Exposition : « Drawing Versailles: Studies and Cartoons of Charles Le Brun » (Caixa Forum, Barcelone, 18 nov. 2015-14 févier 2016)
In 1682, Louis XIV transferred the French court to Versailles. The artist Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) was responsible for planning this work, to which he applied an ‘orchestral’ treatment, which involved the participation of hundreds of artisans and artists, the best from each discipline. Le Brun personally produced several pieces, including two particularly impressive compositions: the Staircase of the Ambassadors and the Hall of Mirrors, adorned by a series of mature paintings imbued with the most captivating beauty.
A little-known body of original material is conserved from this undertaking: the preparatory cartoons, which illustrate the final phase in the artist’s working process. The cartoons demonstrate Le Brun’s virtuosity as a draftsman, his talent for constructing scenes and his painstaking care, down to the last detail. The drawings include studies of characters, allegorical figures, trophies and animals that formed part of the artist’s compositions, conceived as a great symbolic jigsaw puzzle. Such cartoons were commonly used between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, but few have reached our days. Those produced by Le Brun are the exception: three hundred and fifty cartoons in a store of three thousand drawings found at the artist’s studio, requisitioned and added to the royal collections after his death in 1690.
The Staircase of the Ambassadors
Le Brun’s drawings provide a vision of the decoration, now lost, from the Staircase of the Ambassadors, featuring figures on the same scale, enriched with all the gravity and dramatic quality of drawing in black pencil. This staircase, which led up to the grand apartments of the king and queen, was the first space that represented the power of the monarch at Versailles. Designed in around 1671 and decorated between 1674 and 1679, the staircase was destroyed in 1752, during the reign of Louis XIV. In it, Le Brun made exceptional use of a narrow space that only received overhead lighting. Using optical illusion, he increased the sensation of space, mixing fact and fiction to create an allegorical composition that depicted the return of Louis XIV after one of his military victories. Le Brun surrounded the king by representatives from nations in the four continents, the kings of Antiquity, victories, cupids and the arts: a monumental composition to the honour and glory of the absolute monarch. The cartoons reveal that Le Brun worked on the Staircase of the Ambassadors to the last minute, retouching and improving his drawings.
The Hall of Mirrors
The paintings in the Hall of Mirrors enable us to follow, step by step, the artist’s working process, from the first small sketches, their pencil strokes embodying powerful movement, to the final drawings, which are the same size as the paintings themselves. Also conserved are the engraved copies of the overall work, produced for the purpose of making this artistic accomplishment known beyond French borders, adding to the monarch’s fame. In European painting, the figure of the king was traditionally represented by a mythological figure: Apollo, Hercules and so on. Le Brun, however, portrays the king himself, leading his armies to victory, wearing an ancient breastplate and a modern wig, in a dialogue with the gods and allegories. Two of the most important scenes on the ceiling are represented: the king’s decision to rule alone, and the war with Holland. One of the most famous episodes in this war, The Crossing of the Rhine in 1672, is shown through cartoons exactly as they were found in Le Brun’s studio.
From the Louvre Museum to CaixaForum
Over the past few years, the Graphic Arts Department of the Louvre Museum has carefully restored these drawings, enabling us to see them now for the first time in all their original splendour. The exhibition Drawing Versailles: Studies and Cartoons of Charles Le Brun (Dibuixar Versalles / Dibujar Versalles: Charles Le Brun) is the fruit of a strategic agreement between the Louvre Museum and ”la Caixa” Foundation. The purpose of this agreement is to bring to public attention artists, collections and periods in art history that are not represented in our galleries but which occupy eminent positions in the Louvre’s exhibition discourse: Mesopotamian culture, Coptic art, Pharaonic bestiary, women in Ancient Rome, the work of Eugène Delacroix, etc.
Catalogue de l’exposition
Dibujar Versalles: Bocetos y Cartones de Charles Le Brun (Barcelona: Fundació Ciaixa de Pensions, 2015), ISBN 978-8499001425, 232 pages, 35€.