The Palace of the sun
In the late 1660s, the king decided to stay more regularly at Versailles. He wanted more comfortable accommodation and instructed Louis Le Vau, first architect to the king, to design an extension of the Palace. New façades looking out over the gardens covered the small brick and stone palace, hence the name “Envelope” given to them.
Resolutely modern, the cut stone façades of the “Envelope” were crowned with balustrades dissimulating the flat roofs. With their central terrace, they were inspired by the architecture of baroque Italian villas, but executed in the French manner in a perfectly classical style: three floors on a base of arcades and corner stones, the first floor with rectangular windows surrounded by reliefs and pilasters or columns, an attic with square windows and pilasters, and the balustrade decorated with trophies and flame pots.
The design of the “Envelope”, with a terrace between two pavilions, was without any equivalent in French architecture of the period. The viewing terrace looked out over the “Grand Perspective” and the gardens designed by André Le Notre, and it separated the Apartments of the King and the Queen.
At the end of the 1660s, Louis XIV, wishing to stay more regularly at Versailles and to have more suitable accommodation in a fine apartment, instructed his architect, Louis Le Vau, to design a project for its extension. New cut stone façades looking out on the gardens then covered the small palace of brick and stone, hence the name of “Envelope” given to them. These decidedly modern façades were crowned with balustrades to dissimulate the flat roofs, and were inspired by the architecture of Italian villas of the baroque period but adapted to the “French manner” in a very classical style.
The building mostly consisted of two symmetrical apartments, for the King in the northern end and the Queen in the southern end, each with a suite of seven adjoining rooms, separated from the western section by a large terrace overlooking the gardens. The rooms whose ceiling, decorated with gilt stucco covings as well as allegorical and mythological paintings, were perfectly lit by large bay windows, while the walls were covered with polychrome marble.
As the king had chosen the sun for his emblem, the apartments were richly decorated on the theme of the planets turning around it. Versailles had become then a real royal residence.
Google Earth visit
Instructions: To view the 3D scale model, you must download the Google Earth plug-in. The plug-in is an extension of the Web browser. It will enable you to consult and explore the geographic data incorporated in a 3D globe on various websites.
NB: the complet display of the scale models may take a few minutes.
For more information
In the 1660s, under the direction of Charles Le Brun, the Gobelins manufactory produced suites of grandiose silver furniture for the ceremonial apartments of the royal residences. The silversmith Claude Ballin and his colleagues executed 167 pieces of furniture in solid silver (tables and mirrors, benches and stools, occasional tables, candle-stands and other lighting fixtures) and monumental sets of tableware (plates, vases, ewers, etc.). All these pieces were soon on display in the State Apartment of Versailles, visible to everyone. All the king’s contemporaries admired these masterpieces.
But their lifetime was brief. In December 1689, to pay the cost of his wars, Louis XIV ordered them all to be melted down and advised his courtiers to do likewise. Rapidly a thing of the past, more often imagined than actually seen, the silver furniture contributed to the legend of the Sun King.
Only a few images of them have survived to allow us to imagine and dream about these remarkable examples of the art of French silverware.
The grand staircase of the King’s Apartment was called the Grand Degré (Great steps) or the Ambassadors Staircase. Imagined by the architect Louis Le Vau, it was built by his successor, François d’Orbay, and decorated by the painter Charles Le Brun, between 1672 and 1679.
Very richly adorned with polychrome marble, gilt bronze and paintings, it was lit by its glass roof. All its decor celebrated the victory of the king in the Dutch War (1672-1678).
Poorly lit, rather dilapidated and rarely used by Louis XV, except for grand diplomatic audiences, the staircase was destroyed in 1752 on the king’s orders to permit the extension of his inner apartment.
It is well-known from a fine series of engravings and some vestiges, and the scale model of the building presented in its former location (North section, next to the marble courtyard).
The bust of the king by Warin was carved as a retort to the marble bust of Bernini. At its official presentation, the king and all the court praised the sculptor. Circa 1679, it occupied a central place on the Ambassadors Staircase and served as a model for official portraits of king Louis XIV. This majestic bust of the king dressed in an antique costume and armour with the paludamentum cloak is a reference to the power of ancient Rome.
This large painting is the only remaining fragment of the wall decorations of the Ambassadors Staircase, detached and transferred to canvas when the staircase was demolished. The composition presents an illusionistic tapestry with a cartouche opening like a window on a landscape. Van der Meulen celebrated here the military glory of Louis XIV. After taking the town of Valenciennes, the French troops laid siege to the citadel of Cambrai. The surrender took place on 18 April 1677.
