Art In History Art Blog
Just as kings are inevitably symbols of the state which has elevated them to the pinacle of authority, so the image that kings choose for themselves is a teeling sign of how the nature of that authority is understood. Granted, one could argue that there is a "standard" iconography of kingship in European painting, and that the Rigaud painting on the left fits that standard. But by comparing it with the highly original portrayal of Charles I by Van Dyke, we can sense just how differently royalty was viewed in the two cultures.
Rigaud has given us a view of the most magnificent symbol of the period of absolute monarchy, the Sun King, Louis XIV. The impact of the work comes from the magnificnece of the setting and the trappings. One can't help but wonder if a more masterful painter might have given the king more personal force of character, and yet the central message is clear: the full power and authority of the French state is vested in the person of the king.
When we look at the Van Dyke portrayal of Charles I of England, we might be struck first by the similarity in the pose of the right arm in both, a striking gesture with a walking stick, full of assurance and command. But the differences soon demand our attention. Charles has a natural superiority which is not so much created by his elegant dress as it is confimed by it. His glance at the viewer is far more subtle and telling than that of Louis XIV, the glance of an aristocrat who knows that the approaching person cannot be an equal, and is probably beneath notice.
Charles has chosen to be seen as the ultimate aristocrat, deserving of respect because of his breeding, manners and above all title to the land. He shows himself viewing a sweep of country, clearly as its lord. Though land was the basis of legitimate power throughout Europe, it was nowhere moreso than in England. Furthermore, where Louis XIV gained his stature at the expense of the power of the French nobility, Charles in England stood more as one of them, first among the nobility of the land.