the deathbed scene of the forty-one year old Louis XIII and his five year old son. The dying man asked his son did he know who he was, the little boy replied:
“….Louis the Fourteenth, Father….”
To which his father quickly retorted:
“…You are not Louis the Fourteenth, yet….”
Louis came to the throne as Louis XIV on the death of his father at the age of four and ruled France for just over seventy-two years from 1643 to 1715 and as such, it is one of the longest recorded reigns of any European monarch. He was known as the Sun King as he identified himself with the Sun God Apollo and it was probably in his honour that the picture of Apollo riding his chariot, which we see on the rear wall, was incorporated into the painting.
As the title of the painting states, this is a painting depicting Louis XIV’s heirs. Actually we are looking at members from four generations. We have the king seated, his son with the white wig, his grandson with the red coat and his great grandson the small child. So why did this little boy, the king’s great grandson, become the next king on the death of his great grandfather? The reason is simple but in some ways tragic. Louis XIV lived a very long life, dying just four days before his seventy-seventh birthday in 1715. His eldest son, the man standing behind his chair in the painting died of smallpox in 1711, aged 49. The next in line for the throne would have been Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, the man in the painting wearing the red coat, but he, his wife and one of their sons died of a measles epidemic in 1712. This meant the little five year old boy, Louis duc d’Anjou, who we see in the painting with his governess Madame de Ventadour became Louis XV.
But why is this lady included in this royal portrait? Like many of her family, Madame de Ventadour was the Gouvernante des enfants royaux, (Governess of the Children of France). She became the royal governess in 1704. It was amusing to read about her husband, Louis, Duke of Ventadour for though through marriage she became a duchess, she had a lot to put up with. In L C Syms’ book of 1898 entitled Selected Letters of Madame de Sévigné (Madame de Ventadour’s daughter) one letter described the Duke de Ventadour as being
“horrific — very ugly, physically deformed, and sexually debauched”
However, she was credited as having saved the life of the soon to be Louis XV at a time when his elder brother, father and mother all succumbed to the deadly disease. The family was treated by the royal doctors, who bled them in the belief that it would help them to recover; instead, it merely weakened them and reduced their chances of survival. She decided that she would not allow the same treatment to be applied to the two year old Duke of Anjou so Madame de Ventadour locked herself up with three nursery maids, and refused to allow the doctors near the boy.
The painting was commissioned to celebrate the role of the lady in ensuring the continuation of the Bourbon dynasty. It is interesting to see how the seated king and the young child point to each other. Maybe that symbolises the connection between great grandfather and his great grandson in as much as the crown passed between these two and circumvented the other two men in the painting. If we want to look at symbolic connections in this painting, look how the bust of Louis XIII on the right hand pedestal, the seated Louis XIV and the little boy, Louis XV, the three consecutive French monarchs, are connected by an imaginary diagonal line – just a coincidence ?
The painting can be seen by visiting the Wallace Collection in London.