Posted by Chet Eichenbrenner

This Library of Congress website is stuctured to depict several of the monumental representations of French culture during Absolutism.  The Link to the website is

LoC on French Culture




Creating French Culture

The Rise and Fall of the Absolute Monarchy:

Grand Siècle and Enlightenment

(second half of the 17th — end of the 18th centuries)

International recognition of French creativity in the arts, literature, and science formed an integral part of Louis XIV’s strategy to dominate European culture. Recognizing that political power lay in cultural superiority, and assisted by his minister, Colbert (Controller General of the Finances, 1662-1683), Louis XIV (1643-1715) initiated an all-encompassing cultural program designed to glorify the monarchy in his person. Fueled by state patronage, this cultural initiative channeled the creative forces of French elite culture into academies, luxury goods, industries, technology, engineering projects, and imperial expansion.

State control of culture reached unprecedented heights under Louis XIV, the Sun King (le Roi Soleil). Newly created academies in the arts and sciences generated heroic representations of the king that reinforced the royal religion. Increasing censorship targeted “scandalous” texts (for example, pornography) and political writings incompatible with absolute monarchy. Systematic purchases of treasures from ancient and modern cultures the world over enhanced the regime’s prestige. The need to reign supreme in cultural matters also spawned French Classicism, the crowning cultural achievement of France’s golden age under Louis XIV.

As the Sun King’s reign passed into its twilight years, some judged the social stability and routine he had created as oppressive to the individual spirit. A “counter-cultural” revolution under his successors, Louis XV (1715-1774) and Louis XVI (1774-1793), unleashed Enlightenment ideas and values which tore away at the theatrical and courtly foundations that Richelieu and Louis XIV had given the state. The cultural vitality of the realm shifted decisively from the royal court at Versailles to Paris. The increased role of the press, of reports of scientific and commercial activities, of exploration and discoveries, as well as the weekly meetings of academies and salons energized literary, artistic, and artisan circles.

The writer — whether a novelist, a scientist, or a philosopher describing a new and better society — became the guiding light of a culture that was enthusiastic about itself, eager for change, and increasingly beyond the control of royal censorship. In personal, cultural, and political identity, the writer evolved from a royal servant to an independent moral authority. The increasingly emancipated condition and subversive potential of authors reached their climax during the French Revolution (1789-1799) when the printed word played a mighty role in bringing down the Ancien Régime.

114. Medals from Louis XIV’s “Histoire métallique” (History in Medals), Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, série royale

Louis XIV used medals to publicize the achievements of his government and of the institutions he founded. Drawing upon classical literature, artists elevated the technique of metal engraving to a new type of sculpture. The Little Academy, responsible for the invention and development of mottos and emblematic figures, oversaw the production of a series of “historical medallions.” The medals presented here are part of the série royale (royal series) of this Histoire métallique. The bust or head of Louis XIV, often clad in armor decorated with his symbol, the sun is featured on the obverse of each medal, while the reverse depicts the event or institution being commemorated. The sun is also featured in a medal which illustrates the king’s motto, Nec Pluribus impar (Not Unequal to Many). Louis IV’s birth is illustrated by a chariot in which Louis is riding. The academies founded to glorify the king are celebrated: two geniuses work busily in a sculpture and painting workshop, while Mercury engraves a laudatory epitaph on a bronze plaque. The abolition of dueling is illustrated by Justice, who is brandishing a scale and a sword. The expansion and embellishment of Paris is depicted by a turreted personification of the city, flanked by the two new city gates of Saint-Martin and Saint- Denis. Louis XIV set up the Royal School of Saint-Cyr, an aristocratic convent, in response to Mme. de Maintenon’s wish. The Sun King’s generosity is illustrated by Liberalitas (Liberality), sowing coins on the ground while his patronage of the arts is celebrated in a scene in which Liberalitasstands before Eloquence, Poetry, Astronomy, and History.



Selenographia sive Lunae descriptioSelenographia sive Lunae descriptio118. Johannes Hevelius (b. 1611-d. 1687), Selenographia sive Lunae descriptio (Selenographia, or a Description of the Moon) CoverIllustration, Danzig, 1647, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. V. 244

The Selenographia by the famous Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius is the first lunar atlas. It also deals with the construction of lenses and telescopes and with the observation of celestial bodies in general. The author himself engraved the numerous text illustrations and plates, including the three large double-page maps of the moon and forty descriptions of the lunar phases. Upon receiving a royal pension, the grateful Hevelius sent Louis XIV the copy displayed here.

