Clio by François Boucher at the Coin Cabinet of the BnF

This article was written by :

  • Frédérique Duyrat, conservateur général, directeur du Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (BnF) et membre statutaire de l’équipe de recherche Mondes sémitiques (UMR CNRS 8167)
  • Jérôme Jambu, conservateur, chargé des collections de monnaies étrangères, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (BnF) et Maître de conférences en Histoire moderne (Université de Lille IRHiS UMR CNRS 8529)

French version here / Retrouvez le en version française ici

The ongoing restoration of the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France has led to the removal of a number of historical decors. One of them adorns the room today called the “Salon Louis XV” which is in fact the former Coin Cabinet, or Cabinet du Roi, of the 18th century, now called département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (Figure 1). This decor was moved in the 1860s : during the redevelopment of the site of the National Library rue de Richelieu, the arcade of the former hotel de Nevers where the original Cabinet was located, above the rue Colbert, had to be demolished. The decor was kept in different parts of the Library until the beginning of the 20th century. It was then scrupulously reassembled by the architect Jean-Louis Pascal in the new wing of the Library created to house the Cabinet des Médailles and its museum in 1917. Large-format copies of portraits of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud and Louis XV by Louis-Michel Van Loo made in the beginning of the 19th century, occupy each end of the room to replace paintings destroyed during the Revolution. The paneling in which the paintings were inserted was also copied from what was left of the dismantled originals. This allowed the reinstallation of paintings and furniture dated from the 1740s, in a setting close to the original.

Fig. 1. View of the salon Louis XV before the removal of the furniture and paintings for restoration. The original color of the wood panels was a slightly pink-white, not deep green. Salon Louis XV, Richelieu site, BnF. BnF picture.

The Vivienne wing where the salon now lies, opened in 1917, was closed for renovation exactly a century later, in 2017. A public subscription was launched that same year to support the restoration program of the Cabinet du Roi. Its decor is particularly remarkable for the set of paintings commissioned to form an iconographic program depicting the Muses. One of these paintings, by François Boucher, is closely related to the activities of the Coin Cabinet.

A decor from the 1740s

Louis XIV, a passionate collector of coins and medals, used monetary art in the construction of the discourse on his reign. His personal collection (the Cabinet du Roi) was kept in Versailles, where he consulted it frequently. When he died, the Court returned to Paris and in 1720 it was decided to move the Cabinet du Roi to the Hôtel de Lambert, a building of the Royal Library in Paris. However, the relocation had to be delayed until the departure from the Hôtel de Nevers which was still occupied by the Marquise de Lambert, and then until the development work by the architect Robert de Cotte and his son had been finished. In 1742 and 1743 the Verberckt furniture workshops executed the paneling and furniture, with the exception of the armchairs and chairs which were signed by the famous furniture maker Louis Cresson. The collections of coins and medals returned from Versailles in September 1741, while the decor of the salon was not yet finished. At the same time, the paintings of the Cabinet were commissioned from the most famous artists of the time : François Boucher, Charles-Joseph Natoire and Carle Van Loo. These paintings deal with the same theme : the Muses and their protectors. The architect Robert de Cotte left a set of handwritten notes describing the pose of each of the Muses. These Papiers relatifs à l’établissement de la Bibliothèque du Roi are kept in the département des Estampes et de la photographie (department of Prints and Photography) of the BnF, which has recently acquired a preparatory drawing by the painter Charles-Joseph Natoire for one of these paintings.

In the living room, a central painting on one of the long sides represents the Protectors of the Muses (Figure 2) : Apollo, Mercury and Hercules Musagetes. The nine other paintings, placed on the tops of doors and in the spaces between the windows, represent the nine Muses. Carle Van Loo, already the painter of the Protectors of the Muses, also painted Euterpe – Music – depicted in the company of the god Pan holding his flute, and Polymnia – Eloquence – inspired by Psyche and Hymen. On the opposite wall, Natoire split the three Muses he was to represent. Thalia (Comedy), Terpsichore (Dance), and Calliope (Epic Poetry), are each represented by two Muses, one blonde and the other brunette.

Fig. 2. The protectors of the Muses, painted by Carle Van Loo: Apollo, with the features of King Louis XV, Hermes and Hercules Musagetes. Salon Louis XV, Richelieu site, BnF. Department of Coins, Medals and Antiques. Gallica (BnF).

A painting by François Boucher, incarnation of the Coin Cabinet

François Boucher is the painter of the four door tops. Melpomene (Tragedy), Erato (Love Poetry), and Urania (Astronomy). All are admirable, but the painting that was acclaimed by the critics during its presentation at the Salon of 1743 and which remains today the emblem of the Coin Cabinet represents Clio (Figure 3). In the words of Robert de Cotte, “she is the first of the Muses, she presides over History and the praise of great men.” To represent her, the architect proposed the following composition : “we could draw her sitting, writing on a large book supported by Time, looking at the busts or medallions of the heroes placed in the Temple of Memory.” On the other hand, François Boucher, at the time of the execution, took some liberties with the proposed model. He also introduced some additional elements tying his Clio to the Coin Cabinet.

Fig. 3. The Muse of History, Clio, painted by François Boucher in 1742. The painting, slightly cleaned after removal from the wood panels, already suggests the bright colors that the restoration will show. BnF picture.


