PARIS — If Photoshop existed in 17th-century France, chances are Louis XIV would have used it sparingly — at least on himself.
A sprawling exhibition at Versailles devoted to the Sun King shows him warts and all, as he insisted the famous painters and sculptors he commissioned reflect his true likeness through the decades.
This story first appeared in the October 29, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Still, the 300 works on display reflect an early example of a rich and meticulously crafted public image, as the king’s advisers and pet artists portrayed him variously as a glorious leader, heroic warrior, pious Christian and benevolent patron.
The exhibition opens with an idealized marble bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini of the young sovereign — a small wart visible at the base of the nose — and closes with a 1702 portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, the exalted royal shown in his twilight years and dressed in a fantastical blue coronation robe. The curators also sought to show his private side and true taste, reflected in works in his collection by less fashionable painters alongside eye-popping collections of gemstones, bronze sculptures and other precious objects.
To be sure, the opulence of his lifestyle is staggering, from an example of the 93 magnificent carpets he commissioned for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre — they took 15 years to realize — to a diamond-studded medallion that Versailles acquired from Pierre Bergé at auction last year. Biscuits for the king’s hunting dogs — immortalized on a big canvas by Alexandre François Desportes — were baked in the royal kitchen, and some of the parties depicted in black-and-white engravings raged for three days and three nights.
Louis XIV’s appetite for luxury extended to the dinner table, and on Tuesday night, Dom Perignon, his favorite wine, re-created the experience in the very salon where the court once gathered. The Champagne house uncorked a silky 1976 vintage and enlisted star chef Jean-François Piège to orchestrate an orgy of gourmet delights, starting with lobster aspic and ending 20 dishes later with a hard-boiled egg and an edible chocolate candle.
Richard Geoffroy, Dom’s chef de cave, said the idea of the evening was “driven by pure pleasure,” though he lamented that the waiters, in period costume, were “too modern” in their attentive service. In the king’s time, guests would have reached for dishes themselves — although they needn’t have used their own daggers to cut the food as flatware would have been provided.
Todd Eberle chewed through more than 700 frames to document all the decadence, witnessed by the likes of novelist Amélie Nothomb and the pop star Lorie, often called the Britney Spears of France. The photographer, who is launching a 48-page book “Flowers” in December and a 300-page monograph with Rizzoli next year, said his only disappointment was that tables were lit with battery-operated candles. “I suppose it’s a smart thing to try to keep Versailles from burning to the ground,” he allowed.
“Louis XIV: The Man & the King,” with Dom Perignon parent Moët Hennessy a principal sponsor, runs through Feb. 7.