I talked to Louis Marchesano, curator of prints and drawings at the Getty Research Institute, about the exhibition Printing the Grand Manner: Charles Le Brun and Monumental Prints in the Age of Louis XIV, now on view at the GRI—how it came to the Getty, and how it illustrates the rise and fall of Le Brun, who spent years as Louis XIV’s top artist.
What is the exhibition Printing the Grand Manner about?
It’s about a small group of large-scale prints that were published by the painter Charles Le Brun and by the French Crown’s press under Le Brun’s supervision from the mid-1660s to the mid-1680s. The prints are artistic reproductions of important designs Le Brun made for tapestries and paintings while he was Louis XIV’s first painter. It’s fair to say that Le Brun was the most powerful artist in France, given his control of the army of artists that worked for Louis XIV. Le Brun himself had resources to do what no one else could do: to make these huge prints and disseminate his work on an impressive scale throughout Europe.
The prints survive in relatively small numbers, because by the 19th century, what we now call “reproductive prints” were considered nothing but mere reproductions. The bigger examples were less likely to survive undamaged because they are unwieldy.
How did the prints in the exhibition survive?
Sometime in the 18th or early 19th century, the Princes of Lichtenstein, who have a famous art collection, bought a group of Le Brun prints to add to their massive collections. They were disbound from volumes, put on heavy boards, and then stored in big folders and I imagine largely forgotten until I ran into them in a dealer’s gallery in 2003.
Who were Le Brun’s printmakers?
Gérard Audran and Gérard Edelinck—not exactly household names. However, they were as well known as Rembrandt and Dürer (well, almost as well known) in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when they were considered artists in their own right. For the history of art, the works of these two printmakers, their techniques and skills, are extraordinarily important and still not fully appreciated.
In general, the training of printmakers was more or less parallel to the training of painters whose designs they were expected to translate into graphic pictorial equivalents—I mean into etchings and engravings. Now, some painters said that printmakers were the servants of painters because they didn’t want printmakers changing their original designs.
It was understood that a printmaker had to be trained as an artist in order to “imitate” or faithfully reproduce a complex work of art. But printmakers really believed that they had the skills to improve on a painter’s original composition if that composition contained, say, a poorly drawn figure. Why’d they think this? The foundation of all good art making—whether painting, prints, sculpture, architecture—was drawing, so printmakers who were trained in the art of drawing claimed that their skills were equivalent to those of the best painters.
In the 18th century, long after Le Brun was dead, an extraordinary thing happened: many critics came to believe that Audran’s graphic translations were better than the original paintings he copied from Le Brun. They believed this because they thought Audran was the better draftsman and therefore better able to execute Le Brun’s complex ideas.
The first set of prints in the exhibit depicts Roman emperor Constantine. What are these prints about?
The Battle at the Milvian Bridge and the Triumphal Entry into Rome are based on an unfinished painting and a tapestry designed by Le Brun. They are really incredible productions, with seven sheets printed from seven separate copperplates that are cobbled together to make two huge images. They are big, and you really should be impressed.
They are also very intentional pastiches of Raphael and Peter Paul Rubens. The extraordinary bridge falling apart under the feet of frightened horses and soldiers is taken from Rubens; the figure of Constantine himself is taken from Raphael. By recalling the work of these old masters, Le Brun was measuring himself against the two painters who were considered ideal artists—and who Le Brun appears to have thought of as rivals, at least in terms of their reputations.
When Le Brun published these prints, their relation to Rubens and Raphael and their incredible size can’t have gone unnoticed. What he’s saying is, I’ve arrived. He was newly in service to Louis XIV and he’d worked on tapestries and paintings, designed decorative arts and architecture, and worked on festivals. The one thing he hadn’t done before this is publish his own prints. These unusually large pendants are his inaugural publications as a print publisher—he’s not fooling around!
What do the inscriptions say?
They tell the story of victors of just wars. Constantine—who’s a reminder of Louis XIV—established peace and laws, and then, because of that peace and those laws, the arts were able to flourish. On the surface, these images are really about Constantine and Louis, but when we dig deeper into the imagery and the inscriptions we see that the images take us back to Le Brun himself. Whose job was it to oversee the flourishing of the arts? Le Brun’s. So Le Brun becomes part of this pictorial drama that, at first glance, has little to do with his activities as the king’s primary artist.
