Richelieu Revival: Cardinal Wielded Art To Advance Gloire

Attention, Francophiles-and anyone with a more than casual interest in the art, culture and politics of France (or, for that matter, all of Europe): The exhibition called Richelieu: Art and Power , which Hilliard T. Goldfarb has now organized at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is an event not to be missed, and its only other venue will be the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany.

For aesthetes with a keen interest in painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture and the decorative arts, the exhibition offers almost too much of a feast for the eye and the mind to encompass on a single visit. If only for the paintings by Philippe de Champaigne, Georges de La Tour and Nicolas Poussin, and for the graphic art of Jacques Callot, this exhibition would be a considerable treat, but its more astonishing pleasures are to be found in the many works by 17th-century masters who, to many of us, are little more than names, if that.

For cultural-history buffs, the exhibition also offers a comprehensive study of the politics of power and the role played by great works of art in shaping the sense of national identity. It was, after all, the legendary Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), one of the most gifted, admired and reviled figures in European history, who created the very concept of French gloire , and who launched France itself on its centuries-long period of cultural dominance over the civilization of the West.

He was born Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, only four years before his cousin, Henri III, was murdered. When his own father died in 1590, the family was left deeply in debt, but the young Richelieu exhibited both intellectual brilliance and extraordinary powers of survival, and he advanced from an early age. At 22, he was ordained a priest and consecrated as a bishop, receiving a dispensation from the Vatican because of his age. In that same year Richelieu received a doctorate in theology from the Sorbonne.

Although well-known to historians for his lavish patronage of literature and the theater, Richelieu has sometimes been said to have had little interest in the visual arts-perhaps because he left no written record of his patronage and preferences in this area of his wide-ranging cultural activities. Yet the man who founded the Academie Française, and who was responsible for the creation of the Grand Galerie in the Louvre-not to mention his role as the patron of Philippe de Champaigne and Poussin-can scarcely be said to have been indifferent to the visual arts.

That Richelieu’s own acquisitions, and those he made in the name of the state, were inseparable from his political goals is also true. As Mr. Goldfarb writes in his essay, “Richelieu and Contemporary Art: ‘ Raison d’État ‘ and Personal Taste,” in the catalog of the exhibition, “Richelieu used the visual arts, as he used all of the cultural forms at hand, to advance the glory of France and to communicate his vision of France. He was completely devoted to and convinced of the ultimate rectitude of his mission.”

Richelieu’s great moment came when he was appointed a minister of state under Louis XIII, a sovereign who did not much like Richelieu personally but was no match for either the cardinal’s iron will or his genius for political intrigue. It was still another of Richelieu’s talents that he somehow managed to persuade the king that all of his-that is, Richelieu’s-initiatives were based on the sovereign’s own thinking. As a consequence, for nearly two decades Richelieu was in many respects the de facto premier of France, and even much of Europe.

Lest all this suggest that Richelieu: Art and Power is more heavily devoted to the history of power than to artistic achievement, I hasten to add that the exhibition is so brilliantly conceived and so beautifully installed that the visitor is at all times in the presence of truly extraordinary works of art, and the wall texts are remarkable for their intelligence, clarity, brevity and aptness. Clearly, an immense labor of scholarship and connoisseurship has been lavished upon this exhibition-not to mention the diplomatic challenges that a project on such an outsized scale entails.

Fortunately, the finer points of scholarship and connoisseurship are confined to the encyclopedic catalog that accompanies the exhibition. In the show itself, the summaries tell us just enough to guide us through some of the more esoteric twists and turns of 17th-century French history.

All praise, then, for Mr. Goldfarb, who first conceived of this exhibition some 10 years ago. It wasn’t until he joined the staff of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as an associate chief curator and curator of Old Masters four years ago that, as he writes in a forward to the catalog, “dreams turned into reality.” We are all in his debt, and that of his team of specialists, for bringing this ambitious exhibition to such a triumphant completion. Thanks, too,

to the director of the museum, Guy

Cogeval, for supporting an exhibition of this intellectual magnitude. In a period when dumbing-down is the order of the day in so many institutions of learning and the arts on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s wonderful to see something so bold and so serious executed so flawlessly. Bravo!

Richelieu: Art and Power remains on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 5, 2003.