Artist as King

Kings and queens dominate European history not just factually as the figurehead of an era or the instigator of events but also as a symbol of all that is most pure and powerful in the human soul. It is an idea that runs through the art and literature of every century with a solid foundation in Scripture. Old Testament prophets, like Moses and David, were raised in royal households, according to their constructed myths, because royalty signified a semi-divine status above mundane life and thus a step closer to God. Jesus, from a humble family, became “King of the Jews”. In Asia Buddha started life as a royal prince for similar reasons. The palace garden in the Middle Ages also symbolized a secure, enclosed space more rarified than field or street. It became the setting of troubadour poetry, an important avenue for the Inner Tradition. In alchemy too the king and queen represented the male and female principles in each of us which, when combined, become the symbol of our purest essence, the Self we all share with Nature.  

Royal portraits are particularly important as the face of a nation's consciousness. The discovery then that a long sequence of English and French rulers look strikingly like the artist who painted each portrait will disabuse viewers well beyond art lovers. Not only are the iconic faces of these rulers inaccurate but they should change our understanding of art as well. The link, though, between great artists and kingship is not an understanding confined to artists. A poet paying tribute to the artist Godfrey Kneller, who portrayed a succession of English kings, wrote in 1722:

"Paint on till fate dissolve thy mortal part
And live and die the monarch of thy art."2

The-artist-as-monarch is a metaphor artists themselves revelled in. You can see a large amount of evidence more easily perhaps in the illustrated book Every Painter Paints Himself. It is available free online. You can also find examples in our Portrait Galleries or individual examples with additional information in the entries below.

1. Schneider, The Art of the Portrait: Masterpieces of European Portrait Painting, 1420-1670 (Cologne: Taschen) 1999, p. 6

2. Michael Morris Kilannin, Sir Godfrey Kneller and His Times (London: B.T. Batsford) 1948, p. 70


All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)

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