When it comes to the contemporary conception of luxury, the Western world is forever indebted to Louis XIV, the French monarch who can take credit for elevating lifestyle to a fine art. With his extensive acquisitions and ambitious projects, the "Sun King" embraced a pattern of conspicuous consumption echoed in the hypermaterialist culture that has defined the past 20 years. We may be living through the repercussions of our latest spending frenzy, but our fascination with the finer things in life remains undiminished. And Louis XIV: L'Homme et le Roi, a new exhibit set in the Baroque splendor of the Palace of Versailles (through Feb. 7), sheds a timely light on the spirit of decadence.
The exhibit is the first investigation of Louis XIV as the man behind the crown. In brainstorming the exhibition, three years in the making, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the president of the organization that oversees Versailles, put aside the conventional idea of exploring the history of the palace and chose instead to focus on fleshing out a "cultural portrait of the king," as the catalog describes. This takes shape in an impressive array of more than 300 assembled objects—including paintings, sculpture, furniture, and objets d'art—some back home for the first time since the French Revolution. Queen Elizabeth even lent several of her pieces back for the show, among them a 1680 painting featuring workers toiling on the construction of Versailles.
The curators, Nicolas Milovanovic and Alexandre Maral, aim to illuminate the depth and breadth of Louis's passionate patronage, and through the course of the exhibit it becomes clear that the king was motivated by more than a desire to flaunt his wealth and project a sense of power. His hands-on approach to everything from the daily progress of his court painter Charles Le Brun to the construction of the palace itself reveals his multilayered connoisseurship. Visitors move through a series of color-coded rooms that reflect different aspects of the king's taste. The purple gallery, for example, showcases his personal collection of engraved rock crystals, which he displayed in the royal apartments against mirrored panels. The room dedicated to music and dance demonstrates his attachment to the arts, displaying sketches of the different costumes Louis, an accomplished ballet dancer, wore in his various performances at court.
Standout pieces include a massive cabinet by Le Brun that features breathtaking semiprecious marquetry, and a sensual marble bust of the king by Bernini. "By encouraging artists and supporting manufacturers charged to carry out true works of art, Louis XIV gave a formidable push…in certain ways to the origin of the French luxury industry," says Maral. The show is sponsored by Moët Hennessy, a division of the French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which is planning a series of intimate 20-course dinners at Versailles, re-creating dishes served at the king's table, under the umbrella of his favorite beverage, Dom Pérignon.
Contradicting the stereotype of a dilettante who delegates his acquisitions to advisers, Louis imposed his taste on the entire nation. And like other noble families, such as the Medicis, who became influential art patrons, Louis, inspired in part by a nationalist impulse, nurtured talents like Molière and the painter Rigaud. While not all of his favored artists achieved great fame, his most significant contribution was to help French culture attain the same level of respect as that of the Italians. "In the case of Louis XIV, one cannot distinguish his passion for collecting art from the exercise of power," observes Maral. "As a king he accumulated works of art. That said, he personally appreciated certain types of work and artists, so it's possible to distinguish a man of taste behind the king."
Many visitors will walk away from the exhibit awed by all the 24K gold but unable to personally relate to Louis's self-referential collection. But for those who can still afford to indulge themselves, the takeaway message is that true luxury remains a reason in and of itself, one that makes no apologies. Nearly 300 years later, Louis's lifestyle approach remains very much alive and well.