Hyacinthe Rigaud exhibition or the sun portrait

At the Palace of Versailles (Yvelines), from May 19 to June 13

What is a successful portrait? If we surveyed the visitors of the exhibition “Hyacinthe Rigaud”, we would certainly not get the same answers at the entrance and exit of this sumptuous course of some 150 works. Especially since the luxurious and airy scenography signed by the Italian director Pier Luigi Pizzi, offers each play the space of its full flowering.

So let’s get ready to meet a gallery of men (many), women (a little less) and children (rarer), immortalized by the “Painter of great men, warriors and kings, always of nature, faithful imitator, [qui] joined to the most beautiful finish, the most beautiful touch “ (1). Ambitious, sure of his talent, Hyacinthe Rigaud comes from a line of artists, even if his father works as a tailor. “His son, to establish his reputation, will also make people believe later that he too was a painter …”, notes Élodie Vaysse, curator at the Palace of Versailles and co-curator of the exhibition.

Portrait, Rigaud’s “specialty”

Born in 1659 in Perpignan – a city attached to France the same year – Hyacinthe Rigaud trained in Carcassonne and then Montpellier before “going up” to Paris. He was only 23 years old when he won the first prize of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. However, giving up the traditional trip to Rome, he quickly specialized in the art of portraiture where he already excelled.

Rather than a chronological hanging, the Versailles retrospective invites a thematic journey with, in apotheosis, the royal portraits: Louis XIV while the Sun King already shows the fatigue of years and Louis XV, from delightful childhood to youth. triumphant. Along the way, how many “beautiful people” you come across, represented in sumptuous finery! Does Rigaud remember his father’s fabrics as he unrolls on the canvas his voluptuous drapes, his moiré brocades, his spider-like lace, his soft velvets?

Depending on whether the sponsor will pay dear, very dear or extremely dear, his portrait will stand out from his face alone – “Hands increase the price”, explains Élodie Vaysse. The costume also depends on the financial agreement, more expensive if it is original, more economical if the painter resorts, a frequent and acknowledged practice, to “repeated clothing”. We are not surprised to find thus, from one painting to another, this same lustrous breastplate encircled by a silky white scarf, proudly displayed by the Count de Coigny in 1699 and then by the Marquis de Château-Renault in 1705 …

Staging and observation

This theater of appearances would seem a little vain if Rigaud did not infuse it with his genius, where virtuosity never stifles humanity. The infinite diversity of expressions, the relevance – and sometimes impertinence – of the eyes to the pupils illuminated by a small incredibly vibrant white dot, the palette of skin tones and, we come back to it again, the intoxicating range of materials, give each portrays its singularity.

We then forget the theatricality, the tips and tricks, the face executed on a small canvas, to limit the number of posing sessions, then inserted into its decor, and we let ourselves be carried away by the overall gesture. As in a scene of lyrical tragedy where the conjunction of artifices gives rise to emotion and a feeling of truth. Here, in his green coat, a Young black servant wearing a heavy turban seems so thoughtful, so melancholy, that one hardly dares to contemplate him for fear of disturbing him. There, on the contrary, the little one Duke of Lesdiguières, shown from the front, cascading blond curls and pink lips, is admired in all the solar radiance of her childish grace.

Tribute to his mother

Concerned about his “publicity”, Rigaud has produced many self-portraits: the most attractive one shows him wearing an artist’s cap. Slight ironic smile, eye that curls under thin, elegantly arched eyebrows, the 38-year-old artist believes in his lucky star. But the ambitious man does not forget the tenderness he “Will devote all his life to his mother, Maria”, says Élodie Vaysse.

→ LARGE FORMAT. Versailles, the castle that never sleeps

The exhibition brings together the penetrating portraits, executed during a stay in Perpignan in 1695, in anticipation of the maternal bust that he commissioned from his friend the sculptor Antoine Coysevox, and the magnificent marble statue. A very noble material for the widow of a tailor from the confines of the kingdom. Even more touching, this self-portrait of the painter, then aged 70, in front of his easel. Approaching, we guess, sketched on the canvas in the making, the face of Maria. Sweet ghost.


Religious figures

Among the countless portraits, a few canvases evoke the religious vein of Rigaud, a noble genre if ever there was one. Besides a pathetic Christ on the cross that he intended for his mother, here is a prodigious Presentation at the temple where we can guess, despite a more joyful palette (the blue of the Virgin’s mantle in particular) the influence of Rembrandt, so admired.

According to a common practice in the Grand Siècle, the artist also represents mystical figures: ladies and gentlemen indeed liked to be painted in religious costume and holy attitudes. Impressive, its Saint Andrew was the result of a very long genesis. This vast composition was intended for the reception of the artist at the Royal Academy in the category of history painters. But Rigaud did not put it back until… fifty years later!


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