Wednesday, January 7, 2009

State Portraits of England and France

When a monarch (and his consort) rose to power, one of the best things to do to assert their awesome ability to rule a country was to paint them in all their glory. These fantastic paintings, known as state portraits, differ from other 18th century portraits because they expressed a political ideal of an all-powerful being. Decked out on in coronation robes, the full-length monarch holds their royal regalia in a timeless setting that displays their wealth. The portraits were meant to generate awe, and when you see them in person, your mouth does kind of hang open.

Of course I love comparing the English aesthetic to the French. King George and Queen Charlotte had no choice but to allow Joshua Reynolds to do their portraits since he was the head of the Royal Academy. They much preferred Gainsborough (who painted many portraits of them and their family) because of his personal views and style of painting; but decorum deemed they had to have Reynolds paint them. The result is a rather dark portrait duo. In Reynold's brown hues the two monarchs are seated at their thrones, looking as if they are being crushed by their heavy uniforms of state.

Now here comes those young kids who are ruling France! Judging by Louis' portrait you would never know the deathly shy, naive, scared little boy that is contained under the gold fleur de lys. He stands in his finery, a true descendant of the Sun King. His crown does not lay on his head but is on a pillow in the background as a reminder that yes, this is your king. Marie's portrait is quite interesting. While it compliments her husband's, it also is a testament to her purpose as France's consort: a union with Austria. While she is also decked out in France colours, flowers, and symbols she still shows a bit of her Austrian roots which she had to give up upon her marriage. On the table beside her sits a pillow with both a Hapsburg rose and the French lily, showing the uniting of countries. It is the only small hint at her true orgins. Meanwhile, those French lilies are popping out everywhere! Fresh lilies are placed in the folds of her grand corps gown, asserting her devotion to France, as well as making her smell really good while she was sweating during the painting of the portrait!


  1. Even thought the English are in their royal gowns, the French just look so majestic.

  2. Wow, I never knew that there was a genre of state portraits, but now it seems obvious.

    Uhh, does George seem to have a small head? A lot of Reynolds' heads are quite small, but this one really takes the palm.

  3. The french portraits are so much brighter and seem to be happier. Too bad we know the ending...

  4. The French portraits reflect so much more poise and elegance, but also their natural charm.

  5. they are all beautiful but i do like the french portraits the best because of their brightness and because of the colors that stand out.

    in person...i bet that they WOULD cause your mouth to fall open!

  6. Given the French (rococo) pallet, it is no wonder the French portraits are so bright compared to Reynold's dark pallet. It would be interesting to see Gainborough's version if he was allowed, although I'm sure it would still look dark in comparison.

    PG- It does look like he has a small head! Poor George. It's because of the perspective a long with the massive amount of clothes he's wearing.

    At the Royal Academy's exhibition Citizens and Kings (which was probably one of my all-time favourites) the first room contained all the state portraits of the monarchs of the time; George, Charlotte...even George IV, Napoleon, Louis (with a beautiful bust of Antoinette), Catherine, Washington, etc etc. I couldn't have thought of a better way to begin the exhibit. I remember just standing there, turning in circles in the circular room in awe.

  7. I saw the two French portraits last year and was surprised they were smaller than I thought they'd be. I've seen my fair share of full length Reynolds and these were def smaller. The lilies in her dress are just charming. He still looks like a regular Joe, but I think the artist did a good job of making Louis look as royal as could be---not his natural demeanor to be sure.

  8. These are quite interesting, because the British royalty portraits look very much like Van Dyck gets run over by Rembrandt. Whenever I think of Reynolds, something like this pops into my head. It's not fair to the man, he was quite talented, but he depresses me with his relentless austerity and that Rembrandtian black pall of doom lurking around the edges. Life and music were so bright and grandiose during his time, but Reynolds can't seem to help throwing wet blankets over everything. Was the poor man a Calvinist?

    Meanwhile, with poor Louis the Lost, I'm wondering what Reynolds had to be thinking, or if he was having an off day. It looks like "Village painter does Van Dyck." It's on the bright end for Reynolds--a positive, all of the elements going into it are of course superb, but it's not really all that interesting (save for that lovely touch of the crown in the background). Maybe Reynolds was making a subtle statement about Louis himself?

    Now the Marie Antoinette... Ah... Now this is a joy of a painting.

    Reynolds stops being so dang grumpy and decides it's time to let out his inner Fragonard, with a very admiring nod to Gainsborough on the way. it has all of his wonderful composition and color sense, but it's...Happy! And Lush!

    I guess it says something about how much broader Reynold's range was than his overall work seems to suggest. I usually think him quite stuffy and dreary, but the Marie Antoinette is sublime.

  9. Gah! I forgot to put down the French artists, I'm so sorry for the confusion! Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier d'Agoty did Marie's state portrait and Joseph Siffred Duplessis which explains your perfect analysis of what kind of happy drugs Reynolds must have been on if he were to paint those amazing portraits.

  10. Hmmm, I wonder why the two portraits weren't painted by the same artist. I guess that's why they don't look like pendant pieces. Thanks for clearing up the artists.