The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Slavery During the Reign of Louis XIV

Collaborative Group

Dr. Meredith S. Martin, Dr. Gillian L. Weiss


Art History and Institute of Fine Arts


Mediterranean maritime art, and the forced labor on which it depended, was fundamental to the politics and propaganda of France’s King Louis XIV, who ruled from 1643 to 1715. Yet most studies of French art in this period continue to focus on Paris and Versailles, a fact that is all the more surprising given the recent scholarly emphasis on mobility, cross-cultural exchange, and transoceanic perspectives. By examining a wide range of artistic productions—ship design, artillery sculpture, medals, paintings, and prints—this project, which joins art historian Meredith Martin and historian Gillian Weiss, aims to draw attention to the neglected genre of Mediterranean maritime art and to the varieties of forced labor integral to its creation. The project emphasizes the roles of forçats (convicts) and esclaves turcs (enslaved Turks) in building and decorating naval vessels and other artistic forms that circulated between coast and capital to proclaim the power of the Sun King. Thus it challenges the conventional notion that human bondage vanished from continental France before the modern period. Instead, this project invites a reassessment of servitude as condition, mode of representation, and means to power in seventeenth-century France. More generally, it calls for a reconsideration of how servility has been celebrated or concealed in different times and places. To show that purchased slaves from the Ottoman Empire and North Africa toiled alongside convicts and artisans in shipyards on the coast and in palaces of the capital is to reconceive the parameters of artistic production. To underscore the value of the ephemeral artworks they helped create is to question hierarchies that privilege certain types of art over others. Finally, to counter anachronistic views of the development of national styles is to highlight artistic creations profoundly shaped by cross-cultural encounters. This project, which will result in a coauthored book, expands the limited territorial purview of early modern French art history by demanding a reorientation toward the sea. Martin and Weiss have published one previous article, “‘Turks’ on Display During the Reign of Louis XIV,” L’Esprit Créateur (2013). Award period: July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2018