Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Louis XVIII's Cult[ural] Politics, 1815-1820 *

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Louis XVIII's Cult[ural] Politics, 1815-1820 *

Article excerpt

In the course of the last ten years or so, our knowledge of visual culture produced in France during the Bourbon Restoration (1814/1815-1830) has increased considerably, thanks to the ground-breaking efforts of several scholars. (1) Of these contributions, Carol Duncan's analysis of the origins and public reception of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' monumental altarpiece for the provosts of Montauban cathedral, The Vow of Louis XIII (Salon of 1824), is surely one of the most original and convincing. (2) Duncan argues that the meaning of Ingres' picture, which shows a seventeenth-century Bourbon monarch swearing an oath of fidelity to the Virgin in return for an end to political and religious strife, is indelibly bound up with the contentious debate between right-wing royalists and leftist constitutionalists over the proper role of the Roman Catholic Church in Restoration government and society. She concludes that while the painting brilliantly fulfilled the artist's ambition to attain official success at the Salon and the patrons' desire to curry favor with the ultra-royalist Paris government, a public raised on revolutionary principles would have viewed the painting as symptomatic of a more dangerous desire to return to the old order.

Here I am less concerned with the way a single artist or work of art may be said to have negotiated this difficult ideological terrain than Louis XVIII's direct initiatives in shaping the terrain itself. Louis XVIII was much more shrewd in his political outlook and initiatives than his younger brother and successor, Charles X. Whereas Louis XVIII used the Catholic Church to achieve a political end, only Charles X allowed it to dictate public policy. It follows that official culture of the earlier reign took a different turn as well. Indeed, I suggest that Louis XVIII effectively manipulated the cult of his deceased brother and sister-in-law, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, in order to contain ultra-royalist threats to the new pseudo-constitutional regime. To explicate this hypothesis, I will begin with a brief overview of the political climate in France from 1815 to 1820, the period of Louis XVIII's greatest influence over the reactionary right, followed by an analysis of his official arts policy, especially the problematics of promoting a public identity based on a heritage of Bourbon suffering.

"King Voltaire" Against the Ultras. French politics between the Second Restoration of Louis XVIII to the throne in July 1815 and the assassination of the Duc de Berry in February 1820 may be characterized as a continuous struggle between two factions in the court and legislature: a bitterly reactionary "ultra-royalist" Right, composed of aristocrats and clerics who had survived the purges of the French Revolution, and a more liberal Left, an unlikely amalgam of Bonapartists, republicans, and constitutional monarchists. United in their hostility to the reforms of the Revolutionary and Imperial periods, the "Ultras" sought to resurrect the pre-1789 status quo, to impose an absolutist regime on France which would put an end to what they perceived to be the twin evils of the Enlightenment: a disavowal of religious faith and a distrust of those in positions of power. For their part, the liberals were held together by a desire to establish a representative form of government and a distrust of the Bourbons for autocratic measures imposed during the late 1780s and the violent "White Terror" which had convulsed the south of France in 1815. (3) It was Louis XVIII's great skill as a manipulator of these opposed factions which put the state on a bumpy course toward "moderate" monarchy.

If historians have come to see the former Comte de Provence as a shrewd strategist lying in wait while the heads of his brother and sister-in-law dropped into the executioner's basket, they have not yet fully appreciated his astuteness in managing various cliques within the government when he finally did come to power. …

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