Daily Dose of Europe: Rigaud’s Louis XIV

In this age of austerity, the opulence of the Palace of Versailles seems more over-the-top than ever. And that’s all because of the giant ego and extravagant personal style of one man: Louis XIV.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Here’s one of my favorites.

The official portrait of the King of France shows a 63-year-old man at the peak of his power. He wears the coronation robe — a luxuriant blue, white, and gold garment — and stands amid the royal regalia: the red-canopied throne, the crown, and the sword of Charlemagne on his hip. This is the ultimate image of a divine-right ruler — a king who could rule unchecked by the laws of man, and whose authority came directly from God.

It’s the year 1701, when France was Europe’s most powerful country. Louis’ lavish palace of Versailles trumpets his divine power. Louis is the “Sun King,” tracing his divine authority back even to the classical god Apollo. He’s Europe’s king of kings, the absolute example of an absolute monarch. Louis summed it up best himself with his famous rhyme, “L’état, c’est moi!” (lay-tah say mwah): “The state, that’s me!”

Rigaud captures all the splendor, but he also gives a peek at the flesh-and-blood man beneath the royal robe. Louis, striking a jaunty pose, turns out to meet the viewer’s gaze. He puts one hand on his hip and balances the other nonchalantly atop his cane — oh wait, that’s actually the royal scepter, which he’s playfully turned on its head. Louis tosses his robe over his shoulder, revealing his athletic legs. Louis loved to dance, and even as an old man, he looked good in tights.

In fact, Louis’ subjects adored him. He was polite and approachable, and could put commoners at ease with a joke. He was everything a man could aspire to be: good-looking, an accomplished guitar player, a fine horseman, witty conversationalist, statesman, art lover, and lover of women.

Rigaud shows Louis at his best. The painting is nine feet tall, so Louis is fully life-size, and positioned so this not-so-tall man (5’5”) can literally look down on us. Louis’ robed body forms an imposing pyramid turned at three-quarter angle, placed in the center of a rectangular frame. Louis’ face is age-appropriate: handsome, but realistically doughy and double-chinned. Every detail is immaculate, from the texture of the fabrics to the ruffled curtains to his jeweled necklace. Rigaud’s painting was so realistic, it served as Louis’ body-double in the throne room whenever the king was away.

Louis is dressed to kill. He was Europe’s great trendsetter. His blue robe, embroidered with gold fleur-de-lis, is turned out to show off the white ermine lining. His “everyday” clothes were soon seen throughout Europe: a delicate lace cravat (on his chest), matching lace cuffs, poofy breeches for pants, silk stockings, and square-toed shoes with Louis’ fashion signature — red heels.

And the hair! Louis once had flowing curls down his shoulders, but as he aged, he took to wigs — more than 300 of them. This one has twin peaks parted down the middle, and it stretched to his waist. Thanks to Louis, big-hair wigs became trendy. (“Bigwigs” everywhere wore them.)

Even this portrait by Rigaud set trends. Louis-wannabe’s in palaces throughout Europe struck similar poses with similar clothes. But none could match the original Sun King. Louis XIV was the fullest expression of the divine monarch: an accomplished man who embodied a god on earth.

This art moment — a sampling of what we try to incorporate in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Louis.