Cardinal Richelieu: images and power

Cardinal Richelieu: images and power

  • Cardinal Richelieu

    by CHAMPAIGNE Philippe (1602 - 1674)

  • Triple portrait of Cardinal Richelieu

    by CHAMPAIGNE Philippe (1602 - 1674)

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Title: Cardinal Richelieu

Author : by CHAMPAIGNE Philippe (1602 - 1674)

Creation date : 1639 -

Date shown: 1639

Dimensions: Height 222 cm - Width 155 cm

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Stéphane Maréchalle

Picture reference: 17-526065 / INV1136

© RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Stéphane Maréchalle

To close

Title: Triple portrait of Cardinal Richelieu

Author : by CHAMPAIGNE Philippe (1602 - 1674)

Creation date : 1642 -

Date shown: 1642

Dimensions: Height 58.7 cm - Width 72.8 cm

Storage location: National Gallery website

Contact copyright: The National Gallery, London, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / National Gallery Photographic Department

Picture reference: 09-501952 / NG798

Triple portrait of Cardinal Richelieu

© The National Gallery, London, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / National Gallery Photographic Department

Publication date: February 2018

Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director

Historical context

The prelate and his painter

When these portraits were painted (between 1639 and 1642), Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu was at the height of his political career and of his influence. The queen mother made him a member of the king's council, but the resumption of power by Louis XIII removed him from the court from 1617. He then served as an intermediary between the king and his mother and passed for the craftsman. of their reconciliation at the beginning of the 1620s. Obtaining the purple cardinalice as a reward in 1622 and returning to the king's council in 1624, Richelieu quickly imposed his ascendancy on Louis XIII, of whom he became the principal minister. Maintaining the balance between the turbulent Marie de Médicis, who considers him as his subservient creature, and the king jealous of his authority is a difficult exercise which he succeeds until the "great storm" of 1630, during which Louis XIII chooses definitely his minister rather than his mother. Marie de Médicis, then Richelieu and Louis XIII appreciated his talent and made him an official court painter. Established to the glory of the great men of the history of France, this gallery with a private vocation thus included a representation of the cardinal himself, who was counted among these illustrious figures, in the lineage of the cardinal of Amboise, of Suger or of Du Guesclin, and alongside members of the royal family, foremost among which is King Louis XIII. Champaigne therefore produced a triple portrait, currently kept in London.

Image Analysis

The prince of the Church in majesty

Richelieu is painted by Champaigne in all the splendor of majesty. With a haughty and stern air, his imperial demeanor imposes its hold on the viewer, especially as the suspension of the frame forces him to look up at the prelate. Aged 54 in 1639, the cardinal-minister appears life size with emaciated features, his pointed face accentuated by a goatee. The size of her head, relatively small, contrasts with the imposing red dress that dresses her body, whose forms have completely disappeared under the august drape. The pyramidal composition reinforces the feeling of stability and serene assurance which emanates from the cardinal. The triple portrait of London, whose resemblance to the model is praised, clarifies the fine features of the political prelate's face and confirms the impression of height and grandeur which seizes the viewer. The high white collar closed by a double cord and the blue collar of the Order of the Holy Spirit enhance the purple cardinalice with a new luster.

Membership of the prelature is underlined by the robe, the skullcap and, in the full-length portrait, by the bar, held at the end of the right arm like a staff of command brandished by a prince or a general. The pose, however, is that of a dignified and solemn prince, and from whom emanates the pomp of the exercise of power. Standing, the prince of the Church is also the king’s principal minister, the first servant of the monarchy. Similar to a statue, Richelieu stands out against a backdrop reduced to a heavy gilded hanging decorated with plant motifs. The enhancement of purple is thus made easier, as is the focus on the person of the cardinal, who alone embodies the idea that the viewer must make of it, an inextricable and fruitful mixture of potestas and D'auctoritas.


An image for posterity

The programmatic character of the gallery of illustrious men of the Cardinal Palace, to which Richelieu attached great importance, reveals the intrinsic link between art and power in the cardinal's conception of the court portrait. His own performance has indeed been the subject of very precise attention from the cardinal minister. Gradually, the full-length portrait succeeded the seated portrait, less majestic and less martial. The emphasis placed on the seated man of the Church therefore gave way from the mid-1630s to the emphasis on the statesman standing and painted full-length, that is to say according to canons. usually reserved for reigning princes. The gradual abandonment of all decor, in favor of a heavy theatrical curtain, focuses attention on the only figure worth observing, that of the cardinal, without possible distraction of the attention. For this iconic and symbolic evolution, Richelieu chose Champaigne, able to do justice to the greatness of the cardinal-minister. However, Richelieu was also careful not to leave an image of him too far removed from his ideal; he thus asked his favorite painter to retouch the portraits of the last years of his life, to avoid portraying the effects of age and illness in a too obvious way.

The strength of the symbol transforms a prelate's robe into a "capa magna", in the words of Bernard Dorival, embodying the exercise of state power. Red becomes the symbolic color of the exercise of supreme power under the nominal authority of the king, a true capture of sovereignty by a servant of the prince. The pictorial technique fades in favor of the refined expression of the subject represented in majesty, of a man who is both Church and State, both subject and guarantor of sovereign authority. Paradoxically, this man who owes his social and political base to a vast clientele is encamped as a solitary man, who does not share power with anyone other than the one who confers it on him, the king. This self-proclaimed glorification diffused by painting found in printmaking another way to spread throughout the kingdom, envisioning the pictorial motifs controlled by the one who is both the sponsor and the model.

  • official portrait
  • Medici (Marie de)
  • Louis XIII
  • Richelieu (cardinal of)
  • Church


Jean-Claude BOYER, Barbara GAEHTGENS and Bénédicte GADY (dir.), Richelieu, patron of the arts, Editions of the House of Human Sciences, Paris, 2009.

Bernard DORIVAL, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674): life, work and the catalog raisonné of the work, Laget, Paris, 1976.

Françoise HILDESHEIMER, Richelieu, Flammarion, Paris, 2011.

Louis MARIN, Philippe de Champaigne or the hidden presence, Éditions Hazan, Paris, 1995.

Roland MOUSNIER (dir.), Richelieu and culture, Editions du CNRS, Paris, 1987.

Alain TAPIÉ and Nicolas SAINTE FARE GARNOT (under the direction), Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674). Between politics and devotion, Editions of the Meeting of National Museums, Paris, 2007.

Hilliard TODD GOLDFARB (dir.), Richelieu. Art and power, Museums of Fine Arts of Montreal / Wallraf-Richartz-Museum - Fondation Corboud / Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 2002.

To cite this article

Jean HUBAC, "Cardinal Richelieu: images and power"

Video: History of France: Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Foreign Affairs, part 1