Although History has always emphasised the conflict between Louis XIV and his minister Nicolas Fouquet, their shared artistic vision unquestionably proves that they had pronounced good taste in architecture, interior decoration and landscape gardening, and they called upon the best artists of their times.
The first project presented by Louis Le Vau, Nicolas Fouquet’s architect, consisted in creating a building combining stone and brick. This choice was then reserved to the two outbuildings, emphasising stone alone and creating a transition in the history of architecture. Half-stone / half-brick buildings were very much in style in the 16th century. The Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte does not have a two-tone appearance of its contemporaries, but rather a vibrant white colour made of Creil stone, or more exactly stone from Saint-Maximin quarry in the Oise department. The foundations are in sandstone. The roof, restored in 2013, has been in slate since the beginning.
Louis Le Vau instituted a compromise between Classicism and Baroque at Vaux-le-Vicomte between 1656 and 1661. Two years later, the dome roof was completed and, in 1659, the window and door frames.In 1665, four years after Nicolas Fouquet’s arrest, Le Vau was appointed Louis XIV’s Secretary and Chief Architect.
From this date, the sovereign repeatedly returned to Versailles, in his father’s hunting lodge, and began to transform it. This view shows the first work undertaken after the King had brought in the trio from Vaux: Louis Le Vau for architecture, Charles Le Brun for decorations and André Le Nôtre for gardens.
Work projects came one after another very quickly starting in 1661 and, in 1668, Pierre Patel was able to depict the major works undertake at Versailles. In 1662, Louis XIV had the forecourt rearranged, building two wings extending his father’s Palace, one for the stables to the south (on the left) and the other for the outbuildings to the north (to the right), but also building a new entrance gate, thus creating a hierarchy of access to the Palace through the different courtyards. We can already begin to see the three avenues, forming a duck-foot shape, converging toward the residence.
To decorate the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte's façade, Le Vau chose to create a peristyle with three open arcades on either side of the palace, designing a “transparency” that opens out onto the gardens. The depth and the optical illusion are perfectly built into the architecture, bathed in tradition, using ancient architectural codes and yet very modern in the layout of its spaces and volumes.
For the outside, Le Vau used the ancient architectural code imposing a monumental architecture, patterned by huge Ionic pilasters sculpted with “squirrel” escutcheons or two intertwined “Fs”, Fouquet’s cipher.
The year 1661 was a turning point in Le Vau’s activities, who decided no longer to work for a clientele made up of private individuals (Mazarin, Servien or Fouquet), but rather on royal commission.
Unlike Vaux-le-Vicomte, which corresponded to a modern architectural style, on the town side the Palace of Versailles kept the old brick and stone style that had already gone out of style, even when it was built under Louis XIII. His son always refused to touch its integrity, although he did accept a few changes here and there. Versailles’ status progressively changed; it had to be expanded and, rather than pulling it down, the King preferred to enclose the old palace in an “envelope” that Le Vau built in 1669-1670 all around the south, west and north parts on the garden side, in an Italian Baroque style that can be seen here.
The Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte was sealed off in 1661. Nicolas Fouquet spent the last eighteen years of his life in prison, locked in the fortress of Pignerol. On the death of her son in 1705, Marie-Madeleine de Castille, wife of Nicolas Fouquet, sold the castle to Marshal de Villars, a military leader and diplomat in the service of Louis XIV. It then passed into the ownership of the Praslin family before gradually being abandoned in the nineteenth century. It was not until 1875 and the acquisition of the domain by Alfred Sommier, a brilliant industrialist who made his fortune in sugar, that the gardens and castle were restored to all their seventeenth century splendour. Largest private estate in France, the site was opened to the public by Patrice de Vogue in 1968 and it is now managed by his sons, Ascanio, Alexander and Jean-Charles.
The Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte was built in the form of a long rectangle of 72m by 33m, creating a long line of state rooms on the ground floor. Around the Grand Salon, four antechambers culminate in the gaming room in the west and the King's retiring room in the east. Charles Le Brun thus created a very particular disposition of rooms at Vaux-le-Vicomte, giving the Palace all its uniqueness. The staggered arrangement of the rooms , like the creation of a central corridor to the first and second floors, are pioneering .
