The book: Examining the period of Louis XIV’s reign of France, The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV's France (Getty Publications) focuses on the role of enslaved Turks in the creation of artistic pieces. Authors Meredith Martin ’97 and Gillian Weiss ’92 include a large selection of images featuring sculptures, medals, paintings, and prints, among other works, to assess its role in the representation of royal power. Through their extensive research and historical documentation, The Sun King at Sea challenges the belief that France had no slavery and showcases the integral role played by those who were enslaved.

The authors: Meredith Martin ’97 is an associate professor at New York University. She is an art historian specializing in French art, architecture, empire, and intercultural exchange from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. Gillian Weiss ’92 is an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University. She is a historian specializing in early modern France, its relations with the Islamic world, and Mediterranean slavery.


Hiding in Plain Sight

Our collaboration began with one of the lesser-known paintings from the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Meredith had been preparing an undergraduate lecture on the depiction of non-Europeans during Louis XIV’s reign when she came across a ceiling medallion by Charles Le Brun portraying the Sun King in classic garb with three chained, turbaned men at his feet (fig 1.2). She consulted Christine Albanel and Pierre Arizzoli-Clementel’s The Hall of Mirrors: History and Restoration (2007), which identifies the image as The Reestablishment of Navigation, 1663, and interprets it as touting the monarch’s creation of a merchant navy, with a female allegory of Abundance, a sailor unloading bales or merchandise, a shackled “Barbary prisoners” who “recall the actions taken in the Mediterranean to reduce piracy.” Remembering that her friend Gillian had written a book about the reverse phenomenon of French subjects seized by so-called Barbary pirates and carried off to North Africa, Meredith emailed her a JPEG of the painting. Gillian suggested that besides representing privateers (corsairs) operating out of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco, the bound figures also evoked esclaves turcs. More than just celebrating Louis XIV’s supposed feat of “having cleansed the seas” for trade, as a 1753 guidebook to the Hall of Mirrors put it, Le Brun’s medallion proclaimed his ability to cleanse the Mediterranean of an enemy faith and dominate the sea by enslaving Muslims.

A call for contributions to the interdisciplinary journal L’Esprit Créateur prompted us to delve deeper into this maritime history and its representations in France. We soon learned that Le Brun, who regularly used depictions of ships and captives to decorate palaces in and around the French capital (see, for example, fig. 2.1), had also sketched designs for vessels built on the southern coast (see figs. 1.17, 1.18). We also realized that not all of these bound figures were allegories of conquest inspired by classical and Renaissance precedent like Roman monuments or Michelangelo’s Slaves. Rather, as Michelangelo himself might have attested, they also recalled real-life convicts and enslaved oarsmen, whether Algerians, Cretans, Bosnians, or, for a brief period, West Africans, some of whom were coerced into posing as live models in dockyard studios and at the Louvre. Furthermore, as we discovered in the course of our research, both forçats and Turcs had helped to create self-referential maritime art. Employed in shipyards as well as aboard ships, they belonged to a diverse workforce whose members — from esteemed royal artists like Pierre Puget, who hired rowers to prepare marble statues intended for Versailles, to beleaguered shipwrights and itinerant craftsmen — moved along a continuum of servitude. At the very bottom of this hierarchy, esclaves turcs portrayed themselves even as they were forced to display themselves. They became as much the art as the art they made.

Though absent from the Marseille museum children’s game, esclaves turcs and, to a lesser extent, esclaves maures or Maures (Moors) are pervasive in Louis XIV-era art. They appear in a wide range of media — from palace decor to ship sculpture, maritime manuals, weapons, paintings, medals, and prints — where their presence is often exaggerated relative to their actual number (see, for example, figs. 4.1, 4.2). Enslaved Turks and Moors were also incorporated into live performances during Louis XIV’s reign, including court masquerades and tableaux vivants, and more than fifty were brought to Versailles to row a model galley commissioned for the Grand Canal (see fig. 2.11). But if Turcs and Maures were so visible, then why, we wondered, had so little been written about them in either of our respective fields? Beyond assumptions about “free soil” or triumphal allegories, why had France’s enslaved oarsmen continued to hide in plain sight?

In art history, studies of Louis XIV-era art and culture have overwhelmingly privileged Paris and Versailles, highlighting artworks created in and for the capital rather than ephemeral productions made for the periphery. To some extent, the rise of material culture studies, as well as art history’s global turn, have broadened this purview, but French maritime art has not featured significantly in this reorientation, and not only because so few physical traces of the Sun King’s ships survive. While naval historians and ship-ornament specialists continue to expand our understanding of how Louis XIV’s fleet sought to convey his grandeur at home and abroad — following Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s 1669 dictum that “nothing strikes the eye nor signals the magnificence of the king better than a well-adorned ship” — recent art-historical and interdisciplinary writing about early modern transoceanic exchange has concentrated more on goods transported by ships (textiles, porcelain, lacquer) or on the passengers they carried (diplomats, artists, traders) than on the vessels themselves, let alone their multiethnic crews. This approach sometimes emphasizes, even romanticizes, the free-floating mobility of elite persons and things at the expense of the labor and violence that made it possible. Finally, while representations of enslaved peoples have begun to figure more prominently in art histories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these works have mainly centered on the Atlantic World rather than considering the varieties of bondage practiced around the Mediterranean and in other parts of the globe.

