For King Louis XIV, Charles Le Brun was the best artist that has ever lived in France during the 17th century. Le Brun was an illustrious art theorist, painter and landscape architect that helped Louis Le Vau and Andre le Notre design several significant buildings in Paris such as the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louvre du Palais, and the Versailles Palace.
As a dominant figure of his generation, he took inspiration from the works of another great artist in Nicolas Poussin, who spearheaded the development of French classicism. In fact, Le Brun was also dictatorial in his creative process, meaning to say he’d prefer not to be commanded by anybody else when doing his art. His patron, the Chief Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert allowed him to do just that fortunately unlike to Poussin’s inability to enjoy his creative freedom while working in Paris under the patronage of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu.
One of his major contributions to French art was his participation to the founding of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The guild was co-founded by twelve members and was the first art school in the country. Under his leadership, he established the governing rules of the academic art subjects. This helped the school develop its own training modules and style of teaching art.
Aside from his famous architectural designs, Le Brun also had executed a large number of paintings such as Hercules and the Horses of Diomedes (1640), The Sacrifice of Lephte (1656), The Tent of Darius (1661), Christ on the Cross (1637), and The Adoration of the Shepherds (1689).
Charles Le Brun was born on February 24, 1619 in Paris. His father was a sculptor, from whom he must have acquired his artistic skills. His father also taught him all the basic lessons he should learn about painting. By the age of sixteen, the young Parisian joined in the workshop of Simon Vouet, a prominent court artist. Vouet’s unquestionable expertise in the arts enabled Le Brun to assimilate the different styles emerging around the time; from engraving, painting to architecture.
Chancellor Pierre Seguier was the first patron to have trusted in the potential of Le Brun despite his young age. He was only 20 years old when he received a commission by Cardinal Richelieu, for whom he painted the Hercules and the Horses of Diomedes masterpiece in 1640. This was then followed by his membership with the Guild of Painters and Sculptors. And at the same year, he began working on The Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist for the Church of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, which he completed by 1642.
In 1642, he took the opportunity to travel to Rome together with Nicolas Poussin. He was also with a company of painters with Poussin as their supervisor. There, he studied the classical antiquity closely but of all works, his interest focused much more on the creations of Raphael Santi and Anniabale Carraci. The quadrature designs of Pietro da Cortona and Correggio also influenced him to practice decorative fresco painting.
While in Rome, he as well produced works such as Macius Scaevola, Horatius Cocles and the Dead Christ in the Lap of the Virgin. Le Brun had already developed his unique classical style at this stage of his career. Therefore, he quickly became a distinguished artist in France when he came back to work permanently there.
At some point, Pierre Seguier wanted him to stay in Rome where he could establish a better career. But Le Brun refused to accept the advice and went back to Paris instead. While en route to France he briefly stayed in Lyons where he was commissioned to work on a painting, The Death of Cato.
By 1646, Le Brun arrived in Paris and was still under the command of the King’s chancellor. Luckily, his association with the chancellor expanded his pool of clientele. And as he built his reputation he executed a couple of paintings for Notre Dame, which included The Crucifixion of St. Andrew in 1647 and The Martyrdom of St. Stephen in 1651.
One of his patrons was a Regent to Queen Anne of Austria, for whom he painted several religious-themed fresco paintings. He decorated the regent’s palace by painting Meal with Simon, Le Silence and Christ Served by Angels. As for his decorative designs, he did some works for Hotel de la Riviere in 1653 and executed the Galerie d’Hercule fresco in Hotel Lambert. At this point, his works became even richer in detail and color but he noticeably avoided placing excessive depth in the paintings.
From 1658 to 1561, he had been collaborating with Andre Le Notre and Louis Le Vau to build and decorate Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. His works there are considered as a major French art of his time probably because he was able to exhibit his talent and skill in designing edifices and gardens besides painting frescoes on the ceilings and walls. Le Brun was simply the all-in-one decorative artist that any patron would hire at the time.
In 1660, King Louis XIV took Charles Le Brun in as a court painter. His first major work was The Tent of Darius painting which he executed at the same year until 1661 for the Versailles Palace. The said oil painting in canvas displayed the characteristics of classical French art, in which Le Brun placed his character in a sober disposition coupled with clear facial expressions perfect for the supposed emotion he tries to convey.
The Darius painting cemented his position in the king’s court. Four years later, he was acknowledged as Painter to the King, and from then on, he was appointed to lead several projects. He kept his hand full at the disposal of the king, but he found time to attend to his responsibilities with the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture. And with the help of Chief Minister Colbert, the academy gained monopoly of teaching academic arts in the country, overpowering the local painter’s guild. It is also through Colbert that Le Brun became the Academy’s appointed Director. Consequently, he established the foundation of the teaching system of the art school during his tenure.
As he was a multi-talented artist, Le Brun was appointed as the Director of the Gobelins Tapestry Factory in 1663. His previous work experience in chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte was a huge factor to his appointment. He was the head of the tapestry works for the said chateau and thus he supervised the works of his team members, particularly watching over the production of tapestries and furniture. Few examples of his tapestries include The Months of the Year, The History of the King, The Four Seasons, and The Four Elements.
Adapting Poussin’s French classicism, he learned from there and was able to develop his own style of painting that can be described as sober, rich and in-depth. This style was best applied in his engravings that they are more popular than his paintings. These engravings had been a source of inspiration to his students and contemporaries that his influence reached beyond the borders of France.
However, as good things come to an end, Le Brun’s popularity faded after the death of Chief Minister Colbert. The minister’s arch rivals Marquis de Louvois and Francois-Michel le Tellier showed little mercy to Le Brun; they wanted to take him down and stop receiving commissions from the king. This conflict affected his health negatively that he fell ill which ended his life on 1690.