At Versailles, the King's Grand Apartment is distributed across a string of several rooms. Charles Le Brun, the King’s chief painter, was put in charge of implementing the entire iconographic programme for the interior decoration of the royal Grand Apartments, the product of the envelope built by Le Vau. Each one of the seven salons in a symmetrical suite, to the north for the King and to the south for the Queen, took the name of a planet in the solar system, like the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Designed in the early 1670s and completed at the end of the decade, these decorations – combining Antiquity and the planets – did not in fine correspond to the image that the King had of himself.
Le Brun took charge of the paintings and sculptures, but also the tapestries, ornaments and furniture at Vaux-le-Vicomte. He executed the main frescoes himself and directed the young artists he surrounded himself with. In Maincy he founded the tapestry workshop that would later become the Gobelins in Paris.
Tradition required all palace owners in the royal territory to dedicate a room to the king so that he could stay with each of his major subjects. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the location of the room is highly symbolic, open to the garden and richly decorated. Composed of an alcove and a main room opening onto an antechamber and an office, the King's Chamber is decorated with painting and stucco by Le Brun, Girardon and Legendre .
This painting by Domenico Zampieri, aka Domenichino, is one of the most famous paintings in Louis XIV’s collection. Highly appreciated by the King, it was mentioned in the Mercure Galant of December 1682 in the Mercury Salon, the reception room in the State Apartments od the Palace of Versailles. When the King’s interior apartment was reorganised on the Marble Courtyard in 1684, the King had it hung in his own room.
This painting ended up in the room in the centre of the Palace in 1701, in the prestigious position to the right of the royal bed behind the balustrade. The symbolism was powerful: as a music-loving King, Louis XIV saw himself in this biblical king playing the harp which symbolised a monarch imposing harmony on his kingdom through his good governance.
At the end of the Italian Renaissance, both Louis XIV and Nicolas Fouquet had a passion for "Antiques". At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the Grand Salon in the centre of the Palace is also Italian inspired. The round-trimmed décors garnished with monumental caryatids and mythological and astrological elements are embellished with antique marble statues. Only four busts remain from the time of Nicolas Fouquet, placed on monumental columns facing each other.
This bust testifies to the competition between France and Italy in the world of the arts. Invited by France in 1665, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, aka Cavaliere Bernini, had been asked to think about rearranging the Louvre. While his plans were not adopted, Louis XIV wanted to have a bust of him made by the greatest sculptor of the 17th century. Too proud to ask the Roman directly, the King had his brother to have it done. After a few posing sessions and thumbnail sketches, work began at the end of June and was completed at the end of October. Delighted with the results, the sovereign installed the bust first in Paris and then in the Diane Salon at Versailles, at the top of the Ambassadors’ Staircase.
Inspired by Antiquity, the architect Louis Le Vau created the Grand Salon at Vaux-le-Vicomte. A real technical feat, this space was decorated with antique busts from the beginning. Sequestered after the arrest of Nicolas Fouquet in 1661, today only 4 remain, presented on monumental columns on either side of the room. The twelve other busts, also dating from the seventeenth century, were purchased by Alfred Sommier, owner of the Palace at the end of the nineteenth century.
At Versailles, at the end of the decoration work in the State Apartments in 1678, the idea of comparing Louis XIV to the Roman Emperors had become obsolete, like the bust of Auguste made in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century. In fact, with his successes on the battlefield and in diplomacy, the King of France had become the most powerful sovereign in Europe and felt that he had outdone his predecessors. After the age of the Caesars came the century of Louis the Great, the title that the City of Paris had bestowed on the monarch in 1679.
When the Grande Galerie was built at Versailles in 1678, whose first purpose was to provide easier access for the many members of the court between the King’s apartments to the north and the Queen’s apartment to the south, a new iconographic programme was foreseen. After considering Apollo or Hercules, there was a need to highlight the King’s exploits from the time he took on his personal power until the Peace of Nijmegen in 1678. Charles Le Brun took charge of the composition of the ceiling containing nine large paintings and eighteen small ones.
When he started working at Versailles circa 1661, André Le Nôtre was far from being an unknown. The gardener, who had shown his value at Vaux-le-Vicomte for Fouquet, was already the King’s man as he had been in charge of the Tuileries since 1637. Louis XIV entrusted him with reorganising his park to modernise the estate. Le Nôtre worked tirelessly on the task until his death in 1700, and laid down the main lines of the plan in reference to the Apollo myths, as was the case for the interiors.
The garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte lies in a rectangle that is 350-metre wide at its widest point and continues from the main Gate to the Farnese Hercules on a 1,200-metre-long north-south axis. This line attracts our view toward the horizon and gives the visitor a feeling of infinity. The gardener, André Le Nôtre, in close collaboration with the architect, Louis Le Vau, used a remarkable science of staging to distribute the access roads, the buildings and the garden in the centre of this area.
