Absolutism

Abigail Matses

Absolutism_Rigaud

Figure 1. Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701, Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre

Absolutism is a political theory and form of government which dictates that one individual holds a monopoly on all forms of power. The term is most commonly used when describing various ruling monarchies in western Europe between 1660-1815, but the concept can be applied to other historical periods and places.1 In order to function, absolutism first requires monarchy, meaning rule of one. Under this “extreme conception of sovereignty” the individual in power has the means to command the repressed majority, denying subjects the right to overrule.2 The historical practice of absolutism differs however from its theoretical definition. In practice, absolutism requires an individual to constantly maintain a monopoly of power against opposition, whether he succeeds or not in doing so. The reign of King Louis XIV of France (1643-1715) is a prime example of monarchical absolutism. Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait Louis XIV (1638-1715) (1701) was commissioned by the king as self-conscious propaganda to support the facade of a successful absolutist government [Figure 1]. It is a potent visual expression of absolutism as a type of state led by a “glittering display of power.”3

Absolute rulers convince others of their power through “elaborately ritualized fictions.”4 In Rigaud’s portrait, the artist represents Louis XIV’s “mastery over others” by seeking to visually display “a perhaps unrepresentable mastery over himself.” 5 Rather than depicting Louis XIV with other courtiers or family members, he is portrayed alone, clothed in coronation regalia, underscoring his absolute power. Despite the fact that Louis XIV was 63 years old at the time the portrait is painted, he defies age. His shapely legs help with this impression. When viewed in contrast to his aged face, the legs seem especially youthful and perhaps, even eroticized; they are essentially naked if not for the thin silk stocking he wears. In depictions of Louis XIV, the king’s healthy, virile body stands as a metaphor for the health of the state, a visual trope used in depictions of Louis XIV’s marriage as well.6 His robe is covered with the fleur-de-lys, symbol of French royalty, but as Zanger proposes, also of “male genitalia and semen.”7 Neither at the peak of his virile youth nor any longer in need of producing heirs, King Louis XIV’s sexualized representation in this portrait ultimately works as a projection of his power, signaling the “potency” of his rule.8 By displaying his body, Louis XIV visually ensured his family’s and the state’s continued autonomy.

In monarchies, power is handed hereditarily from father to legitimate male heir, a transition which is crucial for enforcing power. This “notion of legitimacy” is inherently tied to the concept of absolutism, particularly in the case of Louis XIV.9 In addition to social and political power, Louis XIV claimed that God offered him the right to rule omnipotently. Within the French court, monarchs ruled by divine right, meaning they were not subject to any earthly authority aside themselves, and that all decisions were sanctioned directly by God. To impress the perception of absolute power, the “public spectacle” of absolutism had to be “one of unanimity.”10 Because the Holy See of the Catholic Church was recognized as the earthly religious authority, it complicated the concept of absolute ruler. Louis XIV circumnavigated the Pope’s overarching rule by claiming imperium or the right to command, awarding himself absolute sovereignty. He was able to promote the perception of his absolute rule by ordering Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait Louis XIV (1638-1715) to be copied and distributed widely. The portrait was originally commissioned by Louis XIV for Philip V of Spain, his grandson, but other copies exist today at institutions such as The Getty. In conjunction with his famously known quote “L’état, c’est moi,” I am the state, his assertions appeared as reality to the masses.

Just as Louis XIV fictionalized aspects of himself in Hyacinthe Rigaud’s Louis XIV (1638-1715)  in order to underscore his power, absolutism as an institution relied on fiction as well.  While today’s governmental systems are thought to relate to a country’s “social reality,” this was not the case in France under Louis XIV. 11 Louis XIV’s absolutist reign functioned in contrast to France’s social reality: the nobility was declining while members of the peasant class were rising to create a new class, the bourgeoisie. His absolutist reign worked to support a “class front,” keeping certain groups elevated and others repressed.12 In truth, Louis XIV’s absolutist propaganda acted as a public distraction from underlying governmental dysfunction.13 The status of absolute ruler can never be fully realized because it relies on perception and spectacle.

Footnotes

  1. Max Beloff, The Age of Absolutism 1660-1815 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 11.
  2. Ragnhild Hatton, Louis XIV and Absolutism (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976), 7.
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. Abby E. Zanger, Scenes from the Marriage of Louis XIV: Nuptial Fictions and the Making of Absolutist Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 20.
  5. Ibid., 20.
  6. Ibid., 31.
  7. Ibid., 31.
  8. Ibid., 32.
  9. Beloff, 22.
  10. Nicholas Henshall, The Myth of Absolutism: Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (London: Longman Group, 1992), 36.
  11. Nicholas Henshall, The Myth of Absolutism: Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (London: Longman Group, 1992), 36.
  12. Henshall, 37.
  13. Hatton, Louis XIV and Absolutism, 6.