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The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV’s France

Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss 

This richly illustrated volume, the first devoted to maritime art and galley slavery in early modern France, shows how royal propagandists used the image and labor of enslaved Muslims to glorify Louis XIV.
Mediterranean maritime art and the forced labor on which it depended were fundamental to the politics and propaganda of France’s King Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715). Yet most studies of French art in this period focus on Paris and Versailles, overlooking the presence or portrayal of galley slaves on the kingdom’s coasts. By examining a wide range of artistic productions—ship design, artillery sculpture, medals, paintings, and prints—Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss uncover a vital aspect of royal representation and unsettle a standard picture of art and power in early modern France.
With an abundant selection of startling images, many never before published, The Sun King at Sea emphasizes the role of esclaves turcs (enslaved Turks)—rowers who were captured or purchased from Islamic lands—in building and decorating ships and other art objects that circulated on land and by sea to glorify the Crown. Challenging the notion that human bondage vanished from continental France, this cross-disciplinary volume invites a reassessment of servitude as a visible condition, mode of representation, and symbol of sovereignty during Louis XIV’s reign. 

Meredith Martin is associate professor at New York University. She is an art historian specializing in French art, architecture, empire, and intercultural exchange from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. Gillian Weiss is professor at Case Western Reserve University. She is a historian specializing in early modern France, its relations with the Islamic world, and Mediterranean slavery.

Winner of the 2023 Leo Gershoy Award

2023 Winner of The David H. Pinkney Prize 

Honorable Mention for The Mediterranean Seminar Best Book Prize 2023

Winner of the 2022 Kenshur Prize 

Shortlisted for Apollo Magazine's 2022 Book of the Year

“[A] long-overdue book on the impact of Mediterranean galley slavery on the arts in Louis XIV’s France.”
—Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Burlington Magazine

“The present engagingly written, beautifully illustrated, comprehensively researched and documented volume examines the manifold ways in which galleys and their rowers, important components of Louis XIV’s maritime endeavors, were represented visually.”
—P. D. Thomas, Choice

“Martin and Weiss's exploration of this challenging material, and the language they employee, is commendable.”
—Wolf Burchard, Apollo

“With its resonance to contemporary issues, thoroughly researched evidence, rich discursive endnotes, and lucid prose, The Sun King at Sea is an important resource for scholars and students alike, offering a deeper understanding of French art and politics through its retrieval of complex relationships among enslaved laborers, artists, and the aristocracy in the early modern Mediterranean.”
—Dana V. Hogan,

“The 'Sun King' Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) was not only one of the most cultured kings of France, but one of the cruellest. . . . As Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss show in this remarkable publication, he used enslaved people to row his galleys.”
—Philip Mansel, The Art Newspaper

“Their book seeks to challenge this persistent myth, largely by focusing on Mediterranean maritime art—that which depicted, and celebrated, Louis XIV’s rule, as exercised over the waterway that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia.”
—James Devitt, NYU News

“An indispensable and original book that centers the Mediterranean Sea in the visual and ornamental imaginary of the so-called Grand Siècle; interprets maritime vessels as pluralistic micro-societies and vehicles of royal propaganda, and locates the roots of Orientalism in an early-modern Turquerie complicated by the longstanding presence of slavery and Islam in France. A must-read!”
—Anne Lafont, directrice d'études à l'EHESS

“This is not only an original and archivally rich study but also an unsettling and necessary one. The authors combine rigorous historical research with fresh and insightful visual analysis to chronicle the violence, coercion, and suppression that underpinned the fabric of Louis XIV’s navy and the diplomatic, material, and symbolic structures of his reign. Martin and Weiss’s book is a must-read for all students and scholars of the Sun King’s court as well as those interested in slavery, maritime power, and society in early modern Europe.”
—Mark Ledbury, Director of the Power Institute, The University of Sydney 

"Superbly illustrated, The Sun King at Sea is a tour de force of the historical imagination that deploys the resources of social and cultural history and of material and visual culture to reveal and portray the enslavement of Muslims for Louis XIV’s Mediterranean galley fleet. Martin and Weiss’s approach to a disturbing subject too long hidden in plain sight is unflinchingly illuminating yet humane."
—Colin Jones, Queen Mary University of London

“A dazzling collection of early modern artworks and a major interdisciplinary achievement between social history and art history that uncovers, for the first time, how and why the French Sun King Louis XIV shaped his propaganda on the enslavement of Mediterranean Muslims. A masterpiece!”
—M’hamed Oualdi, Sciences Po, Paris

256 pages
7 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
80 color and 34 b/w illustrations
ISBN 978-1-60606-730-7

Getty Publications
Imprint: Getty Research Institute