The Glory Machine

Book Review

  • A Kingdom of Images: French Prints in the Age of Louis XIV, 1660–1715

  • Edited by Peter Fuhring, Louis Marchesano, Rémi Mathis and Vanessa Selbach
  • 344 pages, 51 color, 138 b/w illustrations
  • Published by Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2015
  • $80

For those of us who believe that history is best told through objects and images, this book provides strength to our argument.1 In its pages we discover rarely exhibited or published works that reflect the collective aspirations, beliefs and aesthetic preferences of the French at the end of the 17th century, particularly those in the orbit of their influential monarch Louis XIV (1638–1715). While a great deal is already known about Louis XIV himself and his manner of self-presentation, not to mention his impact on the history of architecture and garden design, far less has been said about the conditions within which printmakers and print publishers operated during the time of his reign.2 This book allows us to understand more fully the specific aesthetic and economic parameters behind the production of some of art history’s most visually distinctive and technically accomplished prints.

The text itself comprises 109 individual catalogue entries, including, but not limited to, portraits by Robert Nanteuil, classical subjects by Claude Mellan, and various examples of the festivity and spectacle surrounding Louis XIV’s court. These entries are introduced by seven thematic essays treating subjects as varied as the practice of collecting prints, the status of the printmaker, and a meditation on the critical fortunes of Girard Audran and Gérard Edelinck, two of the period’s most important makers. The essays are all fairly short and each seems to open up questions for further study. One finds in these historical sketches valuable information elucidating the special conditions that conspired to produce the objects illustrated in the entries that follow. To wit, in Maxime Préaud’s essay, “Printmaking under Louis XIV,” one reads about the status of intaglio printmaking as a liberal art from the very early days of its practice in France. Since intaglio printmaking didn’t gain momentum there until relatively late—that is, in the 1630s—it is remarkable that within only a few decades the art form was explicitly protected by royal decree from the strictures of a guild.3 In addition to the elevated status afforded to printmakers, the king also directly employed a stable of artists to create prints in the service of his glorification; the project (generally called the Cabinet du Roi) was overseen by finance minister and taste maker Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and at its peak it generated no fewer than 50 plates a year.

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  1. A pioneering example in our field is Antony Griffiths’ The Print in Stuart Britain, 1603–1689 (London: The British Museum, 1998), which sets a high standard for how social and political history can be interwoven with art history. []
  2. Previous publications addressing similar or related topics include the essays collected in L’Estampe au Grand Siècle: Études offertes à Maxime Préaud, ed. Peter Fuhring, Barbara Bregjon de Lavergnée, Marianne Grival, Séverine Lepape, and Véronique Meyer (Paris: École Nationale des Chartes and Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2010) and Gérard Sabatier, “ ‘Le portrait de César, c’est César’: Lieux et mis en scène du portrait du roi dans la France de Louis XIV,” in L’image du roi de François Ier à Louis XIV, ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Nicole Hochner (Paris: Édition de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2006), 209–44. See also Louis Marchesano and Christian Michel, Printing the Grand Manner: Charles Le Brun and Monumental Prints in the Age of Louis XIV (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2010). Another important example that treats an earlier chapter in French history is The French Renaissance in Prints from the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Los Angeles, New York, Paris: Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1994). []
  3. Generally speaking, the guild system required practitioners of a specific art form or craft to register and to qualify for member or master status in order to practice a given trade. Taxes were often levied against goods produced by guild members, the amounts being determined on a collective rather than individual basis. In the 17th century, artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velázquez sought to liberate themselves from the regulations and status associated with guild membership, which they felt did not reflect their identities as practitioners of a liberal art rather than craft-based tradesmen. Two recent publications address the role of guilds in early modern Europe; see Stephen R. Epstein and Maarten Roy Prak, Guilds, Innovation, and the European Economy, 1400–1800 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and C. A. Davids and Bert De Munck, eds., Innovation and Creativity in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Cities (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2014). []