From the south terrace of the Palace, the visitor is under the illusion that the garden continues uninterrupted all the way to the distant grottoes that flow into a pool, the square reflecting pond, called the "Arpent d’Eau".
Among the main work projects in the park of Versailles there is the grand east-west perspective that we can see here in Patel’s painting. Totally exaggerated to magnify the site, it appears infinite and blends in with the mountains that do not exist in reality. But we can see the Grand Canal, which is real, in its initial condition (dug in 1668) before it was expanded with two large branches to the south and north in 1671. The whole unquestionably evokes Le Nôtre’s major productions, such as what he had designed for Vaux-le-Vicomte some fifteen years earlier.
When the first work was undertaken at Versailles, Louis XIV planned to build an orangerie to decorate the inside and outside of his Palace. The first one in Le Vau’s plans was built starting in 1663 in a southerly extension of the Palace. It was replaced by a larger building by Hardouin-Mansart, built between 1684 and 1686.
These areas were used to shelter orange trees in the winter, as well as all kinds of rare trees such as lemon trees and laurels. The King felt great concern for the trees and personally inquired about their supply and did not hesitate to buy more regularly. This is how the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte came to Versailles, bought from the superintendent’s heirs.
Water is everywhere in Le Nôtre’s garden, both in terms of the number of pools and in terms of their shapes and sizes; we are constantly surprised by the expanses of water which seemed minimal seen from the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte. The round pool is surrounded by two canals and perpendicular to the North-South axis. It opens out to the Tritons Fountains. The visitor then comes to the water mirror which gives a wonderful reflection of the château, forgetting all the successive levels and without realising that the next step in the walk leads to a long canal.
When laying out the park of Versailles, Louis XIV was very concerned with the spectacular, technical aspect that he wanted for his fountains. He was proud of his different collections of art objects, but he was even prouder of the feats of his waterworks. He had managed to bring water to a location that didn’t have much, and he managed to make the fountains work with complex nozzles, notably getting the jets to spray up to heights unknown elsewhere at the time.
Nicolas Fouquet knew how to surround himself with the best artists of the seventeenth century, including Nicolas Poussin, Mathieu Lespagnandelle, Philipe of Buyst and Michel Anguier, to create a sculpture garden immersed in a circuit of boxwood and fountains. He mentioned this place, saying: "It was a land I considered to be my main domain, where I wanted to leave some traces of the state in which I had lived."
The poet and fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) entered into the service of Superintendent Fouquet in 1658 as a pensioner. He then wrote a text in honour of the Minister’s residence, Le Songe de Vaux, which was left unfinished due to Fouquet’s arrest in September 1661. Faithful to his patron, La Fontaine tried to intervene with Louis XIV to plead for Fouquet’s cause, notably by publishing an Ode au Roi in 1662 and L’Élégie aux Nymphes de Vaux. Nothing could be done. It even brought the wrath of the powers that be down on him and earned him his patron’s disgrace. He nonetheless published a novel, Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, in 1669, in which he refers to the first work at Versailles.
Very close to Nicolas Fouquet (there were even unfounded rumours of a liaison, but the Marquise never gave in to the Superintendent’s advances), Madame de Sévigné remained faithful to him even after he fell into disgrace. Without ever residing at court, the virtuous widow was very well informed as to what was going on there and could easily obtain an invitation. As a brilliant letter-writer, she was also able to paint a faithful picture of the lifestyle at Versailles. She was greatly impressed by the Herculean work undertaken, and on 12 February 1683 she wrote to her daughter in one of her most famous letters, “I have returned from Versailles. I saw beautiful apartments; I fell under their charm. If I had read that in a novel, I would have built a castle in the air to see if it was true. I saw and felt it; it is an enchantment. (…). Everything is huge, everything is magnificent (…). I was a newcomer; they were pleased to show me all the rarities and to take me everywhere. I haven’t gotten over this little trip.”
Molière (1622-1673) is intimately connected to the first Versailles, when the residence was still a perfect site for the sovereign’s private amusement. He came very early on to put on his shows and La Grange, who kept the books for his company, mentions a party organised at the King’s request in October 1663 and where they put on Le Prince Jaloux ou Don Garcie, Sertorius, L’école des Maris, Les Fâcheux, and L’Impromptu de Versailles. For this service, the play received 3,300 pounds from the privy purse for the first valet. Molière was once again called upon for Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée in May 1664 and at the Grand Divertissement Royal in July 1668.