Within the field of history, by contrast, fluid interchanges between Paris and the provinces do appear in revisionist studies of royal absolutism that highlight the Crown’s reliance on noble client networks in Provence and elsewhere. Other literatures have drawn attention to the uneven development of Louis XIV’s navy, as well as to the role of various port cities in extending maritime commerce and building an empire dependent on enslaved labor overseas. An ever-growing corpus of books and articles is probing French relations with Islamic lands and the presence of Muslims in France even before the1830 invasion of Algiers set off the “Scramble for Africa.” Meanwhile, the past decade has seen an explosion of scholarship about subjugated peoples belonging to numerous, overlapping categories — captives, prisoners of war, penal deportees, military and chattel slaves — around the early modern Mediterranean and other parts of the world. Nonetheless, extensive analysis of images has not (for the most part) been at the forefront of these discussions.

Having compiled far more research than we could include in our initial article, and eager to expand our collaboration, we applied for an American Council of Learned Societies Collaborative Research Fellowship. The two-year grant we received supported our travel to museums and archives in and beyond France, enabling us to amass additional material and start drafting this book. Our respective backgrounds and training brought different forms of expertise and research skills, which we used to uncover and weigh different types of evidence. Like Kate Lowe in her study of Black gondoliers in Renaissance Venice, we came to see how galley slavery in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France had left uneven visual and textual traces. Examining images alongside written documentation has not only helped us discern the deep political and symbolic significance of bound Turcs that we might otherwise have misread but also allowed us to confirm the Crown’s material, sustained commitment to buying and exploiting Muslim rowers that we might otherwise have underestimated.

When we juxtaposed, for example, a circa 1682 naval register listing the names and details of esclaves turcs (see fig. 1.4) with a circa 1680 maritime manual flaunting their subjugation (see fig. 3.15), the effect was stomach-churning and eye-opening. What we were seeing was not the “invisible integration” of Muslims previously confused with people of other faiths. We had not found Muslim names scattered through barely legible baptismal records; nor had we encountered individuals and communities kept hidden by choice or social consensus. Instead, we were looking at two carefully crafted products of royal training and state bureaucracy that celebrated enslavement, belying the notion — furthered by Louis XIV’s own propagandists—that the king preferred to efface signs of labor, coerced or otherwise, from representations of his rule. It was only when we put the written ledger and the pictorial manual together and considered their conceptual and aesthetic similarities that we began to understand their full significance. In short, deep archival research has informed our interpretation of visual material, and detailed analysis of maritime art has helped reconstruct a story about the French past. Interdisciplinary collaboration has yielded a book that neither an art historian or a historian could have written alone, a book we feel is more than the sum of its parts.

The Sun King at Sea aims to make several contributions to the study of art, culture, and politics in early modern France. The first is to bring a Mediterranean, maritime dimension to existing scholarship — to reorient geographically, but also to counter the standard picture of art and power during Louis XIV’s reign. Focusing on the forced labor and artistic representation of enslaved Turks, we argue that both played a vital role in shaping the king’s image as a peerless Catholic conqueror. We also confirm that this image was not fabricated solely by the regime itself, nor was it as “absolute” or inviolable royal apologists claimed. Rather, it relied on the input of many different constituencies, from religious orders to naval officers often seeking to advance their own agendas as much as the Crown’s.

Furthermore, the Sun King’s image as Mediterranean “master” and oppressor of infidels was subjected to intense criticism from enemies and naysayers, even some of his own courtiers. Because of the inherently unstable nature of sovereign power, its supporting structure must be continually represented and enacted in order to remain effective to its audience. Performing Muslim subjugation was particularly precarious for Louis XIV, not only because so many French naval victories were pyrrhic at best but also because France enjoyed the benefits of a long-standing agreement with the Ottoman Empire known as the Capitulations, or ahdnames. First negotiated in 1536, formalized in 1569, and renewed in 1673, the arrangement obliged both parties to provide commercial privileges and military support against common foes. Branded as dishonorable and unholy from its inception, and ridiculed by Louis XIV’s European rivals (see fig. 2.21), the agreement made the French king’s anti-Muslim approach to projecting royal power appear like a duplicitous cove rfor his self-serving relations with Turks.

Though these attacks may have eventually spurred a retreat from such imagery, for most of Louis XIV’s long reign and for a few years after his death, Muslim servitude remained a regular motif in royal propaganda and a fact of life in Mediterranean France. By recovering this history and focusing on its representation, our study reveals a counterpoint to the better-known turquerie and Orientalist portrayals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the same time, by exploring the lives and labors of enslaved Turks on and beyond the royal galleys — in shipbuilding facilities and at conversion ceremonies, in local industry and during the Great Plague of 1720 — it shows how current debates about immigration, religion, commerce, and even pandemics have roots in a much earlier moment.

This excerpt is from the new publication The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV's France by Gillian Weiss and Meredith Martin © 2021 J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission.


“The 'Sun King' Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) was not only one of the most cultured kings of France, but one of the cruelest … As Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss show in this remarkable publication, he used enslaved people to row his galleys.” — Philip Mansel for The Art Newspaper

“Their book seeks to challenge this persistent myth, largely by focusing on Mediterranean maritime art — that which depicted, and celebrated, Louis XIV’s rule, as exercised over the waterway that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia.” — James Devitt for NYU News