I really love the way Le Brun redeploys the compositions of paintings and tapestries in printed form. The inscription of the Battle at the Milivian Bridge compares Louis XIV to Constantine, equating Louis XIV’s activities with the imperial ambitions of the ancient Romans. It focuses on the establishment of laws and justice and peace and stability. However, look just above the inscription that brags about good fortune and peace and laws. You see a soldier kneeling down, holding a decapitated head—clenching the hair with his teeth!—so his hands are free to decapitate his next victim, who is still alive but trapped under a horse. The kneeling soldier is just about to cut through the neck of that poor guy—and look closely at the hands—the victim is making one last and obviously futile attempt to stop the decapitation. Ugghhh.
That’s not exactly the picture of peace, tranquility, and the flourishing of the arts, is it?
Tell me about the prints depicting the battles of Alexander the Great.
The battles of Alexander—there are five—are based on Le Brun’s monumental paintings on the feats of Alexander the Great. He must have imagined that these huge monstrosities would be housed at some new palace in Paris or, maybe, at a refurbished Louvre. But then Louis XIV moved his court, slowly, to Versailles; the paintings were problematic for Louis XIV, because he and his advisors had been saying for a while, “Why are we comparing Louis XIV to Alexander as if Louis were a modern version of the ancient hero? There’s no need for such comparisons, because Louis XIV is the vessel of his own incomparable glory.”
By the time the court moved to Versailles, Louis XIV was being pictured as the hero of his own story. In the paintings in the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles he’s shown wearing Roman armor and a 17th-century wig, surrounded by Hercules and Minerva. The king is a part of this fanciful allegory that stands for actual historical events.
That’s a form of painting that Le Brun was very good at, but it wasn’t considered the most appropriate for an intellectual artist. In the classical tradition, the highest-ranking genre was history painting in the Grand Manner. This means visual storytelling imagined in a plausible way, where events are opportunities for heroic figures to emit lofty ideals. The prints of the battles of Alexander kept alive Le Brun’s reputation as a history painter.
What happened to Le Brun’s career then?
I’ll tell you the end of the story. He made a few other things; you’ll see them in the exhibition. But the story ends here with The Fall of the Rebel Angels, published around the mid-1680s. Le Brun made a painted model of a larger composition that included this design. He proposed to execute the larger painting for the main chapel at Versailles in 1682, but it didn’t work out. A few years later, he tried to get Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s successor as the minister of the king’s works, the Marquis de Louvois, to commission this design for another church in Paris. Here’s the problem: Louvois and Colbert were rival ministers in the French court. And after Colbert died, Louvois took out his hatred for Colbert on Le Brun. Obviously, Louvois wasn’t about to give big commissions to Le Brun.
Le Brun was in a sticky situation and had to deal with Louvois very carefully. Le Brun decided to take a section of the rejected model and make a print out of it, and then dedicate it to the Marquis de Louvois, whose full name is François-Michel Le Tellier. And Le Brun was being clever, because the picture, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, shows the beautiful archangel Michael—one of the sacred patrons of Michel Le Tellier—banishing the rebel angels from heaven.
The flattery gets even more clever, because just a few years before this print was made Louvois and Louis XIV had begun to persecute French Protestants. Many were killed or immigrated to Holland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Michel Le Tellier was in a sense the manager of the persecution because he was, in effect, the minister of war. Basically, here Le Brun was showing the archangel Michael, God’s warrior, expelling the rebel angels from heaven as a Counter-Reformation allegory related to Louvois’s actions expelling the “rebel” Protestants from France.
Le Brun presented the painted modello and the print to Louvois publicly. Louvois rejected the commission, humiliating Le Brun and effectively ending his artistic reign.
At one point, Louvois was even planning to have Le Brun arrested, but Le Brun was saved by Louis who thanked him for his long service. You might see the Fall of the Rebel Angels as a sign of the painter’s defeat, but it’s also a sign of his victory in a weird way, because this print along with the others in this exhibition became some of the most sought after works of art in France and later in all of Europe.