Focusing on the connection between art and political sovereignty, “Power Plays” at the Louvre museum (through July 2) examines patronage and propaganda as well as protest and subversion of established order. The show spans from antiquity to the present day, and includes 40 works from the Louvre and other French collections that showcase the evolving representations of political power in four themed sections.
The first section presents princely portraits, by artists called upon to ensure the royal presence was recognized and revered: from the antique jewelry masterpiece “Triad of Osorkon II” (in gold and lapis lazuli, from ancient Egypt) to a 17th-century Baroque painting by Philippe de Champaigne of Louis XIII. The second room focuses exclusively on Henri IV, who had no male heir, and had to convince his subjects of his legitimacy at a time when the kingdom was vulnerable under the French Wars of Religion. Throughout his reign (1589–1610), Henri IV disseminated his image as warrior, hero and ancient divinity: here, he’s represented in sculptures by Barthélémy Prieur and paintings by Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
The third theme highlights the force of the equestrian statue, notably François Girardon’s “Louis XIV” bronze statue (a larger version of which once stood in Place Vendôme), while the fourth room showcases the regalia handled during the coronation of the kings of France — before the French Revolution irrevocably devastated the nation’s socio-political landscape, of course. The sovereign’s role as a liaison between God and subject was consecrated by the Catholic Church and confirmed through insignia that functioned like branding. In 1789, the French Revolution undercut the inequalities of the Ancien Régime and its right to absolute monarchy: power trickled down to the citizens of the nation. Revolutionaries sought out new symbols unrelated to the royal tradition, yet the imagery of the past still informs contemporary depictions: even today’s presidential portraits contain echoes of the enthroned.
— This article appears in the February 2018 edition of Art+Auction.