Choosing Where to Start
Entry 2 March 3, 2013. Having announced the project in the first entry, I wondered where to go next. Since I’ve already looked at 344 paintings from 164 artists, it seems hopeless to think that I’m going to blog about every one of them. Should I start with what I’m looking at now, which is Giulio Cesare Amidano’s Christ Carried to the Tomb? Should I start with the Mona Lisa, which is not only the Louvre’s most famous painting but also the cover art for the book and, therefore, of necessity, the very first painting the book offered for examination? Should I start with the very first painting I examined for this project, back on August 19, 2012, Portrait of Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, from 1701?
I’ve decided to say something here, as I did on that very first day, about Rigaud and the difficulty I had in choosing his work. The first candidate I considered was the Mona Lisa, a detail of which appears on the book’s cover. Although the book omits to identify the painting in connection with the cover—apparently we are all expected to know it, the Mona Lisa is reproduced in its entirety, along with a brief commentary and the five other Leonardo paintings in the Louvre’s collection, in the book’s Italian section, which like the other three sections—the French, the Northern and the Spanish, is organized chronologically.
I thought of making my first painting the very first to appear in the first section in the book, the Italian, and then proceeding in order through each section, but I also considered going by size, from the French section, which is the largest at over 200 pages, through to the Spanish, which is 50 pages, and also by life dates, no matter what the artist’s nationality, so that I could observe the evolution of art across Europe from medieval to mid-19th century, which is the end point of the Louvre’s coverage.
Ultimately, I started my daily examination with the illustrations that appeared in the book’s preface, of which Rigaud’s portrait of King Louis XIV is the first. As with the Mona Lisa, the painting is reproduced within the French section, accompanied by a brief commentary. It can also be accessed in the museum’s online collection through an accompanying DVD.
The picture itself isn’t terribly interesting to me despite my love of Alexander Dumas’s Three Musketeers trilogy, in which Louis XIV appears as a beleaguered boy king in Twenty Years After and a powerful, dangerous adult king in The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the final volume of which is also printed separately under the title, The Man in the Iron Mask. It’s a picture of an idea whose time has passed, that is, an idea of the king’s absolute power.
The book’s commentary emphasizes that every detail of the picture projects a belief in power, from the scepter to the way Louis has his hand on his left hip. The painting depicts an aging man, not the youth of Dumas’s stories; Louis was born in 1638 and died in 1715. Although the idea of absolute power has gone out of style, the Louvre is tied to that idea in many ways. It was, after all, a royal residence that housed the art collection of the French royal family before it became a public museum. Beyond linking art to power, the museum functions as a powerful force itself, competing with other galleries for the rank of “best in the world” with all such a distinction means for attracting contributions to its holdings and visitors to its doors. A comment I have encountered often in reading about the Louvre is that its size actually drives people away; perhaps that’s why I find it soothing to visit my book, despite its own extraordinary, daunting size.