Omnipresent in Versailles, the king’s emblem is a radiating sun accompanied by the motto “NEC PLURIBUS IMPAR”, translatable as “None other his equal”. It proudly proclaims all the power and glory of the Sun King.
The historiographer of Louis XIV, André Félibien (1619-1695) commented on this solar representation in the decor of the Palace: “And as the Sun is the emblem of the King, the seven planets were taken as the subjects for the paintings in the seven rooms of this apartment, so that each one depicts the actions of the heroes of antiquity as related to each planet and each of the actions of His Majesty.”
The iconography of this painting is very special. The complete royal family is depicted here as gods and goddesses of Olympus. Jean Nocret painted it in 1670 for Philippe d’Orléans, known as Monsieur, the brother of Louis XIV, for the palace of Saint-Cloud.
The scene is not a simple family portrait but rather a celebration of the family dynasty because several portraits are posthumous.
Louis XIV dominates the centre of the composition as Jupiter. His brother Philippe is on the left as the Morning Star, flanked by his first wife Henriette d’Angleterre (Henrietta of England) as Flora, and his mother-in-law Henriette de France (Henrietta Maria of France) as Amphitrite, recognisable by her trident, who was the daughter of Henri IV and became queen of England. The daughter of Monsieur and Henriette d’Angleterre, Marie-Louise d’Orléans, the future queen of Spain, is placed between her parents and represents Zephyr. Cybele holding a terrestrial globe in the centre of the canvas is queen Anne of Austria. In the background of the canvas, the daughters of Gaston d’Orléans, first cousins of Louis XIV, appear as the Three Graces. For instance, depicted as Diana, Anne-Marie-Louise, Duchesse de Montpensier and known as the Grande Mademoiselle, poses behind the king.
Queen Maria Teresa is depicted near a peacock which is the attribute of Juno. The queen presents the Dauphin Louis as Hymen. Two other children who died in early infancy accompany her: Philippe, Duc d’Anjou, as Cupid and Marie-Thérèse, known as the Petite Madame, as Flora. The small painting also shows two deceased daughters of the Sun King, the little princesses Anne-Élisabeth and Marie-Anne de France. The presence of the two young children holding the lyre in the foreground remains a mystery. The young boy in the foreground is the son of Monsieur, the Duc de Valois, who died in 1666.
The painting was placed in the Bull’s-Eye Salon during the Restoration, long after it entered the royal collections in 1785 with the purchase of the palace of Saint-Cloud by Louis XVI.
This oil on canvas comes from the Bath Apartment of Louis XIV in Versailles, where it was placed in 1677 to decorate the chimneypiece of the octagonal room. This apartment had a sumptuous suite of adjoining rooms that were fitted out for Louis XIV during the construction of “the Envelope” on the ground floor in the northern end of the palace of Versailles where he could relax in the company of his mistress, the Marquise de Montespan.
René-Antoine Houasse was one of the closest associates of Charles Le Brun and he decorated several other rooms in Versailles, including the Venus Salon and the Abundance Salon. In the Palace, Houasse always worked from drawings provided by Le Brun, first painter to the king, in charge of the iconographic programme of the apartments.
The artist chose here to illustrate the precise moment of the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel tree when she is pursued by the amorous Apollo.
Queen Maria Teresa, born in Madrid on 20 September 1638, was the only daughter from the first marriage of king Philippe IV of Spain. She married Louis XIV in Saint-Jean-de-Luz on 9 June 1660 and on her arrival in France, her mother-in-law and aunt Anne of Austria took her under her protection. The queen had an apartment in Versailles on the south side, in symmetry with the king’s on the north side, where she died on 30 July 1683. According to the king, “the queen never caused him any other pain than her death”. She gave him many heirs and remained very pious throughout her life.
The Beaubrun brothers depict the queen wearing a dress and mantle with the fleur-de-lys pattern and lined with ermine, under a canopy held up by two wreathed columns, seated by a table on which the royal crown is placed on a cushion.
The design of “the Envelope”, with a terrace between two pavilions, was without any equivalent in French architecture of the period. Reached by splendid marble staircases, the royal apartments symmetrically occupied the first floor of “the Envelope” of Le Vau. Their seven adjoining rooms were dedicated to the gods and goddesses of Olympus: the vestibule (Diana), the Guardroom (Mars), the Audience room (Mercury), the royal bedchamber (Apollo), the Council room (Jupiter), the small bedchamber (Saturn) and the small cabinet (Venus). The ceilings with Italian-style covings show the tutelary god on his chariot, surrounded by episodes from fables or ancient history with allegorical figures and heroes.
All these paintings form a coded portrait of kings and an allegory of good government, traditional in royal buildings.