Les Campagnes de Louis XIV. Campagne du Roy pendant l'année119. Les Campagnes de Louis XIV. Campagne du Roy pendant l’année M.DC.LXXVI (The Campaigns of Louis XIV. The King’s Campaign during the Year 1676), after 1678, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 7892, Parchment

The Dutch War (1672-78), during which Louis XIV demonstrated strategic and tactical capabilities, provided the occasion for a skillful propaganda campaign by his historian-poets Boileau (b. 1636-d. 1711) and Racine (b. 1639-d. 1699). The war also produced the Campagnes de Louis XIV which contains maps of the operations and movements of French troops. Louis is illustrated here at the beginning of the volume dressed as a Roman emperor.

Dom Juan, ou Le Festin de Pierre123. Molière (b. 1622-d. 1673), Les Oeuvres posthumes (Posthumous Works), vol. 7 (Dom Juan, ou Le Festin de Pierre) (Dom Juan or the Feast of Pierre), Paris, 1682, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Yf. 3167

Because Dom Juan features a debauched, hypocritical noble who defies God, the play was quickly canceled and never published in Molière’s lifetime. This copy of the first edition of Molière’s complete works was published in 1682 and included Dom Juan, shortening its most offensive scene. The text was further revised by the censor. During the nineteenth century, Molière’s publishers produced a text of the play as close as possible to the original.

Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus)125. François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon (b. 1651- d. 1715), Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), 1694, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 14944, Paper

Télémaque, a pedagogical treatise based on the fourth book of the Odyssey, was part of an extensive educational curriculum designed by Fénelon, preceptor to Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duke of Burgundy. This “exceptional book,” in Voltaire’s words, emphasizes self-control, a return to the earth, and a reduction in spending. Despotic tendencies and a penchant for lavishness and war are discouraged. The volume opens with a portrait of Fénelon on a sheet of vellum.

Apotheosis of Claudius127. Apotheosis of Claudius, Rome, A.D. 54, Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, Babelon 265, Sardonyx cameo in three layers, square frame of enameled gold

This cameo shows the apotheosis or deification of a Roman emperor, a frequent subject of first-century art, taken to heaven by an eagle. The emperor, probably Claudius (A.D. 41-54), wears Jupiter’s breastplate and an imperial cloak, and is crowned with a laurel wreath by a Winged Victory. When Louis XIV acquired the cameo, the subject was incorrectly identified as the apotheosis of the imperial prince Germanicus, who died in the year 19.

Livre de dessins chinois (Book of Chinese Drawings) 130. Jean-Antoine Fraisse, Livre de dessins chinois (Book of Chinese Drawings) , Paris, 1735, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. V. 86

The Book of Chinese Drawings was among the Condés’ collections of objets d’art seized in 1793 during the Revolution and deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The book contains fifty-four plates, some of which are made up in long folding format, alternately depicting landscapes–in which Chinese people fish and play with kites–and floral compositions. The scene here depicts children playing with a stag beetle.

Globe terrestre135. Nicolas Bion, Globe terrestre… (Terrestrial Globe on which are Placed the Most Recent Observations by Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences…Dedicated to the Duke of Berry), Paris, 1712, Department of Maps and Plans, Ge A402, Engraved globe made of gores (strips of paper) mounted on a sphere

Some prominent French cartographers around the turn of the eighteenth century (and even later) believed that a Western Sea existed, to the west of Louisiana, which linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Nicolas Bion (b. 1652-d. 1733), the King’s engineer for mathematical instruments, incorporated this imagined sea on two terrestrial globes, including the one exhibited here. He portrayed California as an island after having drawn it as a peninsula on an earlier globe.

Portrait of Louis XV136. Jacques-Christophe Leblon, Portrait of Louis XV, 1739, Department of Prints and Photographs, AA4 Rés., Engraving

After moving to Paris around 1735, Jacques-Christophe Leblon (b. 1667-d. 1741), a German miniaturist, painter, and engraver, obtained a royal warrant, a stipend, and lodging in the Louvre from Louis XV (1715-1774). The king also granted Leblon exclusive rights for color-engraving in France, on the express condition that he reveal his secret method to two royal commissioners. Leblon’s major work is this life-size bust portrait of his patron.

