Bernini's bust of Louis XIV


The relationship between a great artist and his sitters is a poignant one. But what they say to each other during the long periods of concentrated stillness, on the one hand, and frenzied search for a likeness, on the other, is seldom recorded.

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We do not know what Leonardo said to the Mona Lisa to evoke her Giaconda Smile. Or what Vermeer, a shadowy figure at all times, told the girl with the pearl earring, to fix her mood of heart-catching, pensive beauty. One feels that Vermeer was as gentle as the touch of his brush, and spoke in barely audible whispers. He was, I think, nervous and easily upset in his work, one reason why he never painted children, though he had 14 of his own (and left them badly provided for, alas).

Franz Hals liked to swear and joke, one reason his subjects often laughed, unusual in those days. John Singer Sargent was hugely successful with women because he put them at their ease, made them feel wanted and beautiful, but also comfy in their pose. But what did he say to Lord Ribblesdale to turn him into the epitome of English aristocratic pride and nonchalance, at the climax of our imperial splendour? His Lordship was a modest man and rather nervous at being Sargent’s victim. He was later astonished at the reactions to this famous full-length, ‘which seduced the ladies and scared the gentlemen’. Sir Thomas Lawrence did all the great men of his time (Napoleon alone excepted) from the Tsar to the Pope, and was evidently a great chatter-up of sitters, and clever at eliciting information, including state secrets, from them. Many of his studio exchanges are recorded in the diaries of Joseph Farington RA, his close friend.

Just occasionally we get an isolated blow-by-blow account of sittings between a major artist and an outstanding sitter. The best I know of is the encounter between Bernini and Louis XIV, when the sculptor, then about 66, was doing his marvellous bust of the young monarch, who was already beginning to call himself the Sun King. The artist was then at the height of his powers and one of the most famous men in the world: not just a superlative sculptor, especially in marble, but a designer and architect and wonderful draughtsman. His invitation to come to Paris was part of a larger plan to make peace between the Pope, his master, and the French monarchy. The artistic object of his visit was to create a design for the completion of the Louvre, and to sculpt a rearing equestrian statue of Louis on his charger. As it turned out, the Louvre design was never adopted, and the statue was judged to be a failure. But the bust, not part of the original scheme and created in less than three and a half months, turned out to be a masterpiece, the best thing Bernini ever did in this genre, in which he excelled, and probably the truest and most revealing likeness — and character study — of Louis, then on the threshold of his long career of arrogance, selfishness and glorification.

Louis had assigned one of his maîtres d’hôtel, the Sieur Paul Fréart de Chantelou, to look after the artist during his visit to France, and happily this clever and sensitive man kept a detailed diary. The best edition is Journal de Voyage du Cavalier Bernin en France, edited by Ludovic Lalanne with notes by Jean Paul Guibbert (Clamecy, 1981). This describes in astonishing detail the creation of the bust, from the moment the sculptor first set eyes on the King, and realised the immensity and difficulty of what he had to do. The search for the right marble, the schedule of working days (48 including adding up half-days), the routine — starting early in the morning and sometimes going on till 5.30 p.m. — by which time Bernini was exhausted — the kind of tools used, from chisels to delicate hand-drills, and the records, from clay models to drawings, of the King’s image on the 20 or so occasions when Bernini could study him from the life — all this is set down, plus verbal exchanges between artist and sitter. Bernini saw the work as a collaboration: ‘The King and I must finish this,’ as he put it. He liked the monarch to move about, playing real tennis or presiding at a council meeting. Unlike many artists, he was not afraid to look the Sun King in the eye, commenting: ‘I am stealing your likeness.’ The King: ‘Yes, but only to give it back again.’ Bernini: ‘But I’ll be giving back far less than I have stolen.’

I wish it could have been even better. I have laboured over it with so much love that I honestly think it is the least bad portrait ever done by my hands. I must thank Your Majesty for your noble and co-operative spirit.’ Then the old man burst into tears and ran out of the room.

When the bust was supposedly finished, he obliged the King to look directly at an object so he could make a tiny charcoal mark on one of the eyes, to be worked on with his tools afterwards. People were constantly invading the studio to give their opinion, from Colbert down. A royal mistress said: ‘Leave it alone now, another touch and you’ll spoil it.’ Appeals to him to knock off at the end of a long day were met with a furious refusal: ‘Let me stay here, I am in love with my work.’ He was sometimes in a state of collapse by late afternoon, and could not eat his dinner. When Louis heard that the bust was finished and came to see it, Bernini had it carefully placed on a richly coloured carpet, to set off the brilliance of the white marble. He said to the King: ‘It is done. I wish it could have been even better. I have laboured over it with so much love that I honestly think it is the least bad portrait ever done by my hands. I must thank Your Majesty for your noble and co-operative spirit.’ Then the old man burst into tears and ran out of the room.

If you want to see this fine and dramatic work, you must go to the château de Versailles. It is of almost incredible virtuosity, especially the undercutting of the locks of hair, the verisimilitude of the lace jabot, and the way in which the shadows in the eye-pupils are conveyed. Rudolf Wittkower has a fine, illuminating passage on the eyes in a lecture he gave in Oxford (‘Bernini’s Bust of Louis XIV’, The Charlton Lectures on Art, OUP, 1951). And for the place of the bust in Bernini’s life and career I recommend Charles Avery’s Bernini: Genius of the Baroque (Thames & Hudson, 1997), for which photographs were specially taken by David Finn, many of electrifying beauty.

Bernini’s bust of Louis XIV is not, perhaps, his greatest work. Some people would award the prize to ‘The Ecstasy of St Teresa’, showing her pierced with the angel’s arrow of love, in the altar of the Cornaro Chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria. The hints of spiritual sexuality in this emotional work are too strong for many, and it is said atheists dare not look at St Teresa’s face. Even more extraordinary is the ‘Apollo and Daphne’, done at the precise moment when Daphne is changing into a tree, now in the Villa Borghese, Rome. This is a piece of pagan mythology and has no spiritual content, but its artistic power is truly diabolical. No man had ever achieved such mastery over marble before, and no one, we can be sure, will ever again approach it. In our age of cultural putrefaction, when all the resources of state authority, commercial money and human wickedness are combining to destroy the fine arts, it is good to remember and enjoy such masterpieces of devoted skill, and to think of the aged Bernini, too tired from his exquisite exertions to eat his supper. That was civilisation!


Paul Johnson. "Bernini's bust of Louis XIV." The Spectator (November 7, 2007).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Johnson

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