The primary purpose of aristocratic portraiture in the late 17th century was less to depict and individual and a character, as Philippe de Champaigne had done in the preceding period, and more to portray the sitter as a realization of more generalized, impersonal, collective values. The portraitist cannot depict an abstraction like social rank, but he can show the subject be in possession of, or enacting, the various qualities and attributes believed to be inherent in noble birth. The recording of the subject’s physiognomy was secondary to the importance of the registration of the performance of social status. Given that the portrait is meant to serve as an official statement of the subject’s public self, attempts to portray the subject’s interiority, personality, or psychological states would be generically inappropriate as they would individualize the subject, rather proclaim the qualities he or she shares with the other constituents of the caste.
The ban on of the representation of inward, individual eccentricities manifests itself in Rigaud’s pictures in the uniformly impassive, nearly expressionless gazes of his sitters, which deliberately convey no information about whether the subject was depressive, light-hearted, dishonest or shy. The distant gaze also aims to distance or defamiliarize the subject from the viewer. Instead of disrespectfully looking the sitter in the eye, the viewer is expected to direct his visual attention to other, interpretable features, including the subject’s stance, wardrobe, gesture, and the objects they wield. Rigaud thus inaugurated the court portrait, which differed from the personal or institutional portraits of the early 17th century, in that it was designed to circulate in a social environment nearly completely defined by birth, which, of course, was a symbol of worth—an outward sign of an inward grace.
Charles Le Brun, an astute observer of the changing nature of king’s use of the court, urged Rigaud not to pursue history painting, which had effectively one patron, the King, who habitually depleted the royal treasury to fund lengthy, disastrous wars and thus could not always pay artists in a timely manner, and to pursue portraiture. After Rigaud’s portrait of the Grand Dauphin (1688) found favor with the King, Rigaud was appointed peintre du roi. Louis exhorted all of his courtiers and ministers to have Rigaud portray them, thus helping himself, by creating another expensive requirement for access to the court (Louis knew that a nobility forced to buy expensive portraits and wardrobes could not afford to buy Frondes as well) and providing Rigaud a nearly infinite number of wealthy clients. Rigaud’s detailed account books show that by the end of his long career, he portrayed over 1,000 different models and sitters.
Following the example of Coysevox, Rigaud developed a formula for portraying the homme de qualité, whose status was proven by the nobility of the attitude, expressiveness of the gesture, and movement of the draperies. Through these outward signs, the subject showed the extent and degree of the various qualities of which his inherently generous temperament was capable. This means that even minute differences in stance, gesture and movement of drapery are indices of differing capacities for embodying noble qualities. This includes the the rhetorics and semiotics of hand gestures, rumpled falls of fabric, the way robes are gathered or held against the body, the lay of a wig and the interest a red velvet curtain shows in the subject beneath it. Some express their noble temperament by holding books or musical instruments, others have batons or swords which are handled or wielded in pointed ways; others can display their status through the crook of a finger.
Look for upcoming posts on Rigaud, his patrons, his rivals and early modern portraiture.