Instead of drawing inspiration from portraits of historical figures, the Muse is presented with a portrait of Louis XV “in medallic form” The book she writes is also entitled Histoire de Louis. As Jean Babelon, director of the Coin Cabinet from 1937 to 1961, pointed out in his study on Le Cabinet du roi ou le salon Louis XV de la Bibliothèque nationale, this general scheme had already been used for the frontispiece of works on the medals of Louis XIV. The Histoire du règne de Louis le Grand par les médailles (1689) and Les médailles du règne de Louis le Grand (edition of 1723, prints by Coypel) begin indeed with representations of the Muse of History writing in a book leaning on the wings of Time, inspired by a medal with a portrait of Louis XIV.

The putti surrounding the Clio of the Coin Cabinet have functions related to coins. Two are busy presenting her with the portrait of Louis XV, one of them pointing to the king with a gesture of direction that leaves no doubt about the meaning of the scene (Figure 4) : the Muse writes the story of Louis “from the medals.” The third putto, sitting to Clio’s right, meditates on a gold coin that he has extracted from a pile placed between his arms (Figure 5). These numismatic putti confirm the vocation of the place for which they were painted: the writing of history based on the study of coins. Until the 19th century indeed, the French word médailles was used indifferently for the medals and for the coins of collection. The latter are an important source of history that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, were particularly studied, especially to understand the history of kings and emperors of Antiquity.

=> Click on the galery below to see full images :
Fig. 4. Putto pointing to the portrait of Louis XV whose story Clio must write. BnF picture.
Fig. 5. Putto as a numismatist. BnF picture.

Under Louis XIV, the production of coins and medals was developed to write the history of the reigning king : wars, peace, important episodes were recorded in metal and circulated in France and in Europe. The Académie des inscriptions et Belles-Lettres was created to choose the iconography and the Latin legends of the coins and medals. The best artists were entrusted with the drawing of the portrait of the king. The representation of a Clio drawing inspiration from a “médaille” is therefore a kind of reversal : the king no longer illustrates his history with a “history in metal” (“Histoire métallique”), it is his “history in metal” that dictates the writing of history. One might even see here an allusion to the monetary stability that the sovereign has offered to his subjects for nearly twenty years, symbolized by the gold louis on the painting.

A Muse of History drawing inspiration from a gold louis

About the monetary portrait on the painting, Jean Babelon wrote in 1927 :

This medallion, although of a less firm style, can be compared either to the medals engraved by Roëttiers for the Histoire métallique, or to Bouchardon’s red chalk drawings and to Jean Duvivier’s medals1.

While looking for medals and drawings, this numismatist of the ancient world did not see that it was a coin contemporary with the scene. Two angels present to Clio a portrait of Louis XV in the shape of a tondo, which copies exactly his portait on the obverse of the gold louis described as “au bandeau” (with a headband) (Figure 6), then recently created.

Fig. 6. “Louis d’or” by François Boucher. BnF picture.


In 1740, king Louis XV chose a new portrait of himself for the gold louis and silver écus. Aged 30, the sovereign was an attractive man whose face had changed since the engraving of the previous portrait, in 1726, when he was not yet 16 years old (Figure 7).

Fig. 7. Obverse of a “Louis d’or aux lunettes”, engraved in 1725 (portrait of the king at 15 years of age). Gallica (BnF).


For the first time in his reign, it was not for a financial reason that he changed his coin types, but purely for aesthetic reasons. Louis XV was not raising a new disguised tax by this act, as often with monetary manipulations : he wished that his currency resembled his image. It is also in these terms that a judgment of the Cour des Monnaies, the law court devoted to monetary matters, reported this change, a few months after the first strikes :

His Majesty having desired that his image on the currency of gold and silver should now resemble him more than it was, He ordered that dies of a new imprint on the said currency be made.

The new portrait of the king, made by the Graveur général des monnaies de France since 1727, Joseph Charles Roëttiers (1691-1779), is a masterpiece of classical art. It represents the head of Louis XV facing the left, in profile, slightly three-quarter face which gives the whole, despite the small relief of the coins, a sense of depth. The king’s forehead is broad, his eyes large and his eyebrows thin, his nose Bourbon, his lips thin and pinched, with long, curly, natural hair tied with a simple ribbon (Figure 8).

Fig. 8. Obverse of a “Louis d’or au bandeau”, engraved in 1740 (portrait of the king at 30 years of age). Gallica (BnF).


It is also this particularity of fashion that led the numismatists of the 19th century to nickname this type “au bandeau”, “with a head band.” There is nowhere else in the representations of the king such a hairstyle, so particular and identifiable. For painting, neither Carle Van Loo, nor later Maurice Quentin de La Tour, ever represented the king this way. Roëttiers alone, for the coinage, had this audacity. The engravers François Joseph Marteau and Jean Duvivier have divert this image for the medal, but with more severity for the first and much less grace for the second. Roëttiers, however, did not invent this type of monetary representation: he was clearly inspired by the ancient kings wearing the original diadem, that is to say, girded with a band of cloth, as we find them represented on Hellenistic royal coinage (Figure 9). In this ancient Bactrian coin, it was also the eyes and eyebrows that inspired the modern engraver.


To execute his painting, François Boucher, without a doubt, had one of these gold louis as a model, no other work with this representation being then available. It is also likely that Roëttiers was inspired by ancient models for the realization of this portrait.


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  1. Jean Babelon, Le Cabinet du roi ou le Salon Louis XV de la Bibliothèque nationale. Paris, G. Vanoest, éditeur, 1927. []

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