Hello I’m your host Janelle and I’m back with Part 2 of The Sun King & Versailles. Thank you to those listening live, for your patience. I knew this would be a bit of a hefty topic but boy did I have a hard time trying to not get lost down the rabbit hole of Versailles. As always you can view the images, transcript of this audio recording, and resources I discuss on my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. In this one I promise there will be paintings and images so it won’t be left hanging like in Part 1.
Right, now let’s get into the good stuff!
In Part 1, we left off with Louis XIV coming into power with his fabulous coronation at the age of 23. He’s set his sights on Versailles and has recruited La Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun to help him create the magnificent palace and city we see today. To reset the stage, the theme is Sun King, and an absolute right to rule. As I mentioned before the Sun King theme was very much in play since Louis’ birth, which we can see in this wonderful painting of Louis and his brother Phillippe. Above the brothers are the royal crest and a sun emblem. Louis wanted to push this idea of Sun King to create a cohesive narrative about his monarchy/absolute right to rule, and a great way to achieve that is force courtiers to come to him at Versailles.
I know in Part 1 I had covered that the court was currently being held at Château de Saint-Germain-de-Laye, while Versailles was being built, but I think it’s important to note that a lot of government offices are still resided in the Louvre. And yes I mean the Louvre that now houses countless artworks including the Mona Lisa. The Louvre was originally a royal residence/a place of government business. When Louis XIV moves everyone out to Versailles the Louvre now has all this empty space. The reason I mention this is because this is an important part of building up the arts that the Sun King is so well known for.
There’s a really great book that I enjoyed immensely called The Versailles Effect which goes into a variety of topics, but one of my favorites being a chapter by Hannah Williams where she discusses the important symbiotic relationship of the Louvre and Versailles. I highly recommend finding her chapter and reading it, but to keep it to the point I’ll sum up. Basically Versailles allowed the vast space of the Louvre to be utilized by a large number of artists and academies. Artists at the Louvre provided goods to Versailles, and the courtiers at Versailles provided commissions to the artists.
Now we need to remember there were always artists at the Louvre, that was a given, but the sheer number of artists who took over after the power base moved to Versailles was staggering. And this is in part due to the fact that the wealthy needed to artistic works and decorative art objects to fill their townhouses in Versailles. So the Louvre was this giant artistic melting pot and home to some of the most important artists of French history (such as Antoine Coypel and André-Charles Boulle), and artistic academies. The singularly most important academie to us in the discussion of Louis XIV being the Petit Académie which was a VVIP group selected from the Académie française which we remember from Part 1 was brought under the royal patronage by Louis.
Now some of you may be wondering, why does this particular academy matter? Well the point of the Petit Académie was to curate artistic imagery utilized by the French monarchy. Specifically in regards to the ancient Greco-Roman world, which Louis used heavily in his branding of himself as Apollo, aka the Sun King. Each one of the academy members were chosen for their deep knowledge of the topic and vetted all artistic submissions on behalf of the King to make sure that the work was portraying the correct messaging. This is important because the same rules apply today as they did then, successful brand imagery must be clear and concise. For example when you see a particular shade of blue you think of a specific jewelry business. Same concept applied to Versailles decor. Right, so we’ve got our branding, time for the building itself.
Louis hired Louis Le Vau as the main architect to work on building around the main hunting lodge his father loved so dearly. Frustratingly for Le Vau, Louis refused to knock down the hunting lodge structure and demanded that the new extensions be built around it. So they did and quite funnily called the extension “the envelope”. Fun fact: Bernini was considered for the remodel of part of the Louvre at the time of Versailles renovation, but was turned away because his style was considered too Italianette by Louis, and it didn’t help that Bernini was not very well liked by others (supposedly he was super arrogant and rude). But the good news is we actually have one of the most accurate, and in my opinion the best, portrait of Louis XIV which is a lovely marble bust which now resides in the Diana Salon at Versailles. You’ll have to forgive my rather quick image of the work, since Versailles was quite crowded the last time I went and I wasn't able to get the shot I wanted of it. Unfortunately La Vau died before completing Versailles, as we see it today. His successor, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, took over and it’s his style that made Versailles the architectural icon today. Especially since he’s the one who gave us the famous Hall of Mirrors.