Jean Racine (1639-1699) was no doubt the most famous playwright and tragedian of Louis XIV’s times. Even though he was trained at Port-Royal, later fought by the sovereign, the young orphan put on La Thébaïde in 1664 and, the following year, Alexandre le Grand, which caught the King’s eye. But he lost Molière’s friendship. Elected to the Académie Française in 1672, the author wrote some ten successful plays until Phèdre in 1677, when he gave up writing to concentrate on his duties as the Kings historiographer. It wasn’t until Madame de Maintenon asked him that he came back to tragedy.
A little-known artist, Michel Anguier was a sculptor from Normandy. He trained in Rome to gain a mastery of ancient art and to be closer to the French artists in Italy, such as Nicolas Poussin and François Duquesnoy. Anguier joined the Académie Royale de Sculpture in Paris, where he taught. Anguier had considerable success in the 1650s-1680s, notably working for Nicolas Fouquet starting in 1655 for his residence at Saint-Mandé, and then, starting in 1658, at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Among the sculptor’s masterpieces, we can still notably admire the sculptures on the château’s North and South façades: Apollo and Rhea on the façade, as well as four allegories on the garden side.
Highly respectful of Classicism, Girardon is an artist who is associated with the sculpture groups at the b>gardens of Versailles. He was nonetheless an artistic genius who was always faithful to the art of Poussin and the Ancient Romans, which he discovered during his trip to Italy. At Nicolas Fouquet’s request, he produced sketches of utilitarian objects such as candlesticks. The Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte has a bronze equestrian statue showing Louis XIV; this work, based on Bernini’s statue, represents the King as Hadrian haranguing his troops (and not in a gesture of peace as oral tradition has maintained).
Louis XIV is remembered by posterity as a patron-King who strongly encouraged the arts. Upon his death, they wanted to commemorate this aspect of his personality by producing a fairly eclectic work. Produced between 1718 and 1721, this bronze sculpture group by Garnier represents The French Parnassus headed by Louis XIV as Apollo, the god of Poets. We can appreciate the artistic synthesis of his reign, notably with the representation of Mlle de Scudéry, Molière, Racine, La Fontaine as well as Lully. Enlarged under Louis XV, the sculpture included new contemporary figures to be up-to-date with contemporary tastes.
17 August 1661: Feast of Vaux-le-Vicomte
"Meanwhile, Louis XIV visited the apartments accompanied by Fouquet. Nothing like this existed in the world: he saw paintings, works of a talented painter he did not know; he saw the gardens, works of a man who drew with trees and flowers, and whose name he did not even know. The superintendent pointed all these things out to him, believing to excite admiration but awakening only envy.
- What is your architect's name? asked the King.
- Levau, sire.
- Your painter?
- Your gardener?
- Le Nôtre.
Louis stored those three names in his memory and continued his walk. He dreamed Versailles."
Alexandre Dumas, Louis XIV and his age.
A few weeks later, on 5 September, 1661, Louis XIV had Fouquet arrested, according to a decision taken the previous Ma,y and not because of the magnificence of the Vaux feast narrated here in a surrealistic manner by Alexandre Dumas. By this "coup de majesté" the arrest of a Minister accused of being enriched strengthened his personal grip on power.
Catherine Pégard, President of the Palace, Museum, and National Estate of Versailles
Ascanio de Vogüé, Manager of the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte
Béatrix Saule, Director of the National Museum of Versailles and Trianon
Marie Journet, Director of Operations of the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte
Thierry Gausseron, General Administrator of the Palace of Versailles
Curators of the exhibition:
Lynda Frenois, Manager of the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte and its collections
Mathieu Da Vinha, Scientific Director of the Palace of Versailles Research Centre
Alexandre de Vogüé, Director of Sponsorship and Communication at the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte
Ariane de Lestrange, Director of Communication at the Palace of Versailles
Paul Chaine, Head of Digital Development at the Palace of Versailles
Maïté Labat, Digital Project Manager at the Palace of Versailles
Scarlett Greco, Digital Project Assistant at the Palace of Versailles
Lynda Frenois, Manager of the Palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte and its collections
Mathieu Da Vinha, Scientific Director of the Palace of Versailles Research Centre
American voice: Asia Chantal Aniwanou