A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Louis XIV


Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholaes Tulp, Clement XIII, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Louis XIV, 1665
(Chateau de Versailles)

The Sculptor and the Sun King

In April 1665 Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) succumbed to the ongoing entreaties of Louis XIV and went to Paris to work on designs for the east facade of the Louvre, then the royal residence. Everywhere along his route people lined the streets to get a glimpse of the famous artist, then in his 67th year.

A multi-talented artist, Bernini virtually single-handedly created Baroque Rome, in its totality perhaps the most elaborate visual statement of the Counter-Reformation anywhere.  Bernini was a fast-working and prolific artist, whose flamboyant personality was well-suited to hobnobbing with royals, aristocrats and popes in the pursuit of important commissions. In addition to being a virtuoso sculptor, Bernini was an accomplished architect, an expert draftsman, an adept caricaturist, and a designer of ornate fountain displays. He also wrote plays.

Bernini presented some designs to Louis, but ultimately the king rejected the ideas. Bernini soon lost favor at the French court, for he continually praised the art and architecture of Italy at the expense of that of France. Though his architectural pursuits in Paris may have ended in failure, the bust remains as a legacy of Bernini’s greatness as a sculptor.

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701
Oil on canvas
(Louvre, Paris)

Charles Le Brun, Portrait of Louis XIV, 1655
Pastels on paper

He re-conceived the art of sculpted portraiture, establishing the standard for a century to come. In contrast to the static Renaissance-style portraiture tradition (itself based on examples of Republic-era Rome), Bernini’s sculptures were highly-expressive renderings of their subjects. In many respects his portraits transcended reality. One sees from the other portraits of the era that Louis was not a particularly handsome individual. He is a foppish man typical of his time and station. Other imbued Louis with a regal quality. Bernini alone ennobled Louis.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV,
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Louis believed in the “Divine Right of Kings,” that the King was crowned by God and accountable to him alone. Bernini succeeded in capturing the majestic essence of the Sun King. His Louis is certainly dashing, enveloped as he is in the billowing fabric of his cape and the voluminous curls of a wig. But he is also supremely regal, gazing serenely and securely outward with the authority of a divine ruler.

The Lace

Among other accoutrements, Bernini’s Louis wears a lace cravat. In the mid-17th century, the cravat was a popular antidote to the ruff, which was too much of a nuisance to wear with the longer hair styles and wigs that had come into fashion at the French court. Curiously, though, the style was initiated by Croatian soldiers during the 1635 war between France and Spain.  Those cravats caught the eye of the French royalty. Concurrently, the ruff was giving way in many courts to the turned down shirt collar.  A fine cloth provided a natural solution to keeping the collar closed.

Louis XIV was the first to embrace the fashion item wholeheartedly. His “cravatier” reportedly laid out our several cravats from the extensive collection each day for the King’s selection. In time the fashion spread to Charles I’s court in London and from there to the colonies.

Charles Le Brun, Portrait of Louis XIV, 1661
Oil on canvas

The 17th century witnessed the production of the most elaborate and beautiful laces, as demand for lace was robust. Though Venice had led the fashions where lace was concerned in the 16th century, France had a small tradition making mostly inferior quality lace. Valenciennes (then in French-speaking part of Flanders) was already established as a center, though it didn’t reach its peak until the 18th century.

17th c. Versailles LaceBoots trimmed with point coupé, engraving after portrait of Marquis of Cinq-Mars

The French court had always been mad for lace.  With the ascension of Louis XIII, luxury knew no bounds. When Louis XIII married Anne of Austria, the lace ruff, along with other Spanish customs, arrived in France. By the 17th century, cuffs, collars, boot tops and stockings were all trimmed in lace.

Peter Paul Rubens, Anne of Austria, 1625
Oil on canvas, approximately 2.8 x 1.21 feet.
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Is Louis wearing Italian, Spanish or French lace in his Bernini portrait? Throughout early part of the 17th century, various edicts forbad the wearing of Spanish and Italian laces, mostly as a measure to prevent enormous sums of money from leaving the country. The prohibitions were largely ineffectual; the nobles of Louis XIV’s extravagant court continued to wear the more expensive laces. Could Louis the cravat King really have worn inferior product?

Determined to improve the quality of French production, however, Louis’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert established Royal Lace Workshops at Alençon and Arras, even importing Venetian instructors to teach the coveted lace-making skills. This was in 1665, precisely the year of the Bernini portrait.

The French effort was going well until religious politics intervened. In 1685 Louis’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes had catastrophic effect on the French lace-making industry. With their rights revoked, Protestants left France in the hundreds of thousands, taking with them knowledge of textile manufacture, including lace making.

Bobbin Lace, Louis XIV periodBobbin Lace, Louis XIV period (1643-1715).

Wider Connections

Rudolf Wittkower—Bernini
Louis XIV in pictures
Croatian cravats
“The Tie That Binds”

2 Responses to “A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Louis XIV”

  1. Liz, I’ve been enjoying your lace series! Cheers, Victoria

  2. Just viewed the short on Bernini – oh, well done! well done!

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