History weighs heavily upon the shoulders of all who gaze into the indelible black eyes of Louis XIV.
He is but one of the many monarchs, noblemen and aristocrats whose portrait is on display as part of the Yale University Art Gallery’s current exhibit, “Circa 1701: Printed Portraits from the Time of Elihu Yale.”
“Circa 1701,” which will be on display through April 1, features etchings, engravings and mezzotints of the prominent political and artistic figures from Elihu Yale’s 72-year lifespan.
Inspired by Yale’s tercentennial celebration, Suzanne Boorsch, who is the curator of prints, drawings and photographs, and her staff designed this exhibit to convey the grandeur of a time in European history marked by revolutionary thinkers, rampant colonialism and extravagant royalty.
Louis XIV, a renowned patron of the arts, commissioned numerous portraits of himself that printmakers transformed into engravings by carving the design into a metal plate and applying ink to the recessed areas.
One such piece, by the French engraver Pierre Drevet, depicts the rotund, middle-aged king in his opulent palace. From his bountiful locks to his bejeweled shoes, Louis XIV is a study in lavishness. Beside the king, Drevet places the symbols of monarchical status — crown, scepter, sword and fleur-de-lis patterned robe supplement his confident stance and unabashed gaze.
Drevet’s portrayal of Louis XIV in the form of an engraving permitted extensive reproduction and distribution of the image, and the king’s noble, resolute stance could thus be viewed and revered throughout Europe.
In comparison, Robert Nanteuil’s 1676 engraving of a younger Louis XIV depicts the king’s head and shoulders adorned with the white scarf of the French army. Both portraits are graced by innumerable, minute and purposeful lines that define and explore the textured richness of Louis’ skin, clothing and hair.
The finite twists and turns of each well-placed line as well as the intricacies of the historical milieu are engrossing, giving us a glimpse of Yale’s contemporaries.
Portrait engraving ascended to the position of a respected art form during Louis XIV’s rule.
“Among the people at the very pinnacle of society — the monarchs, the rulers — you can imagine a demand [for printed portraits], but the portraits are by no means of just the rulers but all the people who were eminent,” Boorsch said.
For the overwhelming majority of the population, these prints provided their sole opportunity to glimpse the likenesses of their venerated leaders.
No other artist in the 17th century could approach Rembrandt’s virtuosity in portrait etching. His scratchy, seemingly haphazard lines are dramatically dissimilar to the even, ordered lines of the engravings. Yet, he lovingly crafts his etchings to capture the humanity of his subjects on the small, two-dimensional surface.
Two of Rembrandt’s pieces are featured in “Circa 1701.” The 1651 etching of Clement de Jonghe, a Dutch printseller, exemplifies Rembrandt’s ability to isolate a moment in time, a single thought in the mind of his subject. Distracted from the artist’s presence, the sitter’s eyes are cast to his left, absorbed in his own world. The man is slouched in his chair, wearing simple, unadorned clothes, appearing remarkably mortal in his imperfection.
Similarly, Rembrandt’s other etching conveys his subject’s age by the texture of his skin and his glassy, empty gaze. The deep shadows on the figure and its immediate surroundings are offset by an abrupt light hitting the old man’s face.
Elihu Yale’s life is the unifying factor throughout this exhibit, yet his presence is only felt indirectly, through the mezzotint portrait of Cotton Mather, by Peter Pelham (1728). It was because of Mather’s suggestion that Elihu Yale made a donation to the school and thus it took his name.
Boorsch said he hopes the Yale community as well as its neighbors will enjoy this exhibit.
“I hope that high school teachers will pick it up and realize that if they want to make the 17th and early 18th centuries come alive, you have all these images here,” she said.
Circa 1701: Printed Portraits from the Time of Elihu Yale
Yale University Art Gallery