What a Visage! Louis XIV’s Wax Portrait

If you want accurate likenesses of eighteenth century aristocrats, don’t rely on painted portraits.  If you must insist on versimiltude, I have two things to say:  “Goodnight and good luck” and “Wax Portraits!!”

Before yesterday, I had never heard of such a thing.  Wax figures like Madame Tussaud’s?  Of course.  But small, uncomely representations of monarchs, mistresses, noble folk?  I am fascinated.

Somehow in the two times I visited Versailles I missed Louis XIV’s 1706 wax portrait.  Too distracted by the gilt, no doubt.  What’s peculiar about this buste is what’s most obvious.  Apart from the fact he looks dusted with flour–an ill omen caused by bad reproduction–he’s got pockmarks, a five o’clock shadow, and age spots.  If you can’t see them in the first picture,  my lack of HD quality has dashed the clarity (Super clear and creepy whole bust here).

Louis-XIV by Antoine Benoist 1715

Benoist Louis XIV eye and nose

To be fair, Antoine Benoist molded his creation when Louis XIV was an old man.  The artist was hardly the first wax artist, but he accomplished two feats which secured him favor at Versailles. First, Benoist capitalized on his art form when few had yet to do so; and second, he perfected color waxworks.

Louis looks real in the way that dead people look real, but in examining this work, I sense the accomplishment.  I almost believe I’ve seen Louis on the hay-strewn street.   His eyes, by the way, are hunter’s green or maybe hazel.  They could also be brown. It’s hard to tell.  The video about the restoration work by Versailles provides the closest look.  Watching it, you can even see the individual scars, including the thin, half-inch scar slashing at an angle above the corner of his right lip.

What’s your take on wax portraits? Predecessor of Photoshop? Prefer a potentially blander, perfected prettiness over the realer thing? I’m undecided but think I prefer both. Benoist’s representation of Louis is considered the sun king’s most accurate likeness in existence. But it’s too bad he couldn’t have come along in Louis’s youth; the contrast would’ve been marvelous to behold.

8 thoughts on “What a Visage! Louis XIV’s Wax Portrait

  1. I visited Versailles once, and somehow I missed this one too! Or maybe I scrambled past it thinking it was a creepy old man. It’s crazy how attitudes change with the centuries. I wonder if Louis XIV liked his wax bust. These days, one hair out of place, one slightly reddened patch of skin, one dingy tooth and we’re demanding photoshop! Of course, maybe Louis was even uglier in real life!

    1. It’s funny you say you don’t recall seeing it either–I almost didn’t notice it when scrolling through Google art project, but then I thought: “Wait a minute!”

      I do recall reading that Benoist had a royal patent to show the portrait. Louis must’ve admired it to some degree, but he was old, so maybe he’d grown past his former vainglory?

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