Travelling Objects: Art and Cultural Diplomacy

figure-5-reversThe study of prints and medals commissioned to commemorate history, art and science during the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), offers an exciting opportunity to reassess the cultural (and cross-cultural) value of these objects in the early-modern period. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Louis XIV’s agents sent prints and medals across the globe, throughout Europe, the East, and the New World. Recipients included King Phra Narai of Siam (1633-1688), the Safavid Shah, Sultan Hussein of Persia (1668-1726), the Chinese Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722), and many Amerindian warriors in New France. Analyses of the objects chosen to represent Louis XIV and his nation to foreign courts will be conducted alongside an examination of archival material relating to the production and distribution of them as diplomatic gifts. By these means, this study aims to reveal the political message that prints, medals and other objects including tapestry and costume could convey as part of a sophisticated diplomatic engagement between France and her foreign allies. As they travelled around the world, the symbolism of objects and images created to celebrate the reign of Louis XIV, his legacy, and his dynasty was surprisingly mobile, with the potential to accrue different meanings in every new cultural context. Their failure to retain meaning across cultures reveals that they are not the stable historical documents that Louis XIV’s image-makers wanted them to be.

The medals presented as diplomatic gifts and rewards to people from non-European nations represent both the success and failure of these objects to transmit ideas across cultures. These gifts carried symbolic value, representing Louis XIV through his portrait and with an allegorical devise relating to some aspect of his reign, but as they were made from solid silver or gold they also had monetary worth. It was hoped that these inert precious metals would preserve the imagery on the king’s medals from the rages of time, so that they might continue the king’s memory in perpetuity as the gold and silver coins of the ancient Greek and Roman emperors had done so successfully. But the intrinsic value of these materials also made them vulnerable to being melted down, which was very nearly the fate of the medals that Louis XIV gifted to the Safavid Shah in the early eighteenth century.

Seventeenth century commentators lamented the comparative frailty of works on paper. Nevertheless, prints were celebrated for their ability to communicate cultural information, and it was in this spirit that many prints were produced to document innovation in the arts, sciences, and warfare under Louis XIV. The Cabinet du Roi prints, as they were named in the eighteenth century, are difficult to define as a group—somewhere between collection and commission. I contend that they must be seen as more than the ‘mélange of prints’ that scholars have previously thought them to be. The diverse visual traditions from which these prints are drawn, and their assimilation across media in both local and global contexts, signals the need for a revision of the standard explanation that they were designed to instantiate absolutist claims over property, power and cultural authority. I have found a surprising series of iconographic transactions between prints from the Cabinet du Roi and other art forms, which promises to contribute to the current reappraisal of canonical hierarchies of media. Further analysis of these prints will challenge canonicity and cultural value by revealing their pictorial innovations, disrupting entrenched notions of the print as reproduction, and exposing its generative impact across media. Ultimately this study will present a revised account of visual culture at Louis XIV’s court, moving beyond the conventional Marxist reading of the local political ideology that informed it, to define its place within a global history of art.

Providing a detailed interpretation of the traditions to which Louis XIV prints and medals belong will facilitate a more nuanced reading of their reception and subsequent emulation across cultures. I will interrogate the hermeneutic possibilities of the esoteric and culturally contingent imagery of these objects to present a new model for understanding early-modern orientalism in the visual arts. Recent studies of orientalism in ancien-régime France have cautioned against adopting a Saidean model to critique this material in terms of disproportionate power of the West over the East before such Western imperial structures had been fully established. I intend to use Louis XIV prints and medals to study both colonial and non-colonial cultural exchange between France, Siam, China, Persia, and Canada during the reign of the Sun King. Reading the tradition of material culture and global exchange against the grain, the case studies in this project fall under two distinct but interwoven categories reflecting the failures of communication with inappropriate gifts and unintended significations in surprising intercultural legacies. 

