HomeCelebrating the Illustrious in Europe (1580-1750)

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Published on Monday, May 10, 2021


The aim of this study day is therefore to review all the biographical productions of a period that has been little considered until now, in order to better understand how the modes of celebrating the glory of illustrious men were transformed between 1580 and 1750, both in writing and in images, by taking into account various media such as books, prints, paintings, sculptures and even medals.


Study day organized with the support of the Conférence universitaire de Suisse occidentale, University of Lausanne, 25-26 November 2021


In the preface to the second volume of his Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France pendant ce siècle, avec leurs portraits au naturel (1696-1700), Charles Perrault was compelled to justify one of the choices that he and his protector, Michel Bégon, had made. He was indeed criticized for "having mixed artisans with princes and cardinals," that is, for having given the same glory to men of very different conditions. This criticism – and the author's response, which invokes the canonical examples of Apelles and Phidias, whose names "placed after that of Alexander himself, do not bring shame to either Alexander or his century" – suggests that Perrault's work departed from the encomiastic tradition which developed during the sixteenth century, in the wake of Plutarch's Parallel Lives. According to this tradition, only the princes and the main servants of the state would deserve to be celebrated, and such a perspective naturally led to the exclusion of scholars, scientists and artists. Pictorial enterprises such as the Gallery of the Illustrious in the Château de Beauregard, decorated with 327 portraits around 1620, or the one in the Cardinal Palace in Paris commissioned in 1632 by Richelieu, were still part of this tradition. The same is true for engraved collections, such as the series of portraits by Thomas de Leu, or biographies of illustrious women, such as Les Harangues héroïques by Madeleine de Scudéry (1642-1644) or the Gallerie des femmes fortes by the Jesuit Pierre Le Moyne (1647), both being exclusively devoted to the leaders and great heroines of ancient history.

Scholars and artists could, of course, be the subject of autonomous lives or included in series devoted exclusively to them. Thus, in the seventeenth century, following Vasari's Vite, artists were represented in various real or fictitious "galleries," ranging from Leopold de Medici's collection of artists' self-portraits continued by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, to biographical collections such as Cornelis de Bie's Gulden Cabinet van de Vry Schilder-Const (1662). However, while such undertakins do testify the elevation of the status of painters and sculptors, they remain largely distinct from the practices of celebrating great statesmen. Thus, an implicit hierarchy clearly remained strong, as the criticism of Perrault's project suggests.

However, in the following century, Voltaire could, on the contrary, affirm that those who "excelled in the useful or the pleasant", that is to say the scholars and the artists, were the true exempla virtutis : they were then likely to surpass in merit the military heroes, and to count among the first of the great men. How did this paradigm shift – in which Perrault's work seems central – take place between 1580 and 1750? The France of Louis XIV a priori appears as a catalyst, because of the renewal of the modes of celebration of the royal glory and, above all, because of the institutionalization of the worlds of the arts, sciences and letters under the ministry of Colbert, a phenomenon that gave rise to the elaboration of new structured social bodies, accompanied by new types of discourses which aimed to support their legitimacy. However, like André Thevet's Vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (1584) or Van Dyck's Icones Principum Virorum (1645), some undertakings prior to Perrault's work were already bringing together scholars, artists and statesmen on the same level. These few examples should lead us to reconsider the pivotal role hitherto attributed to the reign of Louis XIV, in order to try to retrace in greater detail the evolution of the social and intellectual conditions that allowed the emergence of new types of discourse on the Illustrious.

Until now, the historiography has mainly focused on the issues of biography in the humanist context of the sixteenth century, which largely relied on the model of Plutarch (Dubois, 2001; Eichel-Lojkine, 2001), or conversely, on the development of the cult of great men after 1750 (Bonnet, 1998; Gaehtgens and Wedekind, dir., 2009). The aim of this study day is therefore to review all the biographical productions of a period that has been little considered until now, in order to better understand how the modes of celebrating the glory of illustrious men were transformed between 1580 and 1750, both in writing and in images, by taking into account various media such as books, prints, paintings, sculptures and even medals.

Main themes

In addition to case studies, transversal proposals are encouraged, especially when they can be inscribed in one or more of the following themes, which do not exhaust the field of possibilities :

  • The ideological, political or social aims of the constitution of "galleries" of illustrious men and women.
  • The criteria for elevating the individual to the rank of an illustrious man or woman.
  • The modes of conception of projects of painted, sculpted or engraved series of illustrious men and women and their actors (sponsors, artists, dedicatees).
  • The practices of consumption of the different types of biographical series.
  • The place of women between "galleries of illustrious" and "galleries of beauties".
  • The criteria used by biographers to justify the writing of the eulogy of categories that were little represented before the seventeenth century, in particular artists, craftsmen or scholars.
  • The impact of socio-epistemic transformations of scientific practices on the writing of biographies of natural philosophers and scholars.

