Portrait of Charles Le Brun
by Nicolas de Largillière
This person is associated with: Baroque, Classicism
French classical painter and the most important painter in Europe during the second half of the 17th century.
Charles Le Brun trained under Vouet, the main Baroque painter in France, during the first half of the century. In 1640 he met his master's rival, Nicolas Poussin, and followed him to Rome in 1642 thanks to the sponsorship of Chancellor Séguier. He returned to Paris in 1646 and success came immediately as all the greatest statesmen of the time patronized him, including Cardinal Mazarin, the Prime Minister at the time. With such powerful recommendations, he easily became one of the twelve founders ("the Twelve Elders") of the French Academy of Painting on 1 February 1648 (directly appointed professor) at only 28.
After the deaths of Le Sueur and La Hyre in 1655-6, the French Classical style became less rigorous and moved away from Poussin's lessons. Le Brun mixed it with Flemish Baroque colours to create warmer and larger compositions, which were the most sought after in the country.
Thus, Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances and the wealthiest man of France, asked Le Brun to decorate his Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte, in the south-east of Paris; he subsequently painted large frescoes based on the life of Hercules. After having attended the inaugural party of this luxurious palace, King Louis XIV - who had started his personal rule in 1661 - felt humiliated by Fouquet who appeard more powerful than him. The ambitious Superintendent was consequently disgraced and put to jail by the absolute monarch, who also wanted to build a bigger palace than his former rival's in order to display his power to the nobility and his European counterparts.
Louis XIV reassembled for Versailles the team who worked on the Palace of Vaux. Hardouin-Mansart was architect, Le Notre created the gardens, and Le Brun directed the inner decorations. He has been especially celebrated for the Hall of Mirrors (la Galerie des Glaces) for which he personally painted half of the ceilings - his workshop taking care of the rest. The 1,000 m² of frescos in the gallery were the most important painted work of the century and are still considered as one of the greatest achievements in the history of painting. The gallery extends to 73 meters and ends on each side with the War and Peace Rooms. Its ceilings tell the significant events of the first 18 years of Louis XIV's reign, especially the two wars against Holland in 1667-8 and in 1672-8. Le Brun also designed many sculptures placed in the park and drew the frescoes for the other rooms of the palace, which were finished by his students. His famous Ambassadors Staircase was however destroyed under Louis XV.
Apart from Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, Le Brun notably painted four gigantic canvases depicting the Life of Alexander the Great (now in the Louvre) and a series on the Life of Meleager. He moreover designed the Gallery of Apollo in the Louvre Palace but never finished it (the decorations were completed by Delacroix 180 years later). Colbert, the omnipotent Minister of Louis XIV, also had his castle of Sceaux decorated by Le Brun (the renowned Aurora Pavilion). Many other important houses built during the century could boast Le Brun's work, such as the Hôtel Lambert in Paris and the castle of Marly.
Le Brun had undisputably the best career in the history of the French Academy. He was promoted Chancellor for life and Rector on 6 July 1655, then Director on 11 September 1683 until his death on 12 February 1690. In fact, Le Brun had de facto started to rule the Academy since the beginning of the personal rule of Louis XIV, in 1661. He was moreover ennobled in December 1662, then appointed First Painter to the King in 1664, first director of the Manufacture of the Gobelins, founder of the French Academy in Rome in 1666, Director and General Guard of the Royal Paintings, and finally Prince of the Academy of Saint-Luc in Rome in 1676.
Nonetheless, this unprecedented favour ended with the death of Colbert in 1683. Le Brun's most generous protector was replaced in the Ministry by his rival Louvois, who favoured instead Pierre Mignard, also the leader of the "Rubéniste" faction in the Academy. Being a Poussiniste, Le Brun was put aside and deprived from any important royal commissions in his last years.
His output was enormous for the time, albeit he was helped by his numerous collaborators. His drawings are especially prolific and nearly every museum with an interest in old masters has at least one of them. The Louvre Museum obviously owns the best collection, with several thousand drawings - including his famous physionomical sketches made for his classes at the Academy - because the King seized all the contents of his workshop at his death.
He was the master to Houasse and La Fosse.