Louis XIV’s arrival at the Getty this summer—in the form of four exhibitions—brings with it a comprehensive, 344-page catalog published by the Getty Research Institute in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The exhibition and book A Kingdom of Images: French Prints in the Age of Louis XIV, 1660–1715 showcase the extraordinary etchings and engravings produced during the Sun King’s reign—a period widely regarded as a golden age in French printmaking.
As the person assigned to manage the book project and edit every one of its 125,000 words, I found myself immersed in Louis’s world for a full year, from the moment the first unedited texts arrived in my inbox to the day our talented graphic designer sent the final layouts to the printer.
My guides to this initially unfamiliar realm were the book’s authors—an international group of eleven specialists in Los Angeles and Paris who wrote the volume’s 15 essays and 109 catalog entries. Through their texts, and their patient answers to my many questions, I ventured into the fascinating world of French printmaking. A world where master artisans create magnificent, often monumental, images; where the king understands as well as any modern-day politician or celebrity how to deploy those pictures to influence public opinion; and where the Crown’s forward-thinking ministers devise new ways to promote and regulate the arts in order to elevate France’s prestige and glorify their king.
I was indeed dazzled by the virtuoso portraits of the rich and famous, by the oversize renderings of Versailles and other ambitious architectural enterprises, and by images presenting Louis in all his glory.
And yet, over and over again, I found myself drawn not to those majestic and grandiose images but instead to the characters and rogues, the schemers and charmers, the workaday husbands, wives, and children who also inhabited the Sun King’s realm. Some of these characters are featured subjects in their own right; others reside in the background or skirt the margins.
Several fellows even turn their back on the viewer, offering us a raunchy collection of bare buttocks. These bottoms-up prints belong to a genre of humorous, often moralizing, popular images that satirized human nature, illustrated well-known proverbs, or cautioned against vices and social injustice. The printmakers exploited topics from the domestic to the scatological for full comic effect and moral instruction.
Depicting punishment by the birch, the rod, and the gallows, the print shown below features a bare bottom inscribed (in French) “beautiful pair of glasses.” The better to see the various proverbs scattered on the page, many encouraging a heavy-handed approach: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son” and “Woman and mule, strike them on the ass.”
Marital discord provided a rich vein for printmakers to mine. Here the wife has become so angry with her husband that she beats him with a birch branch. He tearfully tries to shield his backside, apologizing for, among other things, failing to buy her an elegant-enough wardrobe.
Bathroom humor, then as now, was a staple of mockery and satire. La Fleur’s Ass takes this to new heights (or depths) by showing the protagonist shamelessly defecating in public, in front of a shop selling watches and spectacles.
Perhaps my favorite image of all is this one, of a charismatic (and fully clothed) street musician.
This shabby yet jaunty fellow gazes directly at us, gesturing to his sheet music. His warm eyes and easy smile draw us in, inviting us to take a closer look at the graffiti around his feet, the papers in his pouch, and the inscriptions at the top and bottom of the print.
A close inspection of the print, combined with an equally close reading of the text (that’s an editor’s job, after all!), yields satisfying insights into his identity and personality. Seated before us atop a parapet of the famous Parisian bridge the pont Neuf, with buildings of the Louvre in the background, is Guillaume de Limoges. This cheerful fellow is an itinerant singer who entertains rustic members of the lower classes, as well as the occasional Parisian courtier, with drinking songs and other witty refrains. He walks with a limp, but that infirmity hasn’t dampened his high spirits: he remains a lively, perhaps even eccentric, iconoclast.
How do we know so much about Guillaume? It’s all on the page, expertly decoded for us by Bibliothèque nationale curator and scholar Maxime Préaud, a specialist in seventeenth-century French prints.
Words on the drapery at the top of the print identify the character:
“Here is the portrait and eulogy of the famous singer named Guillaume de Limoges, the sprightly fellow with the limp.”
Guillaume’s leather-clad feet rest on a crutch, further evidence of his injury.
The sheets of paper peeking out from a worn pouch bear these song lyrics:
“Ah, what a good wine”
“The bottle full of Spanish wine is my love”
The low wall that Guillaume sits on is covered with graffiti, mainly caricatures of the types of plebeian figures who constitute the singer’s principal audience. However, an inscription in the bottom margin—along with a glimpse of the Louvre in the background—alludes to his appeal among the upper classes:
“If he sings a new song, the bourgeois woman and the young lady, the artisan and the courtier all alike come to hear him.”
Other inscriptions on the bottom margin sing the praises of our singer, and give us a glimpse of his personality and his effect on Parisian listeners:
“This sprightly, limping fellow, through his deeds and manners when singing his songs, thumbs his nose at the greatest masters of music.”
“His behavior is quite ingenious; this man has more wit than an ox, since he teaches a whole city without ever leaving the pont Neuf.”
Our clever hero, it seems, lived and performed on his own terms, “thumbing his nose” at the masters of music, and becoming famous in the process:
“Who would be so bold as to dare speak ill of him, since in the past the learned Homer did what he does today?”
When I first encountered this print, I was immediately drawn to the appealing fellow on the wall. But looking at it on my own yielded little additional information. It took the insights and context provided by the author of the catalog entry to bring Guillaume de Limoges alive for me.
The primary audience for the book A Kingdom of Images, French Prints in the Age of Louis XIV, 1660–1715 is scholars and art historians interested in seventeenth-century French printmaking. But I feel sure that the catalog will reward any reader who finds pleasure in looking closely at virtuoso works of art, guided by knowledgeable experts. Who could resist characters like these, bare bottoms and all?
These prints and many more are on view in the exhibition A Kingdom of Images, organized by the Getty Research Institute in special collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.