(This is a short English version of a longer French blog entry, where interested readers will find the French text accompanying the drawing, references and footnotes)
The drawing Cat. 27 shows a dynamic scene of unmounted horses racing through the streets of Rome for the carnival. An owl is riding one of the horses; on the left, Time is busy painting the portrait of the bird.
The poem accompanying the drawing allows to identify this horse with the painter Charles Le Brun, and, pleasantly, the owl with Louis XIV, the Sun King.
This nocturnal bird is not commonly associated with kings; I would like to argue that its presence on the drawing is more than a pun.
As the accompanying bird of Minerva, owls feature regularly in paintings or medals glorifying Louis XIV, but not as prominently as on this drawing.
On the other hand, Charles Le Brun was interested in physiognomy. He delivered two conferences on this topic in front of his colleagues members of the Académie royale de peinture; the second one was never published although Le Brun had prepared its illustration. It covered the relation between animal and human features, and it is possible that Le Brun realized belatedly how this topic was a sensitive one, as it could be exploited for caricatures and mocking people. A court painter could not risk providing ammunition to attack influential men.
Owl was one of the animals compared by Le Brun to humans.
I wonder if Focus was mocking in one drawing Louis XIV’s use of the Sun symbol and Le Brun’s interest for physiognomy and its misadventure.