Childhood & Early Years
Charles Le Brun was born on February 24, 1619, in Paris. Not much is known about his family background, except that his father, Nicolas Le Brun, was a sculptor and may have belonged to the bourgeois class. The name of his mother was Julienne Le Blé.
It is said that Charles was a child progeny. He first started training under Guillaume Perrier. At the age of eleven, he was spotted by Chancellor Pierre Séguier and placed under the tutelage of well known painter and draftsman Simon Vouet. Later, he also took lessons from François Perrier.
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Charles Le Brun received his first commission when he was still in his teens. Cardinal Richeleu, an important priest cum statesman, commissioned him to draw several pictures for the Palais Cardinal in Paris. ‘Hercules and the Horses of Diomedes’ (1640) is said to be the only surviving picture from this lot.
His expertise impressed leading painters like Nicolas Poussin. While going back to Rome, in 1642, Poussin took Le Brun with him. For four years, Le Brun worked under Poussin adapting various techniques from him. All along he received a generous pension from Chancellor Pierre Séguier.
In addition, Le Brun also had the good fortune of receiving training under Pietro da Cortona and other famous painters of Rome. By the time he returned to Paris in 1646 he was quite well known and found number of patrons ready to commission him. Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance, was one of them.
Fouquet commissioned Le Brun and other well-known artists to renovate his estate Vaux-le-Vicomte. This was the first time when he worked on a large project with architect Louis Le Vau and the landscape architect André le Nôtre. Their partnership marked the beginning of the ‘Louis XIV style’, which combined architecture, landscaping and interior design.
Sometime now, Le Burn came in contact with Cardinal Mazarin, who later succeeded Cardinal Richeleu as the Chief Minister of France. Through him, he also met Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who succeeded Fouquet as the Finance Minister.
Colbert quickly recognized Le Brun’s talent both as an artist and as an administrator and took him under his fold. In 1648, they took control of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture.
Le Brun caught the attention of King Louis XIV sometime in the beginning of 1660s. The king was rather impressed by Le Brun’s painting of his own entry into Paris and also by his work at Vaux-le-Vicomte. In 1661, he was commissioned by the king to paint a series on Alexander the Great.
The first painting of the series, entitled ’Alexander and the Family of Darius’, delighted the king to such an extent that he ennobled Le Brun in December 1662. Under the king’s patronage, he became one of the most sought after painters in France.
From now on, every artistic work done in royal palaces was undertaken under the direction of Le Brun. He was responsible for the beautification of the châteaux of Versailles, Vaux, and Louvre. He also undertook renovation work at numerous churches.
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In 1663, he was made a director of Gobelins and put in charge of its designing division. It was a general upholstery factory that produced all kinds of furniture as well as tapestry for the royal household under the patronage of the king.
This was also the year when Le Brun became director of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Thus both as a director at Gobelins and the Academy, he was able to leave his imprint on industrial art scenario of France.
In 1664, the king officially declared Le Brun ‘Premier peintre du Roi’ or ‘The First Painter’. It was a position of immense importance and came with a handsome pension. He held the position till his death.
In 1666, he founded the Academy of France at Rome. These academies played an important role in the development of French art and trained an entire generation of artists like Louis Chéron, Antoine Coypel, Michel II and Jean-Baptiste Corneille, Louis and Bon de Boullogne, Charles de Lafosse, René Houasse, Jean Jouvenet etc
Le Brun’s work at the palace of Versailles is said to be the grandest. The Galerie des Glaces or the Great Hall of Mirrors, where he worked from 1679 to 1684 bears testimony to his genius. In this hall, he had depicted the King’s military victory directly, without going into any kind of allegory, as in the case of earlier paintings.
Besides the Hall of Mirror, the Staircase of the Ambassadors (1674 to 1678) and Salons of Peace and War (1685 to 1686) at the Versailles also bear examples of his creative genius. In these places too he had not missed any opportunity to glorify the king.
The Galerie d'Apollon at Louvre is another of Le Brun’s major work. While the reconstruction of the hall was carried on by Louis Le Vou between 1661 and 1663, the interior decoration was done by Le Brun between 1663 and 1667.
Later Years & Death
His good time came to an end when Colbert died in September 1683 and his enemy François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois became the head of Public Works. Because of his enmity with Colbert, who had patronized Le Brunt, Teller began to ignore him.
Although the king still favored him, there was a change in Le Brunt’s position. In spite of that, he continued on his own projects. However, such neglect affected his health. He died on February 22, 1690 before he could finish his projects at Versailles.