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The Problem with Colour: Charles Le Brun between Academy and Gobelins

30 June 2015

No other artist can claim to have exercised the same influence on the arts in France during the reign of Louis XIV as Charles Le Brun (1619–90). As a protégé of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Le Brun was a figure of power; a flexible gentleman who was at ease with artists and artisans as well as with men of authority and senior courtiers. As director of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the Gobelins Manufactory, and as a leading force at the royal building sites, Le Brun left his mark in all domains of the visual arts. At the Gobelins, he oversaw the production of furnishings and luxury goods for the palaces of Louis XIV, famously immortalised in a tapestry depicting the king visiting the manufactory. It is a vast group portrait, woven according to Le Brun’s own designs, and including, amongst others, the Italian cabinet maker Domenico Cucci (see ‘Casting a Queen: Louis XIV’s forgotten wife’) and the Flemish landscape painter Adam Frans van der Meulen.

One craftsman whom Le Brun did not represent in the frenzied scenery was Josse Kerchove – a central yet mostly forgotten figure in the production of French decorative arts. Kerchove, a Dutch ‘teinturier’, was responsible for the production of durable dyes necessary for the weaving of high- and low-warp tapestries, and therefore a key player in guaranteeing the Gobelins’ high-quality standards. He ensured his indispensability by keeping the chemical composition of his dyes a secret. Why then, if he was so essential, did Le Brun exclude him from the tapestry depicting the king’s visit to the Gobelins?

Colour always was a problem. Although the initial success of the Gobelins in the reign of Henry IV had been based in large part on the vibrancy and durability of their in-house-produced dyes, and less on the complexity of the tapestries’ designs, dyers were still considered to be of a much lower rank than weavers. Their status was at least as low as that of colour grinders at the Academy – if not inferior. Their hard work was considered to have no artistic or intellectual component. It was very dirty and very smelly.

The strong associations between colour and manual labour even led the Academy to embark on a fierce theoretical dispute concerning the question of superiority between form and colour in painting: the so-called ‘Querelle du coloris’ of the 1670s, split the painters into so-called ‘Rubénistes’, who favoured colour, and ‘Poussinistes’, who considered form more valuable. The colour at issue in this quarrel was of course not the material colour, i.e., paint or dyes, but the colour as a visual phenomenon or compositional component in a work of art.

The discourse was triggered by the elderly Philippe de Champaigne who claimed that form, i.e. drawing, was vital to painting, while colour was nothing but ‘a fair appearance, which cannot subsist alone, whatever beauty it may have.’ The much younger Louis-Gabriel Blanchard, a great admirer of the Venetian colourists, took great issue with Champaigne’s remark. For Blanchard, colour was at least as necessary to painting as form was. Diminishing its importance meant diminishing the importance of painting altogether. Colour, he argued, had been extolled since antiquity, and its correct use in painting was a delight for the eyes, making it therefore enjoyable for both the well- and less educated: ‘It is sparse just to please the ignorant; it is much just to please the erudite, but it is of masterly perfection to please everyone.’ This inference by Blanchard was to become one of the key arguments of the colourist camp.

Le Brun took the side of the ‘Poussinistes’. He had to. Together with Champaigne, he had been a founding member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, at a time when painters were not at all regarded as liberal artists in the way that poets and architects were. The esteemed physician Samuel de Sorbière, for instance, harshly ridiculed the fashion for over-appreciating the craft of painting, as well as the amount of money some collectors were willing to spend on the results. He deprecated the self-obsession he detected in some contemporary painters, comparing them to barbers, whom he mocked by claiming that their ‘profession was the most beautiful and the most difficult of all: you would need to know almost everything in order to cut hair properly, & for that you will require a happy upbringing paired with many years of studies.’

(before 1670), Jean Jans père after Charles Le Brun.

The Queen’s of Persia at the Feet of Alexander the Great (before 1670), Jean Jans père after Charles Le Brun. Mobilier national, Paris

The Academy’s emphasis on form, i.e., drawing, sought to establish painting as a liberal art. And indeed, by the 1670s, the status of painters, especially of academicians, had increased considerably. However, Le Brun and Champaigne were still worried that too great an interest in colour may have undermined their newly-gained social rank. To secure the status of the painter, they had to dismiss colour – at least intellectually, for it is of course obvious that in practice all artists paid great attention to the colouristic arrangements of their compositions.

The Queens of Persia at the feet of Alexander the Great is Le Brun’s most famous work. Painted at the beginning of the 1660s, the scene testifies to the artist’s continuous interest in the œuvre of Nicolas Poussin – his supreme role model. Here, Le Brun attempted to emulate what he called ‘the brownish air’ of Poussin’s compositions, suggesting a spatial division between the scene and its beholder. The picture has been repeatedly translated into the medium of tapestry, yet the colours in these weavings lack the subtlety of those on the original canvas. Any detailed visual comparisons, however, seem unreasonable, because the tapestry dyes have either discoloured or faded over the centuries, while the painting is considered to have lost much of its original appearance.

The juxtaposition nonetheless clearly illustrates Le Brun’s social flexibility. As head of the Academy, he had to defend the intellectual integrity of painting. As head of the Gobelins, he had to ensure the highest standards of craftsmanship. Yet the worlds of discourse and of technical achievement were not hermetically separated from each other. While Le Brun taught at the Academy, he lived at the Gobelins, acted as ‘pater familias’ to all craftsmen and was godparent to many of their children. How intriguing it would be to know what relationship he had to the indispensable yet malodorous dyer Josse Kerchove…

More from this series

Wolf Burchard is a specialist on 17th- and 18th-century patronage. His online series about the legacy of Louis XIV expands on his feature article ‘Blinded by the Sun’ (first published in Apollo; March 2015).

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