Propaganda via portrait paintings

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Propaganda via portrait paintings

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One of three existing versions of “Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I” (circa 1588), by an unknown artist

Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) was not only an excellent monarch but also a top-notch advertising strategist.

In addition to spearheading the country’s rise to the tier of major world powers, she actively promoted her achievements. Some say she was essentially the first European monarch to recognize the importance of propaganda and actively use royal portraits to solidify support or rally her people.

At the very least, this is true of her majestic “Armada portrait.” In this painting, the queen dons elaborate lace, ribbons and countless strings of large pearls. It is said that she wore extremely splendid dresses like this to inspire others. She loved to wear pearls, in particular, because they symbolized purity and chastity, in keeping with her nickname “The Virgin Queen.”

In the background of the portrait are two windows showing significant events during her reign. The left window depicts the Spanish Armada confronting the English fleet. Spain, the strongest power on the high seas at the time, was prospering thanks to its intense focus on trade with the Americas. But England began taking an interest in the region as well, disrupting Spanish trade. As a result, Spain attacked England in 1588.

England defended itself using ships with excellent mobility and long-range cannons, striking a victorious blow on the Spanish fleet with a fire attack. The Armada hastily retreated but was further damaged by storms. The window on the right side of the painting depicts this turbulent scene.

In the portrait, the queen’s hand lies triumphantly on a globe. A closer look shows that her fingers cover the Americas - a statement that England, which emerged as a new naval power after defeating Spain, would exercise its influence in earnest in the New World across the Atlantic. English people at the time must have felt a surge of pride for their queen when they saw the painting. What an effective piece of propaganda this is!

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“Port Scene with the Villa Medici” (1637), by Claude Lorrain (1600~1682), Oil on canvas, 102x133 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

At the same time, the painting presents a good summary of Europe’s political economic situation during the reign of Elizabeth I. Europe was moving away from a feudal system where there had been little concept of nation or patriotism. National states were being formed, with absolute monarchs like Elizabeth I as their symbols. Each European country’s monarch - a globe in hand - was deliberating on how to secure more colonies for raw materials, how to develop industry and how to accumulate gold, silver and other precious metals through trade. It was a time of geographical discovery and mercantilism.

Mercantilism was not an integrated and systemized economic theory but rather a collection of ideas commonly shared by chief economic policy makers of nation-states between the 16th and 18th centuries. Additionally, the term mercantilism was not actually used by policy makers back then. Instead, classical economists such as Adam Smith who criticized the ideas and principles behind the concept adopted the term.

The absolute monarchs and economic policy makers at the time thought that the wealth of a nation depended on the amount of reserves of gold, silver and other previous metals the country held. Accordingly, they thought that the country’s trade account should be always in the black.

To them, international trade was a zero-sum game. In other words, one country’s surplus is another’s deficit, so there will always be nations on both sides of the equation.

The mercantilists also thought that governments needed to lead efforts to nurture manufacturing and commerce to help boost trade surpluses. These governments granted special favors, such as monopoly status and subsidies to specific manufacturing and merchant guilds, to spur rapid growth. The mercantilists also attached great importance to colonies, which supplied raw materials for manufacturing as well as gold and silver from their mines.

Accordingly, merchants were proud of their positions in society and believed they were bringing dignity to their nations and monarchs. They commissioned paintings of harbor scenes and other images tied to their lives from renowned artists, and these developed into a genre of paintings.

Claude Lorrain (1600~1682) was excellent in this genre. His “Port Scene with the Villa Medici” painting displays a noble atmosphere of merchant ships at anchor in the port, with the sunlight highlighting their magnificent masts.

The essence of mercantilism can be seen in the policies of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), a government official under Louis XIV of France. He was simultaneously the finance minister and the minister for the navy, showing how important overseas trade was at the time. The popular portrait painter Claude Lefebvre (1633-1675) depicted Colbert holding documents that looked like maps with a globe behind him.

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“Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert” (1666), by Claude Lefebvre (1633-1675), Oil on canvas, 118x113 cm, Chateau de Versailles, Versailles, France

Colbert thought that it was important to urge domestic manufacturers to produce competitive goods for the sake of a trade surplus.

Accordingly, he welcomed the flow of foreign laborers with special skills into France while strictly banning the outflow of domestic technologies.

