Pierre Mignard was one of those important French Baroque painters at the service of King Louis XIV who had an important number of assistants. He specialised in portrait painting.
During the Franco-Dutch War of 1672 – 1678 the strategically important town of Dinant on the Meuse, belonging to Liège, was conquered in a few days time by the troops of the French King in 1675. Our painting made shortly after that conquest is extremely original: it does not show the King on horseback in front of Dinant, but simply his horse. The town view in the background goes back to sketches by the Flemish painter Adam Frans van der Meulen who made paintings and tapestry sketches of the King’s conquests.
About Pierre Mignard
Troyes 1612 – 1695 Paris
Portrait painter and painter of history scenes (religious and mythological scenes).
Pupil in 1624 of the Mannerist painter Jean Boucher in Bourges and later of the Baroque painter Simon Vouet (1590 – 1649).
Mignard lived during 22 years in Rome from 1635 until 1657, hence his nickname “le Romain”. He specialised in representations of the Virgin with Child, but also painted a lot of portraits. As his reputation grew Louis XIV, King of France, summoned him to return to France and to work at his service.
Mignard specialised as a portrait painter, working for King Louis XIV and the nobility; he also painted religious and mythological subjects. He was ennobled by the King in 1687. And in 1690, after the death of Charles Le Brun (his life-long rival who had also been a pupil of Vouet), he was made First Painter of the King. At the same time he became director of the Royale Manufacture and of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.
Pierre Mignard belonged to a real dynasty of French painters:
- both his sons, Paul and Pierre, were important artists.
- his younger brother Nicolas was also a painter, mainly active in Avignon (hence known as Mignon d’Avignon).
- both sons of Nicolas were painters: Paul (a portrait painter) and Pierre the Younger (a painter and architect)
About our painting
A painting or a sculpture of a horse, be it mounted by a sovereign or not, has always stood for power, from Alexander the Great and his famous horse Bucephalus until well after Napoleon. King Louis XIV, a man of culture but above all a man of many wars, had received a good equestrian training. He was often portrayed on horseback: in paintings, sculptures and tapestries.
In 1680 the King owned some 400 horses; between 1679 and 1682 he had the Great and the Small Stables build at the Palace of Versailles, each could hold some 300 horses. But at his death in 1715 the King owned already 700 horses and supplementary stables had to be build.
A the death of his successor King Louis XV there were already 1.700 horses at the Castle. Three quarters of the horses were of foreign origin: England, Ireland, Spain, N. Africa and N. Europe.
The town of Dinant along the River Meuse, then belonging to the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, was besieged and taken by the troops of King XIV of France, lead by Marshal François de Créquy, between May 19th and 23rd of 1675. In November of the same year the Castle of Dinant was besieged and taken. The Sun King, England, Munster and Cologne had started a devastating war against the Dutch Republic in 1672. The war ended in 1678 with the Treaty of Nijmegen. Dinant stayed in French hands until 1703, before it was returned to Liège. The Marquis de Vauban (1633 – 1707), Europe’s best-known military engineer, had constructed new fortifications which were being destroyed before the return of the town to Liège.
To commemorate the events of 1675 our painter has represented here the King’s monumental horse in front of Dinant. This original painting raises two interesting questions:
- is this a highly finished sketch for a larger painting, in which the King would then mount the horse;
- or was this composition meant as this and did the King’s horse stand for the royal power?
The Sans Pareil Espagnol (“The unequalled Spaniard”) is a proud horse, full of energy, shown without bridles, free and heroic as its master.
Funny enough we have here a Spanish horse at the service of the French King in front of a Spanish town taken by the French. One of the King’s mottos was “Plausu fortior ibit”, “under applause he will go more bravely” (“sous les applaudissements il ira plus vaillamment”).
I know of no similar compositions from around 1675, but I did find a series of horses painted over 25 years later, now at the museum of Le Mans. At the start of the 18th century Marshal René de Froulay de Tessé (1648 – 1725) had three interesting series of rather naive paintings painted by yet unidentified painters for his castle at Vernie, near Le Mans:
- portraits of women, actually the King’s mistresses, on horseback;
- Roman emperors;
- 17 portraits of the King’s horses (“Les chevaux du Roi”) in front of conquered towns.
Today these paintings are actually kept at the Musée de Tessé, named after the Marshal, at Le Mans.
The museum’s curator, François Arné, dates the series of the horses after 1702, that is after the Marshal’s return to France from Mantua, where he had commanded the French garrison at the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession (winter 1701/1702). The curator thinks that de Tessé ordered this series after he had seen the “Sala dei Cavalli”, a huge room at the Mannerist Palazzo Tè, just outside Mantua, with frescoed portraits of life-size horses (1525 – 1536) by Guilio Romano. These de Tessé paintings, clearly younger and more clumsy than our composition, must clearly have been inspired by our painting or by a similar, yet unknown composition. Just as in our painting the background with the view of a conquered town goes back to the series of the “Conquêtes du Roi” by the Flemish battle scene painter Adam Frans van der Meulen who was at the service of the King.
Adam Frans van der Meulen (1632 – 1690), a pupil of the Flemish battle scene specialist Pieter Snayers, left his native Brussels in 1664 for Paris, where he collaborated with Charles Lebrun. Van der Meulen’s third wife was a niece of Lebrun, with whom he had six children. Van der Meulen accompanied the King during his campaigns. With a lot of sense for detail and accurateness he made carefull topographical studies of towns, villages, fortifications and battle fields. These sketches served for his large-scale paintings many of which still decorate the Castle of Versailles, others are near Munich in Schloss Schleissheim. Van der Meulen also made designs for large tapestries.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is such a beautiful and original composition, and also a historical document.