1) Inappropriate gifts

Louis XIV was a keen collector of Persian illustrated books and illuminated manuscripts, and recent studies have shown the currency of these texts as ambassadorial gifts to and from the Safavid court. The burgeoning field of the study of artistic exchange between Persia and Western Europe has revealed the reciprocal fascination that these cultures held for one another. Yet, there has been no thorough analysis of the illustrated books traded as gifts between Louis XIV and the Safavid shahs. Neither has there been an adequate account of the cultural interests of Shah Hussein, whose reign has often been dismissed by scholars as corrupt and degenerate despite the wealth of material evidence to the contrary. I will address these lacunae through a comparative study of medals, prints, books, manuscripts and textiles gifted between Persia and France in the early-eighteenth century, with the aim to understand the value of two aesthetically divergent symbolic systems within this transcultural network.


My analysis of the orientalist imagery in a festival book, Courses de testes et de bague faittes par le roy et par les princes et seigneurs de sa cour en l’année 1662from the Cabinet du Roi will provide a nuanced reading of East-West power relations through a study of cultural cross-dressing in the coding of power before the age of European global supremacy. In 1662 a tournament was held in the center of Paris to celebrate the birth of Louis XIV’s first legitimate son, the Dauphin, and the event was commemorated with magnificent volumes in French and Latin. The engravings in these volumes show Louis XIV dressed as the Roman Emperor, his Brother, Philippe duc d’Orléans, as the King of Persia, and Henri II, Duc de Guise, as the native “American King.” Each prince and his outlandishly dressed entourage processed through Paris for three days prior to the Carousel so that the people had the opportunity to see those magnificent costumes. The coded symbolism that saw each of the nobles dressed according to his rank must have been legible to those who saw them, the king took historical and cultural precedence as the Roman emperor, his brother, the next in line to the throne was Persian king, a title of equally ancient lineage, and so on. The images of these costumes visually encode the hierarchy of the nobility for the public. While this book was sent to several foreign courts, including those of Siam and China, it was excluded from the gifts made to the Safavid shah, Sultan Hussein. Diplomatic caution may have been exercised here due to depictions of duc d’Orleans’ lavish ‘Persian’ costume, alongside text and emblems that insinuated the subservience of this fictive ‘King of Persia’ to Louis XIV. Analysis of this book and its selective dissemination to Eastern courts will provide greater insight into concepts of cultural otherness in early-modern France.

A failure of iconographic power was demonstrated when seven bound volumes of prints, an illustrated medallic history of Louis XIV, and large gold and silver medals were sent as gifts to the Persian shah in the early eighteenth century. While many of the other gifts intended for the shah were generic items—watches, pistols, eyeglasses, and so forth—Louis XIV’s histoire métallique—translated into Persian especially for this gift—was an item of personal significance to the French king. The medals book was intended to explain these distinctly Western objects for a new Eastern audience, to reveal more information about the monuments, events, institutions, and concepts that the medals referred to. But the symbolic value of Louis XIV’s histoire métallique was either lost on, or simply disregarded by the Safavids for whom the culture of the gift was a controlled and regulated custom. When Shah Sultan Hussein sent a return envoy in 1715 led by Mohammed Reza Beg, the gifts he bought with him—a bottle of the precious cure-all moum, and a quantity of small pearls—were worth so little that some speculated that this reflected the low value of the gifts that the French king had sent to the shah previously. Prints and medals were not well suited to the Safavid gift economy, as their symbolic value was of little consequence in the Persian context. This case study of Franco-Persian exchange aims to interrogate the failure and miscommunication of cultural ideas via gifted objects, to analyse shifting significations in cross-cultural artefacts.