Mansart was an incredibly powerful architect who was related to the famous François Mansart (one of the originators of the classical tradition in French architecture). He designed Les Invalides, Place Vendôme, Place des Victories, and the Grand Trianon on the Versailles estate. However, unlike his great-uncle, Mansart worked in the classic French Baroque style, and each of his architectural creations are wonderful examples of this. Especially in his use of these large domes, the use of colonnades, and use of gardens to surround the buildings. Basically when you see Versailles that’s a prime example of French Baroque architecture. For those of you wondering what the Baroque style was in general, I would say it was an artistic movement that captured the mood of Counter Reformation and Catholic Revival. Notable artists include Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens (to name a few). I personally am a big fan of this time period with one of my favorite Caravaggio’s being Conversion on the Way to Damascus, which has the wonderfully cyclical movement in it and the dramatic chiaroscuro. For those of you who don’t know chiaroscuro is a term (specifically an italian word) used to describe a strong contrast of light and dark in a painting.
I’m also a huge fan of Rubens, he was an incredible artist who actually painted a massive and very impressive set of paintings that portray Louis’ grandmother, Marie de’Medici. I wish I had time to unpack all of that but perhaps another time. But I digress, back to Versailles, Mansart was essential to the palace, and Andre Le Nôtre was essential to the gardens. In Europe a palace was as only as good as its garden, and Louis knew this. So he hired André Le Nôtre which made the most sense, since Le Nôtre had worked with Le Vau and Le Brun on the park at Vaux-le-Vicomte. He also went on to create some other very well known gardens such as the Tuileries in Paris (which is now the Champs-Élysée)s, the parks at Chantilly, Fontainebleau, and Louis XIV’s old home Saint-Germain.
Versailles gardens were meant to be comparable to famous palaces such as Hampton Court Palace, Nymphenburg Palace, and Stockholm Palace. Now to be perfectly honest I’m not a garden historian so I’m not going to dive into the subject, but I will say that there’s a great film called A Little Chaos which discusses the creation of the gardens at Versailles and has Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, along with many other famous actors in it. And it was directed by Alan Rickman himself. It’s not free on any of the major streaming platforms at the time I’m recording this, but I have a feeling you can rent it from Amazon Prime or Apple TV. It’s a great movie and I highly recommend it. Also for context you can see an image of the plan for the garden at Versailles and you’ll see why I’m a bit apprehensive to tackle it since the gardens are MASSIVE! And they would’ve been filled with advanced hydraulics systems to create fountain displays, there would’ve been statues in the gardens as well, so there’s a lot to unpack there.
Ok but moving away from the gardens and into the interior of the palace. Let’s talk about Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV and was supposedly declared by Louis to be “the greatest French artist of all time”. Now Louis may have been a bit biased since he’s the one who hired Le Brun, but I’m a fan of the artist’s works so I won’t get too skeptical about it. Basically if there’s art or a decorative art object in Versailles from Louis XIV’s reign, it’s most likely done by or was overseen by Le Brun. That’s how much power he had over the artistic decorations of the palace.
Le Brun started his artistic career at a very young age and worked in a variety of very predominant artist studios, such as Simon Vouet, and most importantly Nicolas Poussin, who acted as inspiration to Le Brun’s artistic style. If you go to my website for this episode you’ll see I’ve put up a painting by Poussin and by Le Brun next to each other, so you can see the comparison. I think the most obvious sign of inspiration is in the way the fabrics fold and drape in both works. I would also argue there’s a bit of a style difference so you may be slightly confused as to why I’m comparing them. Either way I also want to point out that Le Brun also put a little cheeky portrait of himself into his family portrait of Everhard Jabach. You can see him in the mirror on the far left!
Le Brun also understood Louis’ desire for a strong portrait. It should be noted that Louis had over 300 portraits of himself created. Which is a staggering amount! As you can see in two examples of these portraits, one by Henri de Gissey and another by Le Brun, the Apollo imagery was pretty heavy. With the Le Brun painting we have Louis as Apollo and he’s being crowned by these sort of nymphs, while Athena looks on. Apollo, aka Louis, is wearing a beautiful Greco-Roman armor with gold embellishments that are incredibly sumptuous and wears a traditional cloak of fur, which is almost identical to the one he wears in the famous Rigaud portrait. And it’s works like these that would’ve been given to the Petite Academie for approval before being completed! In the Henri de Gissey portrait he IS Apollo. I mean he’s got a giant sun ray crown on, he has sun rays coming off of his sleeves and skirt, he’s got a sun emblem on his chest, his tights, even his shoe buckles! It’s pretty wild, and I think it is one of my favorite portraits of Louis. Fun fact: this particular portrait was of a ballet costume designed for Louis, who was not only patron to the fine arts but all arts such as ballets. He even supposedly danced in quite a few ballet performances in his younger years!