Submission guidelines

Papers may be presented in French or in English. Each paper will last a maximum of 30 minutes, and will be followed by 15 minutes of discussion. Proposals of 300 words, accompanied by a brief curriculum vitae and a list of publications, should be sent

before 31 May 2021

to Antoine Gallay (antoine.gallay@unige.ch). Depending on the evolution of the health situation, the study day may be held, in part or entirely, online.


  • Antoine Gallay (University of Geneva, Paris-Nanterre University)
  • Carla Julie (University of Lausanne)
  • Matthieu Lett (University of Burgundy/LIR3S)

Scientific Committee

  • Prof. Jan Blanc (University of Geneva)
  • Prof. Estelle Doudet (University of Lausanne)
  • Prof. Christian Michel (University of Lausanne)
  • Prof. Frédéric Tinguely (University of Geneva)

Selected bibliography

Barbe, Jean-Paul et Pigeaud, Jackie, Le culte des grands hommes au XVIIIe siècle, Nantes, 1998.

Bell, David A., The Cult of the Nation in France : Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800, Cambridge (Mass.), 2003.

Bonnet, Jean-Claude, Naissance du Panthéon : essai sur le culte des grands hommes, Paris, Fayard, 1998.

Chaigne-Legouy, Marion et Salamon, Anne, « Les hommes illustres : introduction », Questes. Revue pluridisciplinaire d’études médiévales, no 17, 2009, p. 5-23.

Civil, Pierre, « Culture et histoire : galerie de portraits et “hommes illustres” dans l’Espagne de la deuxième moitié du XVIe siècle », Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez, vol. 26, no 2, 1990, p. 5-32.

Costamagna, Philippe, « La constitution de la collection de portraits d’hommes illustres de Paolo Giovio et l’invention de la galerie historique », in Mœnch, Esther, Primitifs italiens : le vrai, le faux, la fortune critique, Milan, 2012, p. 167-175.

Culpin, David J., « Introduction » in Perrault, Charles, Les hommes illustres qui ont paru en France pendant ce siècle : avec leurs portraits au naturel, Tübingen, 2003.

Denk Claudia, Artiste, citoyen et philosophe :  der Künstler und sein Bildnis im Zeitalter der französischen Aufklärung, Munich, 1998.

Dubois, Claude-Gilbert, « L’individu comme moteur historiographique : formes de la biographie dans la période 1560-1600 », Nouvelle Revue du XVIe Siècle, vol. 19, no 1, 2001, p. 83-105.

Eichel-Lojkine, Patricia, Le Siècle des Grands Hommes. Les recueils de Vies d’hommes illustres avec portraits du XVIe siècle, Louvain, 2001.

Gaukroger, Stephen, « The Académie des Sciences and the Republic of Letters : Fontenelle’s Role in the Shaping of a New Natural‐Philosophical Persona, 1699–1734 », Intellectual History Review, vol. 18, no 3, 2008, p. 385-402.

Gaehtgens, Thomas W. et Wedekind, Gregor [dir.], Le culte des grands hommes, 1750-1850, Paris, 2009.

Lhopiteau, Simon, « Les Tableaux Historiques (1652) de Pierre Daret, une entreprise audacieuse de célébration des grands hommes », Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français, 2009, p. 29-43.

 Michel, Christian, « Des Vite de Bellori à l'Abrégé de la vie des Peintres de Roger de Piles : un changement de perspective », Studiolo, vol. 5, 2007, p. 193-201.

Miller, Peter N., « The “man of learning” defended: seventeenth-century biographies of scholars and an early modern ideal of excellence », in Coleman, Patrick J. [et al.], Representations of the self from the Renaissance to Romanticism, Cambridge, 2000, p. 39-62.


  • Lausanne, Switzerland


  • Monday, May 31, 2021


  • vies, Illustres, livre, décor, médaille, écrit, Plutarque, estampe


  • Matthieu Lett
    courriel : matthieu [dot] lett [at] u-bourgogne [dot] fr

Information source

  • Matthieu Lett
    courriel : matthieu [dot] lett [at] u-bourgogne [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Celebrating the Illustrious in Europe (1580-1750) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, May 10, 2021, https://calenda.org/874093

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