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Louis XIV: What France's Sun King did for art

Heike Mund / adSeptember 2, 2015

He didn't care for politics, but Louis XIV left behind artistic treasures. He died 300 years ago this month and France is celebrating by pulling out white wigs, masks and old instruments.

Portrait of France's King XIV, Copyright: public domain
Image: public domain

Celebrations in France marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV (1638 -1715) are, well, fit for a king. A total of 30,000 sheets of finest gold leaf have been used in the renovation of the famous Fountain of Latona, one of the numerous historical landmarks in Paris that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world.

This year, the entire country is celebrating its Sun King, who was once ignominiously chased from the highest office of the state to die a miserable death in September 1715.

The reign of King Louis XIV, one of the longest of the modern era, was marked by contradictions.

The Sun King was more interested in the fine arts than in politics and government affairs, and he has left behind some truly impressive architectural achievements, including the Les Invalides building complex, the Place Vendôme, and the elegant Champs-Elysées boulevard which is now home to the prestigious Ritz Hotel and the city's most expensive jewelry shops.

Palace of Versailles, Copyright: picture-alliance/ZB/A. Engelhardt
Versailles, part of Louis XIV's legacy, is at the top of most tourists' to-do listImage: picture-alliance/ZB/A. Engelhardt

The centerpiece of his court was the Palace of Versailles, a Baroque symbol of his unlimited power, his love for art and his immense wealth. Nowadays it's at the top of tourists' must-see list.

Louis XIV picked art over politics

With its extensive gardens, playful pavilions and noble palace buildings, Versailles offered the appropriate backdrop for artistic life at the court of Louis XIV, who surrounded himself with thousands of aristocrats, composers and artists.

Entire legions of servants attended to the wellbeing of the royal guests that were invited by the king to take part in his opulent feasts and masked balls. The public appearance of his mistresses was always a highlight of his lavish parties.

As King of France and Navarre from 1643 to 1715, Louis XIV took particular pride in his sumptuously decorated, 73-meter-long (240-foot) hall of mirrors. That's where castle concerts, theater performances, and especially Louis' beloved dancing quadrilles took place.

His Majesty himself, clad in various costumes, loved to perform in these dances. Among the spectators was also the playwright and actor Molière. After winning the favor of the arts-friendly Sun King, he belonged to his entourage starting in 1611. Since Molière had the privilege of observing the king up close, many of his well known plays contain character studies of the sickly sovereign.

Palace of Versailles, Copyright: picture-alliance/abaca/B. Romain
Versailles: Louis XIV didn't cut corners when it came to luxuryImage: picture-alliance/abaca/B. Romain

According to the tradition of the French kings, Louis XIV liked to act as a generous patron and supporter of artists - with the ulterior motive of immortalizing himself in paintings and compositions. After all, the color "royal blue" was introduced in art on his behalf.

Louis XIV appointed Italian ballet master and composer Jean-Baptiste Lully as "music master of the royal family," Molière wrote plays for him, and landscape and garden designer André Le Notre realized the ornate palace gardens at Versailles for the demanding King.

Paris puts on its wigs and masks

The preparations for the presentation of the rich cultural world of Louis XIV are currently in full swing all over France, and especially in Paris. Historical masked balls with wigs and crinolines, accompanied by music from the day, remind a modern-day public of the tastes that prevailed during Louis XIV's reign.

A major exhibition entitled "The King is Dead" will be shown in the Palace of Versailles from October 2015. As curator Gérard Sabatier told the press, it will be the first one of its kind.

On display will be objects and jewels from the royal treasury, drawings, lithographs, paintings, and precious documents, such as the Sun King's 16-page will. It had disappeared for decades, but resurfaced during an auction in 2009 and is now in the possession of a French investor.