Which leads nicely into the next painting which shows Louis as patrons to the arts. We have a portrait of Louis with his armor on, looking very distinguished, surrounded by various emblems of the arts. Music is represented with very obviously musical instruments, grapes and fruits represent food, and we have a globe with tools and a statue of Athena representing knowledge. This portrait is all about showing how rich the king is in not only his monetary wealth but also in his mental knowledge. Being well educated was a rare thing for people these days. Well not super rare, but I would argue that being well educated was specifically limited to rich aristocratic men. Rich aristocratic women weren’t really well educated and if they were they had to go to a convent to be educated. It wasn’t considered in good taste to have your daughters taught by tutors like sons would have been. Of course for anyone who didn’t have money, the most you would get for an education is perhaps being able to read a little bit, sign your name, and some basic math skills. But I digress, going back to idea of Le Brun and portraits of Louis, I have one more example. Which is this magnificent tapestry. Interestingly we don’t have Louis as Apollo the Sun Kin but rather as Zeus, master of all the gods.
Originally this tapestry had been created for where the Hall of Mirrors now resides. The original structure had been apartments that Le Vau designed but Mansart destroyed them to make room for the new hall. When it was apartments, there were countless tapestries that filled the spaces, for a very sumptuous effect. Especially considering how the light would have hit the original metal threads used in this tapestries and the others from the series. To give some context, tapestries were a great way for Europeans to show off how wealthy they were. Textiles like tapestries required expensive materials and were labor intensive. So when you had massive tapestries filling a room it was a very quick way to signal to anyone visiting that you had a massive amount of cash.
Many Europeans had their own tapestry factories, that being said I would argue that the Flemish really outshone a lot of their contemporaries when it came to tapestries. They had incredibly skilled workers and access to a lot of resources to produce some of the most elaborate and decadent tapestries in all of Europe. So to compete with the Flemish, Louis took on the Gobelins Manufactory, and I’ll give you three guesses as to who he put in charge of it. For those of you who guessed Le Brun, you get a giant gold star. For those of you wondering why an artist would be put in charge of a tapestry factory, a lot of the times tapestries would be overseen by an artist or artists who would create preliminary drawings or paintings that the weavers would then use and build out into woven form. Preliminary drawings and paintings would’ve allowed for the commissioner to see what it would’ve looked like before starting production, and make any changes they wanted to it. Because once the tapestry was started it would have been a ridiculous amount of money to make changes to it. So when we look at this particular tapestry of Louis as Zeus there would’ve been a preliminary drawing or painting of the work that Louis would’ve had the Petite Academie review and then he himself could have reviewed before signing off on it.
For those of you wondering why hang tapestries rather than just paint the scenes on the walls, remember textiles are a great way to show money and status, plus it would’ve had the benefit of insulating rooms! We have to remember that there isn’t central heating during this time period. They were relying on fireplaces as the main source of heat in a room, and come winter time any type of extra layer to help keep a room warm would’ve been very helpful. Fun fact you can still visit the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris today! They have a lovely little museum portion where you can go around and see some examples of tapestries that would’ve been produced. It really is a magnificent space and not usually very crowded since it’s not a huge tourist destination.
Even after Louis XIV’s death in 1715, Versailles continued to act as one of the most important cultural and political courts of Europe, until the French Revolution. And I mean even after that. Napoleon used the Grand Trianon as his summer residence, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors (symbolically showing the end of WWI), when the theatre of Versilles officially reopened in 1957 the late Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance! It also housed the famous Battle of Versailles Fashion Show, and continues to attract nearly 10 million visitors a year even to this day! I think that’s quite the legacy to leave! Now of course this wasn’t all Louis XIV’s doing, there were many others who played into the success of Versailles, most importantly Louis XV and Louis XVI. Which I will talk about in the next episode!
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