2) Intercultural legacies

Not all of the prints and medals gifted by Louis XIV were poorly received. When Louis XIV sent Jesuit missionaries to China he provided them with multiple copies of prints to present as ambassadorial gifts. The prints given to Kangxi included views of French towns and royal palaces, engravings of towns conquered by Louis XIV and reproductions of Charles Le Brun’s Triumphs of Alexander. A study of these prints is essential for establishing the conceptual and iconographic uptake of this imagery in China, and will facilitate a more nuanced understanding of cross-cultural artistic exchange developing out of gifts between Louis XIV and the Kangxi Emperor. Scholars have long recognized that Western prints inspired imperial Chinese commissions in the arts. My investigation will focus on the Thirty-six Imperial Poems of Bishu Shangzhuang (c.1714) written by the Kangxi Emperor and illustrated with a series of woodblock prints. This volume is the first to document a Chinese royal palace and its gardens from multiple sites and perspectives with a combination of text and image. The striking similarity of album to the views of French palaces gifted to Kangxi strongly suggests the conceptual influence of the French precedent. This investigation also promises to deepen our understanding of the Qianlong Emperor’s French engravings commissioned later in the eighteenth century—particularly the Suite des seize estampes représentant les conquêtes de l’empereur de la Chine.

Medals sent to the First Nations People of New France had another life in their new context, becoming an important mark of distinction among Amerindian warriors. Officers of the French colony required a steady supply of them to meet the needs of the indigenous warriors who fought alongside them. The intrinsic value of the silver from which these medals were made was of far less importance to the Native Americans than their symbolic value. Along with their weapons, these medals were trophies of their military prowess taken with them to the grave. Medals represented a powerful connection for the Amerindian warriors to their foreign allies. So much so, in that during a conference with Governor of New France in 1756, Kouée, an Oneida chief cast aside two English medals in a symbolic act of breaking with his former allies. This seems to prove that where medals were concerned symbolic value trumped monetary worth in the Native American gift economy. Historians of colonial America have long been fascinated with Indian Peace Medals, as these have come to be called. They represented tangible material evidence of early contact between European colonists and America’s Native Peoples. To date these medals have been read from a Western perspective as evidence of social and political ties between those colonists and their Amerindian allies. For this project, I aim to reinterpret the medals gifted to First Nations People in the French colonies in relation to local traditions of dress and ornament. Further research into worn objects and the broader gift economy in Indigenous American cultures promises to reveal much about the recoding of these medals in their New World context.

Mapping patterns of cultural exchange between France, Siam, China, Persia, and the Americas during this period, this project aims to present a revised account of visual culture at the Sun King’s court to define its place within a global history of art. Providing a challenge to the historical canon and traditional hierarchies of media and genre, it situates prints and medals within a global network, revealing surprising intercultural transactions between centers and peripheries of power in the early-modern world.

Related publications:

“Médailles en mouvement: la réception des médailles de Louis XIV à la croisée des cultures,” in Yvan Loskutoff (dir.) Le Médailles de Louis XIV et Leur Livre, trans. Y. Loskutoff, (Mont-Saint-Aignan, PURH, 2016).

Related public talks:

“What’s it worth? European Art at the Persian Court,” The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, November 2018.

“Quand la tête de Louis XIV pendait au cou des autochtones,’ Conférence du GRHAM (Groupe de Recherche en Histoire de l’Art Moderne), INHA, Paris, October 2018.

“Onontio’s Reward: When Louis XIV’s head hung from Native American necks,” University of Southern California-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, February 2018.

“The symbolic amplification of French Royal medals by Canadian aborigines,” Université de Quebec à Montréal, September 2017.

Related Conference Presentations:

“Multiple Gifts: Prints and Medals in Louis XIV Gift Inventories,” in Worlding Early Modern France, Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, New Orleans, March 2018.

“Roots, routes and resignification: the life-changing travels of Louis XIV prints and medals,” in College Art Association Annual meeting, Los Angeles, February 2018.

“Gifts for a Shah: the perilous lives of Louis XIV prints and medals,” in Serious Play: A Farewell Symposium in Honour of Jennifer Milam, The University of Sydney, November 2017.