He also granted special favors to a few manufacturers and traders so that they could grow fast to surpass their foreign counterparts. Colbert put regulations on minor manufacturers’ entrance to the market to prevent a deterioration in quality. He also led the refurbishment of transportation networks such as roads and waterways.

The policies of Colbert did in fact contribute to the economic development of France. But special favors and barriers brought about complaints from manufacturers and merchants who didn’t receive those perks, and reduced opportunities for free competition. This ultimately weakened the competitiveness of domestic industries, economists of the 18th century argued.

Colbert also levied high tariffs on foreign imports to protect French industries. In retaliation, other counties put high tariffs on French goods. The tariff war led to an attack by Louis XIV on the Netherlands in the late 17th century, which is now called the Dutch War.

France’s gold and silver reserves evaporated as the country incurred mounting expenses related to the war. Later, economists of the 18th century criticized Colbert’s trade policies, saying that free trade without barriers leads to an efficient division of work worldwide and helps each country’s consumers purchase goods at lower prices.

According to classical economists, international trade is a win-win - not a zero-sum - game. With the emergence of such laissez-faire economics, mercantilism gradually faded.

Today, mercantilism seems like an outdated idea. Few economists and general observers believe a nation’s wealth depends on its reserves of gold and silver. Still, Colbert’s measures to enrich his country resonate today. In fact, they have similarities with Korea’s economic development model of the 1960s and ’70s, which brought about the so-called “Miracle on the Han River.” Of course, this model cannot be applied in Korea these days, as the economy has already reached a certain level. However, economists still have mixed views about whether developing countries need mercantilist policies.

The war between mercantilism and laissez-faire ideas, it seems, continues to this day.


By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]
Related Korean Article

문소영 기자의 명화로 보는 경제사 한 장면 : 지구본을 든 군주와 관료들의 초상


엘리자베스 1세(1533~1603)는 유럽의 변방에 불과했던 영국을 열강의 지위로 이끈 뛰어난 군주였을 뿐만 아니라 그 업적을 국민에게 선전하는 데에도 또한 뛰어난 군주였다. 어떤 이들은 그녀가 프로파간다의 중요성을 간파하고 자신의 초상화를 국민 홍보 수단으로 적극 활용한 거의 최초의 군주라고 본다. 이를 단적으로 보여주는 것이 위풍당당하기 짝이 없는 ‘아르마다 초상화’(사진1)다.
이 그림에서 여왕은 정교한 레이스와 리본, 수많은 굵은 진주로 장식된 의상을 입고 있다. 그녀는 왕실 살림을 검소하게 한 편이었지만 의상은 이렇게 극도로 화려하게 해서 보는 사람들의 경외감을 유도했다고 한다. 특히 그녀는 그림에 나오는 것처럼 진주를 즐겨 착용했는데, 진주는 순결을 상징해서 그녀의 ‘처녀왕(the Virgin Queen)’이라는 별명에도 잘 맞았기 때문이다.
여왕의 뒤로는 두 개의 창문이 보이는데 사실 이 창문 너머 광경들은 서로 다른 시간에 벌어진 일들이다. 왼쪽은 에스파냐의 무적 함대 아르마다(Armada)가 영국 함대와 대치하고 있는 장면이다. 당시 바다의 제왕이었던 에스파냐는 아메리카와의 교역을 선점해 번영을 누리고 있었는데, 떠오르는 세력인 영국이 교역을 방해하자 1588년 영국을 침공하러 온 것이었다. 영국은 기동력 좋은 배와 장거리 함포로 맞섰고 화공(火攻)법을 써서 에스파냐 함대에 치명타를 가했다. 결국 이름답지 않게 패퇴하던 무적 함대는 폭풍까지 만나 극심한 손실을 봤다. 오른쪽 창문은 바로 이 장면을 나타낸 것이다.
여왕은 당당하게 지구본 위에 손을 올려놓고 있다. 잘 보면 손가락이 아메리카 대륙을 향하고 있다. 이제 에스파냐를 물리치고 바다의 강자로 떠오른 영국이 대서양 너머 신대륙에 본격적으로 힘을 뻗칠 것을 암시한 것이다. 이 그림을 본 당시 영국 국민들은 국가에 대한 자랑스러움과 여왕에 대한 존경심이 솟아오르지 않을 수 없었으리라. 탁월한 대국민 홍보물이 아닌가 싶다.

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