Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Subject of Passions: Charles le Brun and the Emotions of Absolutism

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Subject of Passions: Charles le Brun and the Emotions of Absolutism

Article excerpt

For nearly two centuries after Charles Le Brun presented his lecture on the visual representation of the passions to the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1668, his drawings provided the textbook illustration of human emotion. (1) Even today, if you Google "how to draw expressions," you will find, scrolling down through countless variations of mouth, eye, and brow, Le Bruns heads of passion. (2) A sort of early modern version of Paul Ekman's widely used POFA (Pictures of Facial Affect), these drawings codified the artistic representation of expressions including wonder, despair, terror, joy, love, fear, anger, hope, and laughter. (3) Published in the late seventeenth century, the Conference sur l'expression generale et particuliere consists of Le Bruns lecture, articulating a Cartesian-inspired theory of the passions adapted for the particular use of artists, and the series of drawings he made to illustrate the lecture, including sketched heads in black ink, diagram heads on a grid of vertical and horizontal lines, and finished heads of expression. (4) Yet if Le Bruns Conference is frequently coupled with Descartes's treatise on the passions, Les Passions de lame, it is another context, that of the paintings from which the artist modeled a number of the expressions illustrating the Conference, that interests me here. And while the text and theory of the Conference take us back to Descartes, its images and visual practice lead us to Louis XIV--and, more precisely, to the subject of absolutism, and her emotions.

Of these emotions, one passion in particular--that of "Admiration" (Wonder)--serves as my point of entry into an interrogation that seeks to rethink the affective economy of absolutism through a wider palette of emotions and affects than is tradionally acknowledged. Le Bruns finished head for wonder originates in his well-known history painting, Les Reines de Perse aux pieds d'Alexandre, composed for Louis XIV in 1660 or 1661, and disseminated in engravings, tapestries, and an official description of the painting penned by Andre Felibien (fig. I). (5) The artists portrayal of the young king as a loving Alexander confronts the tranquil figure of Louis/ Alexander with the diverse feelings of his new subjects, the queens of Persia and their entourage. Painted at the beginning of Louis XI V's personal reign, Les Reines de Perse envisions absolutism through the visual language of emotion. What happens, then, when we reanimate the painting's dialogue between the subject of the passions and the absolutist subject of passion?

Situated at the intersection of the Conference and the painting, this essay tracks wonder and other emotions through different media incarnations of both works as text and as image. I analyze Les Reines de Perse, along with a cluster of related texts and contexts, as an "archive of feelings" complicating the historiography of affective restraint and absolutist spectacle that has shaped our notion of the emotional relations associated with Louis XIV's absolutism. (6) The language of contemporary affect studies invoked by my reference to Ann Cvetkovich's An Archive of Feelings operates as a challenge both to reevaluate the way scholars think about the emotional life of absolutism and to reevaluate absolutist cultural production from the perspective of emotions. More generally, the notion of an archive of feelings allows me to collect texts, images, and emotions that cluster around Le Bruns remarkable painting. The Alexander archive, as we shall see, brings a new emotional vocabulary to our lexicon of absolutist affections even as it brings another figure--that of the feeling subject--into the portrait of absolutism. (7) Informed by Jacques Ranciere's concept of the distribution of the sensible as the delimitation of modes of perception, the following essay offers Les Reines de Perse as an experiment in making the subject of absolutism perceptible--both visible and felt and seeing and feeling--in seventeenth-century France. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.