Cours des principaux fleuves et rivières de l'Europe137. Louis XV, Cours des principaux fleuves et rivières de l’Europe (Courses of the Principal Rivers and Streams of Europe), 1718, Department of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. G. 2972

Even as a child, Louis XV was fascinated by geography. In 1718 a little print shop was set up in the Tuileries where the young king learned the rudiments of typography. There, Louis XV composed and, in part, printed this summary of Guillaume Delisle’s geography lessons, “Courses of the Principal Rivers and Streams of Europe.” Much later, Louis gave his mistress, the marquise de Pompadour (b. 1721-d. 1764), an elegantly bound copy of his childish “chef d’oeuvre.”

La Toilette de Venus (The Toilet of Venus)138. Jean-François Janinet (b. 1752-d. 1814), La Toilette de Venus (The Toilet of Venus), 1784, Department of Prints and Photographs, Ef 105 Rés., Engraving; aquatint; etching and tools; colors printed in register

François Boucher’s painting of Venus at her toilet, assisted by cherubs, was designed to be hung in the private quarters of the marquise de Pompadour (b. 1721-d. 1764), mistress and friend of Louis XV (1715-1774). Jean-François Janinet invented and developed color aquatint engraving, and this is one example of his work. Thanks to this method, Janinet became the prime interpreter of fashionable painters like Boucher (b. 1703-d. 1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (b. 1732-d. 1806).

Louis XV140. Jacques Guay (b. 1711-d. 1797), Louis XV, 1753, Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, Babelon 926, Engraved cameo

This portrait of King Louis XV (1715-1774) is considered the masterpiece of engraving on stone in modern times, for the accuracy of the resemblance, the purity of the stone, and the high quality of the workmanship. Jacques Guay, the king’s engraver, skillfully used the three horizontal layers of stone in this cameo. Some parts were left dull while others were polished using a stone polisher according to a process invented by Guay.

Patère de Rennes (Rennes Patera)141. Patère de Rennes (Rennes Patera), first half of the 3rd century A.D., Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, Chabouillet no. 2537 Solid 23-carat gold

This gold patera, used for drinking and in ceremonial libations, is decorated with imperial coins bearing the portraits of Roman sovereigns from Hadrian to Geta (the most recent dates from the year A.D. 209). A bas-relief in the center of the cup symbolizes the triumph of wine (Bacchus) over strength (Hercules). Found in Rennes in 1774, the patera was deposited by order of Louis XV (1715-1774) in the Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities.

Pompe Funèbre de Catherine Opalinska 142. Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger (b. 1715-d. 1790), Pompe Funèbre de Catherine Opalinska (Funeral Ceremonies for Catherine Opalinska), 1747, Department of Prints and Photographs, Collection Hennin no. 8584, Etching and line-engraving

When his mother-in-law, the wife of the dethroned king of Poland, died in 1747, Louis XV (1715-1774) ordered a commemorative ceremony, pictured in this etching, in her honor at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Observing the death of a member of the royal family by a highly codified funeral display, marked by Italian baroque symbolism, became a widespread custom in France during the seventeenth century. The ceremony glorified the deceased who underwent a veritable deification.

Memoires144. Louis de Rouvroy, Duke of Saint-Simon (b. 1675-d. 1755), Mémoires, n. d., Manuscripts Department, Western Section, NAF 23102, Paper

Saint-Simon’s account of Louis XIV’s death presents important figures from the last years of his reign, including members of competing political factions. Louis XIV’s death in 1715 unexpectedly opened a period of substantial political thaw, symbolized by the Duke of Saint-Simon’s proposals to increase participation in the central government, even if only by the nobility. The dawning Regency would witness a systematic effort to open up and increase flexibility of government.

Constitution des treize états de l'Amérique155. Constitution des treize états de l’Amérique (Constitution of the Thirteen States of America), Paris, 1783, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. 4o Pb. 746

In 1783, a French-language edition of the American Constitution was printed at the behest of Benjamin Franklin (b. 1706-d. 1790), to help his new country obtain the recognition of European courts. The model for the seal of the United States, depicted for the first time, appears in the title. Ironically, this copy born of a successful revolution was produced for Queen Marie-Antoinette (b. 1755-d. 1793), who blocked even moderate reform in France.


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1 Comment so far

  1.    jce12 on May 2, 2012 10:02 pm

    It’s crazy to think how much time and effort went into making those coins. It’s hard to imagine making money without high-tech machines! –Jessica Elder

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