Louis XIV and his heirs: sic transit gloria mundi

You can see this painting, formerly attributed to Nicolas de Largillière, at The Wallace Collection in London. It is a most interesting work, not as much by its artistic value (it is probably a copy of aLargillière original by a lesser Court painter) but because of what it tells us about the last years of the reign of Louis XIV.

It is in fact a celebration of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian dynasty. To the far left of the painting, in the background, you can see the bronze bust of Henri IV, the first King of France of the Bourbon line, and to the left that of his son, Louis XIII. Of course both Kings were long dead when this was painted, circa 1710. These are the first and second generations.

At the center of painting, we have the third generation of the Bourbons, represented by the seated Sun King himself, clearly the focal point of the scene. He is 72 years old, obviously still hale and hearty.

The portly man in a blue suit standing behind him and leaning on the chair, is his only legitimate son, the Grand Dauphin, the 4th generation. Louis XIV had many illegitimate sons, but those were not eligible to succeed to the throne.

To the right, the young man in red is the Duc de Bourgogne, elder son of the Grand Dauphin, and grandson of Louis XIV (5th generation.)

And the handsome toddler guided en lisière by his governess, the Duchess de Ventadour, is his son, the little Duc de Bretagne, great-grandson of the Sun King (6th generation.) Don’t be fooled by the dress: little boys wore them in the 18th century. See how proudly Louis XIV points at this child, the future of the Bourbon dynasty.

I often hear docents at the Wallace Collection tell visitors that this boy is the future Louis XV, successor to Louis XIV. Not so. Louis XV was a newborn in 1710. He was the mere younger brother of the toddler in the white dress, and had no place on this dynastic picture. The truth is more tragic: all the heirs pictured on this painting, all of them, would die before Louis XIV.

First the King’s son, the Grand Dauphin, died the year after this was painted, in 1711, from smallpox. Then in February 1712, it was the time of the young man in red here, the Duc de Bourgogne, right after his wife, whom he loved passionately and whose bedside he had refused to leave. Even the child in this picture, their son, died the following month, in March 1712. All three from a fever, aggravated by the Court physicians’ merciless bloodletting.

Three generations of heirs to the throne of France lost in less than a year! And the baby who would survive against all odds, and succeed Louis XIV five years later is not even represented here…

In my eyes, it makes this painting unwittingly tragic. All this care, all this pride in displaying dynastic continuity, only to be followed by this relentless series of deaths. This is the last happy picture of Louis XIV’s Versailles. Louis XIV did not think much of the Grand Dauphin, but he loved the Duc de Bourgogne and his wife, who had been the life and joy of the Court of Versailles before her untimely death.

After this series of deaths, the Court took a somber, mournful turn, the aging King abandoned brilliant feasts, he increasingly retreated to the more modest chateau of the Grand Trianon with his second wife, Madame de Maintenon, who accompanied him through these last sorrows.

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