The walls of the royal apartments were richly adorned with polychrome marble, precious fabrics and important paintings of the Italian and Flemish schools acquired by the king who wanted to possess a royal collection that could rival those of other sovereigns of Europe. The elaborate decor, the paintings and the sumptuous furniture triumphantly proclaimed the glory of king Louis XIV.
The ceiling paintings of Versailles were made by young painters and sculptors working under the direction of the first painter to the king, Charles Le Brun, who closely supervised all the decoration of the Palace under construction. He provided the drawings for the entire iconographic programme and monitored its execution. He was then the uncontested master of the new school of French painting. The grandiose decor, paintings and furniture designed by Le Brun had only one aim: to triumphantly proclaim the glory of the king.
Versailles possesses several sketches for the paintings on the ceilings of the State Apartments. Noël Coypel imagined for the King’s small bedchamber, facing the garden, the Triumph of Saturn, a painting showing Saturn chased from Olympus on his chariot pulled by two dragons, near the figure of Forethought. But the removal of the room for the construction of the Hall of Mirrors stopped the painting of the ceiling.
The museum of Versailles was recently able to acquire another sketch by Noël Coypel showing Jupiter on his chariot personifying the planet between Justice and Piety. The painting was intended for the Queen Guardroom, decorated in 1680-1681, after being initially intended for the King’s Grand Cabinet, replaced by the War Salon.
Another sketch by Champaigne was for the ceiling of the Mercury Salon which in 1678 was the King’s bedchamber. Mercury, recognisable from his caduceus and winged cap, dominates the centre of this sketch.
In 1674, Louis XIV conquered Franche-Comté for the second time. During the summer the exploit was celebrated over the six days of the “Divertissements de Versailles” (Versailles Entertainments). These festivities presented the latest groves of the garden combining ephemeral and lasting constructions. The marble courtyard was used for the performance of Lully’s Alceste and the façade of the Thetys Grotto for Moliere’s Malade imaginaire put to music by Charpentier. Iphigénie by Racine was performed in the Orangerie. As with the previous festivities, this programme of entertainments ended with a fireworks display. The engravings by Le Pautre are precious evidence of these spectacular festivities.
Françoise, alias Athénaïs, de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan was born on 5 October 1640 in the château of Lussac-les-Châteaux. Her beauty made her stand out in the court and Louis XIV made her his official mistress. It was to her that he dedicated the festivities at Versailles in the summer of 1668 to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which sealed the peace between France and Spain and put an end to the War of Devolution. The celebrations took place in the Small Park in the late afternoon and lasted until the middle of the night. As if out on a stroll, the guests were guided by the king along the new walks laid out in the gardens.
Madame de Montespan gave seven children to Louis XIV who legitimised all of them. Four survived: the Duc du Maine, Mesdemoiselles de Blois and de Nantes, and the Comte de Toulouse. Madame de Montespan entrusted Madame de Maintenon with the education of her children. At the end of her life, the marquise retired to her lands and died in Bourbon-l'Archambault on 26 May 1707.
Girardon is one of the most celebrated sculptors of the reign of Louis XIV. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1657 after completing his training in the studio of François Anguier; then he travelled to Rome to widen his knowledge and hone his skills. A close collaborator of Charles Le Brun with whom he had already worked in Vaux-le-Vicomte for Nicolas Fouquet, he took part in the execution of numerous groups and statues of the Park. Many of his works are still visible in the park of Versailles. For example, Apollo served by the Nymphs in 1675, the statue of Winter which was part of the “Grand Commission” of 1674, the low relief of The Bathing Nymphs circa 1668-1670 and The Rape of Proserpine in 1699 in the Colonnade grove.
Presentation of the throne in the Hall of Mirrors for the Siam audience in 1686
Scale model of the Ambassadors Staircase
Bust of Louis XIV, by Jean Warin
Louis XIV at Cambrai, by Adam Frans Van der Meulen
Ornament from the Royal Gate of Versailles
The royal family dressed as gods and goddesses, by Jean Nocret
AApollo pursuing Daphne, by René Antoine Houasse
Maria Theresa, queen of France, by Charles Beaubrun
Night view of the Hall of Mirrors
Bust of Charles Le Brun, by Astyanax-Scevola Bosio
Sketch for the ceiling of the Saturn Cabinet, by Noël Coypel
Festivity given by Louis XIV to celebrate the conquest of Franche-Comté at Versailles in 1674. First day.
Festivity given by Louis XIV to celebrate the conquest of Franche-Comté at Versailles in 1674. Fourth day.
Madame de Montespan, attributed to Louis Elle
Portrait of the sculptor Girardon, by Revel