CHAMPAIGNE, Philippe de
(b. 1602, Bruxelles, d. 1674, Paris)

Cardinal Richelieu

c. 1637
OiI on canvas, 260 x 178 cm
National Gallery, London

Born in Brussels, Philippe de Champaigne settled in Paris in 1621 and became one of the city's leading artists, painting portraits and religious compositions for the Queen Mother, Marie de' Medici, the court of Louis XIII, the city administration, fashionable congregations and private individuals. Trained in Flanders and influenced by his compatriots Rubens and Van Dyck, he gradually rejected the flamboyance of their style for a more severe and naturalistic idiom. The change is particularly noticeable after 1645 when he became sympathetic to the rigorous doctrines of the Dutch Catholic theologian Cornelis Jansen, practised at the Paris convent of Port Royal where Champaigne sent both his daughters to school.

The sitter for this grandiose portrait, however, is obviously not one of the artist's Jansenist patrons: where they wear sober black, he wears crimson; where they appear against a plain grey background, he stands in a palatial gallery against a great Baroque swathe of curtain, a glimpse of his château gardens behind him. He is Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu (1585-1642), cardinal, Chief Minister to the King and virtual ruler of France from 1624 until his death. Richelieu consolidated the central powers of the crown and put down the Huguenot rebellion. He created the French merchant navy and effective fighting fleets in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. On land, he challenged the might of the Habsburg Empire. To readers of Alexandre Dumas, he will always be the haughty antagonist and sometime patron of the (four) Three Musketeers - but then, Dumas had Champaigne's portraits of Richelieu on which to base his unforgettable character.

Unable to have himself portrayed as ruler, Richelieu stands in the pose traditionally associated with French monarchs. (It was pointed out how rare it is for a cardinal to be shown standing - 'Like women, they sat'.) Richelieu wears the chivalric Order of the Saint-Esprit, its blue moiré ribbon contrasting with the starched white linen and the crimson satin of his collar and cloak. Instead of a baton or cane, he holds a scarlet biretta in his stiffly extended right hand. This extraordinary object seems to float up to the surface of the canvas in defiance of spatial logic; as it hypnotically draws our glance we become aware of its tacit message. Champaigne has carefully shown its inner lining catching the light, thus drawing attention to our viewpoint from below - an optical fact underscored by the low horizon line beyond. We are gazing upwards at Richelieu, his face the distant apex of an elongated pyramid down which lustrous drapery flows like lava. Although diminished in scale by the distance between us, the face is undistorted by foreshortening like the majestic images of Christ the Ruler in the apses of Byzantine churches. But where these spiritual icons look deep into our eyes, the King's Minister stares haughtily out, allowing us to look at a cat may look at a king.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.