Frank R. Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics. Political Philosophy Beyond Fact and Value, Stanford, CA 1996, p. 43.


Marin, Portrait of the King (as note 9), p. 211.


Materialising the divine properties of the king, the portrait instantiates the transcendent legitimacy of his authority. This is the reason why the king is only truly king in images, as Marin has aptly pointed out. The portrait of the king as a model of God indicates the mimesis of an abstract theological-political idea of sovereignty which is conceived to exist prior to any form of representation but which depends in its social efficacy on display and visibility. The essential similarity between the king’s portrait’s mimetic and displaying dimensions emerges from the assumption of a political reality which has to be depicted through defined «rules of translation» [28] enclosing the experience of contingency. The political sovereignty of the king does not originate from the discrepancy between the body politic and its forms of representation but from the imitation and display of an already existing cosmological order.

To sum up, it has been shown that the king, conceived as a model of God, derives his supreme authority not through acts of representation that emphasise the difference between the model of sovereignty and the image of the sovereign but through their amalgamation: the display of the «royal mystery» which is «the transubstantiation of the prince’s body.» [29] The pictorial representations of Louis XIV refer ultimately to the king’s body, marking it as the last link in the chain of signification which guaranteed the sacred unity of the body politic. When on the 21st of January 1792 the guillotine of the National Convention separated the physical head of Louis XVI from his mystical body, it also cut the link between society and its transcendent foundation of legitimacy. The place of power, formerly inhabited by the king’s body, turned out to be empty.


The image of the people or society without a body

The radical shift from the idea of the king’s absolute power during the Ancien Régime to the popular government of the Première République française marks the beginning of a new understanding of sovereignty and political thinking. As I will show in the article’s second part, the changes in the conceptualisation of society and political formation are accompanied by a new understanding of portraiture and visual representation. Consider, as a complement to the work of Rigaud and Le Brun, a very different portrait of sovereignty: The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques Louis David [fig. 4]. The portrait of Jean-Paul Marat shows the dead body of the Jacobin leader after being stabbed to death in his bath tub by Charlotte Corday in 1793. Against the backdrop of a dark wall one can see Marat’s upper body leaning on the backrest of his tub which is covered with blood stained cloths, still holding a quill in his right hand and a letter in his left. My main interest here is how Marat’s body is depicted and the elusiveness that surrounds it.

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