“The symbolic amplification of French Royal medals by Canadian aborigines,” in Global Histories of Art: crossing the modern/early modern divide University of Sydney, August 2017.

“Multiple Lives: Louis XIV prints, medals and global exchange,” in New Perspectives on the Ancien Régime, INHA, Paris, July 2017.

“Grace Pennies and Peace Medals: Wearing Numismatic Portraits in the Early-Modern World,” in Renaissance Coins and Medals, Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Chicago, March/April 2017.

“From Versailles to Nouvelle France: French ‘Indian Peace Medals’ of the Eighteenth Century,” in Versailles in the World, NYU, January 2016.

“Bodies in Flux: Louis XIV medals as objects of cross-cultural exchange,” in Image, Space and Body in Early-Modern Art and Design (co-convenor Petra Kayser), Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Annual conference, Brisbane, November 2015

“Louis XIV’s Famille Royale medals and the Iroquois people of Nouvelle France” in Global France, Global French, ANU, Canberra, October 2015.

“Medals in Motion: Louis XIV Medals as Diplomatic Gifts,” in Médailles de Louis XIV et Leur Livre, BnF, Paris, April 2015.

“Louis XIV’s Cabinet du Roi: questioning the transcultural reception of early-modern prints,” in Delimiting the Global in Renaissance/Early Modern Art History, Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Berlin, March 2015.

“Mobile landscapes: The transcultural aesthetics of palace views in early-eighteenth-century France and China” (with Stephen H. Whiteman), in Moblizing ideas in the long eighteenth century, David Nichol-Smith Seminar in Eighteenth-Century Studies XV, Sydney, December 2014.

2018 Australian Research Council controversy

In October 2018, it was revealed that Multiple Lives: Louis XIV prints, medal and global exchange was recommended by the Australian Research Council College of Experts to receive a 2018 Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) – a three-year research fellowship. This grant was secretly vetoed by former Australian Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. The DECRA for this project was  awarded for the 2019 round of grants (announced, 27 November 2018). See below for selected press related to this controversy:

John Piccini and Dirk Moses, “Simon Birmingham’s intervention in research funding is not unprecedented, but dangerous,” Conversation (26 October).

Paul Karp, ” ‘Knuckle-dragging philistines’: Labor targets Liberals for blocking arts grants” Guardian Australia (26 October 2018).

Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester, “Some questions for Simon Birmingham, from two researchers whose ARC grant he quashed,” Conversation (29 October).

“At the ANU, Professor Schmidt defended Dr Wellington’s project and said he had committed the university to providing extra support so the early-career researcher could see it through.

The proposal, which aimed to study diplomatic gifts sent from France to other countries in the early-modern period, was expected to raise some groundbreaking questions in its field, Professor Schmidt said, and “deliver significant benefits by providing a new model for understanding object-based communication across past and present world societies”.” Sherryn Groch, “Govt wants research to pass a national interest test. Unis are baffled,” Sydney Morning Herald (31 October 2018).

“Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds a lot like the kind of topic a department of Western civilisation might look into. The above research, which included much more detail in a proposal that would have taken months to pull together, and was reviewed by ­experts on Western civilisation, was rejected without reason by a minister who was simultaneously admonishing ANU at the time for being anti-Western civilisation. You just can’t make this stuff up.” Peter Van Onselen, “Western civilisation takes a hit,” The Australian (2 November 2018)

“This is a highly commendable project, and the fact that the government has denied the award is inexplicable.” Senator Kim Carr cited in John Ross, “Grant veto leaves university between a rock and a hard place,” Times Higher Education (19 November 2018).

Margaret Gardner, et al, “The ARC Controversy,” The Australian Review of Books no. 407 (December 2018).

Fergus Hunter, “Researchers must show benefits to Australia under government’s new grants test,” The Age (27 November 2018).

Paul Karp, “U-turn on research funding as Coalition pushes ‘national interest test’,” Guardian Australia (28 November 2018).