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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

An Exploration of Royal Portraiture

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! A couple of weeks ago, I did a theme week across all of the social media channels. It was all about royal portraiture. I thought it would be a good idea to wrap all the information into a single blog post. Royal portraiture was a powerful tool in the regal arsenal and it is a truly fascinating subject. We are going to be discussing five motivations behind the creation of these works, so keep on reading to find out more!



Perhaps the most common reason for the painting of a royal portraiture is to serve as propaganda. By carefully curating an image with specific iconographic elements, rulers were able to portray themselves exactly as they wanted to be seen by their people. One of the best examples of this concept is this portrait of Napoleon by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Painted in 1806, this work celebrates Napoleon’s ascension to the Imperial French throne. He had risen through both the political and military ranks and eventually came to rule France starting in 1804. Napoleon is famous for expanding French territories across Europe and his codified laws. These efforts make him both celebrated and controversial.

Napoleon instructed Ingres to paint him wearing his coronation robes. In his hand, he holds the scepter of Charlemagne and in the other, the hand of justice. On his head is the golden laurel wreath of Roman emperors. Finally, at his feet is a rug bearing the image of the imperial Habsburg eagle. All of these details are deliberate choices. They show Napoleon as a successor to these once great empires, not by blood, but by his sweat and hard work. It gave a sense of legitimacy to the reign of a man who was not descended from kings, but the small island of Corsica. This is an example of propaganda at its finest.


Another reason for royal portrait creation was to flatter the ruler. And nobody was in need of that more than King Henry VIII of England. He ruled from 1509-1547. Besides having six wives, Henry VIII is most famous for breaking with the Roman Catholic Church and dissolving the English monasteries to fill his own coffers. Today, he is remembered for being a bit of a tyrant.

However, from this portrait, we can tell that Henry didn’t think of himself as a tyrant. Instead, he saw himself as a powerful ruler to be reckoned with. It was painted in either 1536 or 1537 by court painter Hans Holbein. Some art historians believe it was done for his palace of Whitehall to celebrate the birth of his son Edward. Henry stands with his feet apart and hands clenched at his side. His chest is slightly puffed out and his shoulders squared. It is the stance meant to show the viewer that Henry had absolute power over his domain.

This portrait though, shows him in a way that is stretching the truth. In 1536, Henry suffered a traumatic injury during a joust. It would leave him partially crippled when an ulcer developed on his leg. This led him to become morbidly obese over the next 10 years until his death. So, Henry must have instructed Holbein to paint him looking healthier than he actually was.

Finally, the most obvious bit of flattery in this work is the exaggerated codpiece. (A pouch that was situated over the genitals in male clothing). Around the time of Henry’s reign, it became popular to wear larger, more noticeable codpieces. Henry’s is almost in the direct center of this work, the viewer can’t escape it! It’s a proclamation of his fecundity. This is something that Henry was self conscious about because he only had, at the time of this work, two children that had survived infancy. (And they were both girls). So, by emphasizing this part of his body, Henry was trying to show that the succession crisis wasn’t due to lack of trying or equipment.

Connection to the Divine

The next way that rulers utilized portraiture was to emphasize their connection to the divine. They believed that their status was divinely mandated. So, rulers commissioned portraiture to both show this relationship and prove their personal piety. An example of this type of work is the Wilton Diptych. It dates from the reign of English king Richard II. He came to the throne at the tender age of 10 and there was hope that he would be a great king like his grandfather, Edward III. Richard did help to diffuse the Peasants Revolt in 1381, but that was pretty much the high point of his reign. Eventually, his courtiers became fed up with his circle of favorites and overthrew him.

This piece dates from a few years before Richard II was ousted. The left panel shows him being presented to the Virgin Mary, Christ Child, and a choir of angels. Three saints stand behind Richard: his personal patron John the Baptist and the two English king saints: Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor. By including them, Richard is making a point to connect himself to the great rulers of the past. At this point in his life, he was pretty universally hated. He was trying to remind people that he was a part of this great line and that the divine approved of his rule. It clearly didn’t work too well because he was kicked off the throne only a few years later.

Historical Record

Perhaps the most obvious reason for royal portraits was to create a historical record. Photography is a fairly recent invention, so paintings were the only way rulers to show their image to later generations. And an advantage of this was being able to manipulate their image so that their portrayal was exactly how they wanted to be remembered. A master of this style is King Louis XIV of France.

He is perhaps one of the most famous monarchs in European history. Known as the "Sun King", his reign lasted nearly 73 years. He believed in the divine right of kings and has come to symbolize the concept of an absolute monarchy. Louis XIV ascended the throne at the age of 5 and his mother Queen Anne ruled until he reached his majority. During his reign, Louis focused on increasing the power of the monarchy through a creation of a more centralized government, forcing the nobles of France to live with him at the ostentatious palace of Versailles, and revoking the Edict of Nantes to unify France under Catholicism.

This portrait of Louis XIV is the most famous of the more than 300 paintings of him. It was painted in 1701, the same year as his death, by court artist Hyacinthe Rigaud. This work shows Louis in his coronation garb. His clothes are clearly well made with weight to them. They are marked with the fleur de lys, the traditional symbol of France. He holds the Sword of Charlemagne as a symbol of his descent of the great king. Finally, there is emphasis on his legs. They are proudly displayed and framed by his robes. It is a portrait of a confident ruler, safe in his absolute power. Each feature is carefully crafted to show Louis XIV in the best possible way, with less regard to if it is a truthful rendition.

Strength of the Succession

Finally, we are going to discuss how rulers used portraits to show the strength of their line’s succession. A dynasty is only as strong as its heirs. Without them came wars of succession and loss of life. It also helped to give confidence to the people that the country was stable. A great example of this is the Portrait of the Family of Charles IV by Francisco Goya.

Charles IV was not one of the most successful kings of Spain. Although he was seen as a generally kind man, most records indicated that he was rather simple minded. Also, it is well known that he far preferred to be outside hunting than locked in the palace ruling his country. In fact, he was so ineffective that Napoleon was able to invade the country and force both Charles and his son to abdicate, thus ending the Bourbon dynasty’s rule.

One way Charles IV did succeed was securing his line. He and his wife Queen Maria Lusia, had 14 children! Between 1800 and 1801, he commissioned Francisco Goya to paint a portrait of his family. It was a PR attempt in order to give the people confidence in their leader. The family is lined up in one of the palace rooms. They are dressed in nice clothes, but nothing like the coronation robes we saw in previous works. In the left corner, viewers can even see Goya at work. Although this work did get the point across about the royal succession, it wasn’t popular with the people. They saw it as making the king look ordinary. In fact, one critic said it made them look like a family of grocers!


Portraiture is a powerful tool that nearly all rulers kept in their arsenal. A single piece could communicate a variety of elements about kingship, all of which was essential for the prosperity of the nation.


All images are Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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