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PARIS (Reuters) - A new exhibition at the gilded Chateau de Versailles outside Paris for the first time brings together hundreds of artworks owned by Louis XIV, the "Sun King" who remains one of France's most flamboyant monarchs.
A fierce ruler whose exclamation, "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the State"), summarizes a concept of power that still permeates French politics, Louis XIV was also a ballet dancer whose private tastes at times diverged from the official line.
"Louis XIV has suffered from a very negative image, an image of the king as absolute, frightening, almost like a despot," curator Nicolas Milovanovic told Reuters. "That's one of the reasons why there's never before been an exhibition."
Some 300 artworks were retrieved from all over Europe for the show at Versailles, which the king transformed from a hunting lodge into the dazzling heart of an absolutist state.
Even with the monarchist rule gone, the exhibition evokes its continuing influence on French culture -- President Nicolas Sarkozy himself chose Versailles as the backdrop for a policy speech earlier this year.
"Louis XIV implemented a political regime that was very typically French," said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, president of Versailles, standing next to a marble bust of the king. "In his hands, he held much of the political, religious, military, economic and even cultural power."
Among the most intriguing exhibits are a golden bodice and matching short skirt worn as a ballet costume by the young king. A wax relief complete with human grey hair and a glass eye shows the aging Louis, pock-marked and stubble-chinned.
"The king's taste became the taste of his kingdom, he had such a strong personality that it impressed itself on his environment," Aillagon told Reuters.
Titled "Louis XIV - l'homme et le roi" ("the man and the king"), the display incorporates research on how the king's personal and official preferences differed.
While official collections focused on rivaling other art-hoarding kings with recognized artists such as the Caracci family from the Bologna school, Louis veered toward Flemish painters such as Adam Frans van der Meulen.
His shockingly realistic wax portrait is a contrast to the flattering standards of court painters, though the hair is believed to be that of a manservant as the king went bald early.
Given the show's emphasis on image, it is no surprise that it is peppered with reminders of France's heavily scrutinized first family -- Sarkozy's eldest son has been dubbed the "crown prince" by the press, and the short-statured president shares the Sun King's preference for stacked heels.
*"Louis XIV - l'homme et le roi" runs from Oct 20 2009 - February 10 2010 at the Chateau de Versailles
Editing by Paul Casciato