Louis XIV returns to the New World
New Orleans — Students of Europe's longest-reigning sovereign don't even blink at the audacity and sweep of statements like the one displayed at the right - from the man who perhaps paid more attention to his self-image than anyone else in history.
Now comes an exhibit that encapsulates the life of this mega-monarch whose monumental legacy to modern France includes the palace at Versailles, much of the Louvre, the Royal Hotel of Invalides, and lasting traditions of government, finance, politics, art, and culture.
A veritable extravaganza of history, art, and architecture, ''The Sun King: Louis XIV and the New World'' reigns here at the Louisiana State Museum in the historic Cabildo (where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803). It is developed into three themes: ''Louis the Man,'' ''Louis the Patron of the Arts, '' and ''Louis and the Colonies.''
Americans who remember the 13 states formed from English Colonies may forget that another 13 states were carved from Louis's single, huge North American colony after the Louisiana Purchase. Thus, the exhibit points out, Americans have the opportunity to meet a historic personality who has contributed significantly to their own heritage.
The means by which a Southern museum has created and premiered a major international traveling exhibition is a story in itself. It was a collaboration among more than 100 curators, agencies, and archivists, as well as many private collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. Many items have never been exhibited before; other paintings, documents, objects, and memorabilia have never before left France.
For instance, the Peace of Utrecht document (by which much of France's colonial holdings became English) and a priceless, hand-painted 1662 book, ''Courses de Testes et de Bague,'' are not normally on public view. Philippe de Champaigne's portrait of Cardinal Richelieu rarely leaves the Louvre, and Hyacinthe Rigaud's stunning painting of ''Louis XIV'' rarely leaves Versailles.
Since international standards governing the display of light-sensitive and fragile materials such as these mandate limited exposure time, selected objects will be replaced every 90 days. But exhibition planners promise replacements of equal interest.
Louis's story is well told via the portable cassettes that guide you up and down the stone stairways and through the high-ceilinged dark rooms. Space is limited, and the exhibit is jampacked both with art and visitors. So I'd recommend a visit at off-peak hours.
Besides numerous documents, busts, and paintings of Louis's family, mistresses, and courtiers, there is the ''Plan of Paris Taken by Order of the King (1675).'' This blueprint, which took two years to draw up, reveals the planning stage of such kingly projects as the Grand Cours (later the Champs Elysees).
Early paintings of the Pont Neuf, the Louvre, and the Seine are exhibited. Even Bernini's rejected plans for the entrance of the Tuileries are shown. The Italian architect's deeply projecting baroque components were too dramatic for reserved French taste, over which Louis held sway.
The effect of all this Louis XIV memorabilia is nothing short of spectacular. Having just come from the World's Fair, I can say that no single exhibit there is as rich, exciting, worthwhile, educational, or well thought out as this one, just 13 blocks away.
According to Robert M. Isherwood, writing in the exhibit program, ''(Louis) was determined to inspire a vision of a monarchy so awesome and brilliant, a court and country so unified, affluent, and powerful, that its enemies, foreign and domestic, would not challenge it.'' He points out that the task of image-building was entrusted to the dozens of artists, musicians, and writers who enjoyed Louis's patronage. These teams of poets and historians, sculptors and engravers, ballet masters and architects, landscape gardeners and painters ''created the godlike attributes of a ruler at once heroic, benevolent, wise, mighty, just, and devout.''
Many of those artists, musicians, and sculptors have works on display here. Besides showing rare portraits of Colbert, Fouquet, Louis le Vau, Charles Mouton , Descartes, and others, much exhibition space is devoted to the architectural drawings for Versailles, that palace ''of marble, worthy rival of antiquity, an eternal model of deliberate classicism.'' French scholar Robert Wyman Hartle writes: ''It is no exaggeration to say that everything in Versailles was meant to explain its resident divinity and to extol his virtues.''
If you know your French, you can bend over the glass cases to read ornately inscribed documents rivaling our own Declaration of Independence for penmanship. Included are Louis's letters to other heads of state and domestic ministers. Finance and culture minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert wrote one letter back to the king advising him to stop work on Versailles.
Test your eye for authenticity on the controversial book ''Maxims of State,'' attributed to Cardinal Richelieu but challenged by Voltaire and Montesquieu. Or just expand your knowledge of 16th-century France by gazing at everything from muskets, maps, hats, and clocks to chalices, silver, and tapestries.
Among the most popular paintings are Pierre-Denis Martin the Younger's of Louis visiting the construction site of the Invalides and Rigaud's most famous image of Louis, ''Louis XIV: King of France and of Navarre.'' Here Louis's regal if slightly bulbous countenance peers from beneath an intense black wig. A white ermine cape is draped ceremoniously over his shoulder. This work is considered the last great image of the Sun King.
Finally, there's the magnificent Apollo Mask in copper and bronze.After 1662, when Louis adopted the sun as his symbol, masks of Apollo, the sun god of mythology, were used to represent the king. The image on display here may have been used in a royal house or garden pavilion. Its manner of linking bilateral symmetry in the face with radial symmetry of the sunburst give an impression of balanced, calm grandeur.
The exhibition runs continuously in New Orleans until Nov. 18. ''The Sun King'' then moves to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Dec. 15, 1984, through April 7, 1985).
The exhibit at the Cabildo is closed Mondays and election day. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10-6 Sundays.