Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) reigned from 1643 until his death in 1715. When his Prime Minister Mazarin died in 1661, Louis decided he would not have another Prime Minister but would administer the government himself. He also had his finance minister Fouquet arrested and confiscated his residence Vaux-Le-Vicomte. Impressed by the magnificent gardens of Vaux, Louis hired Andre le Notre (1613-1700), who had designed the gardens, to design the gardens at Versailles. Although the Paris Palace of the Louvre had been splendidly refurbished, Louis wanted a palace that would match the intended glory of his reign.
Versailles originally was a small hunting lodge built by Louis XIII. Louis XIV had hunted there many times, and he became more and more attracted to the area. Soon after the death of Mazarin, Louis decided to make Versailles his permanent residence. Work on the palace and grounds began in 1661 and lasted for the next 21 years. Eventually the palace was enlarged, containing 700 rooms and 2,153 windows. Andre Le Notre also laid out the radiating plan of the town of Versailles. “Versailles” (1668), painted by Pierre Patel, presents the entire garden plan. The semi-circular avenue of trees, with roads from the town at the left, right, and center, lead to the grand entrance courtyard of the palace.
Le Notre’s gardens covered 2000 acres surrounding the palace, with land extending 12 miles beyond the last water pool. The land was leveled, and the woods and marshes were transformed into an elaborate garden containing 200,000 trees, 210,00 flowering annual plants, 55 major fountains with 620 water jets, and 221 sculptures. Louis XIV designed 15 groves that were included in Le Notre’s plan. Le Notre also collaborated with Charles Le Brun, First Painter to the King, who provided drawings for some of the fountains and sculptures. Numerous sculptors were engaged to execute the work. Louis XIV kept watch over every detail.
Le Notre’s design began with a water parterre (level space) just outside the Hall of Mirrors. Louis XIV identified with Apollo, god of the sun and the arts. Louis was called the “Sun King.” Paintings and sculptures of the life of Apollo dominate the palace and gardens. The Hall of Mirrors was a long gallery with mirrors on the inner wall that reflected the sunlight streaming through the French doors on the outer wall. The Mirror Pool (1672) also reflected the sunlight. “Seine River” (1685) was one of the sculptures at each end of the pool that represented the rivers of France. According to LeBrun’s design, sculptures of males represented rivers that reached the sea, sculptures of females represented tributaries, and sculptures of four nymphs were present as protectors of the water.
The center concourse of the gardens is laid out in parterres, each one lower than the last. The second parterre is dedicated to Latona, mother of both Apollo and Diana. “Latona’s Fountain” (1689) is circular and consists of four levels. According to Greek mythology, Latona and her children (placed on the top level of the fountain) were surrounded by a group of peasants who prevented them from drinking from the river. Latona called upon their father Jupiter/Zeus to punish the peasants. He transformed them into frogs.
The third and fourth levels of the fountain depict the peasants, who spout water from their mouths, and their transformation into frogs. The group, sculpted by the Marsy brothers, originally was placed on a rock, with six peasants and 24 frogs placed on the ground. The sculptures were incorporated (1687-89) into a fountain by Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Reworking of the sculptures was not unusual; however, Le Notre’s original ground plan was maintained.
Beyond Latona’s parterre is the Royal Way, or the Great Lawn, that is 1099 feet long and 131 feet wide. Louis XIV designed it with trees that lined either side of the walk. Le Notre added marble statues alternating with marble vases on either side of the walk. At the foot of the walkway is “Apollo’s Fountain” (1668-1670) (gilded lead), added by Louis XIV. “Apollo’s Fountain” was designed by Le Brun and sculpted by John-Baptiste Tuby. Apollo crashes out of the darkness of night and the sea, and he drives the chariot of the sun across the sky. Four valiant horses pull the chariot. Apollo is accompanied by Tritons, fish-tailed gods of the sea, and children of the god of the sea Poseidon and his wife Amphitrite. They blow conch shells announcing the rising of the sun.
Apollo rides in his golden chariot pulled by four fiery horses. Even when the fountain is not running, the image is dynamic.
Le Notre’s plan included crosswalks at all the major levels of the parterres. Each crosswalk leads to more fountains and grottos. “Apollo Attended by Nymphs” (1668), by Francois Girardon (1628-1715), is considered another of the important works in the gardens. In fact, Girardon was the most employed sculptor in the gardens.
The sculptures were originally intended for the grotto of Thetis, but they were moved in the 18th Century by Hubert Robert to their present location. Girardon’s sculpture is in the center of the grotto, and two small lower niches depict Apollo’s four horses being groomed.
While Girardon was developing the seven figures, he made a second trip to Rome to gather additional inspiration from the Greek Hellenistic sculptures found there. Apollo’s face and upper torso were based on the famous Hellenistic “Apollo Belvedere” (Roman copy 120-140 CE) in the Vatican. The figures and drapery of the nymphs are also Hellenistic. The seated Apollo is being bathed by the nymphs. One washes his feet and another kneels with a pitcher of water at the ready. Apollo’s lyre rests against his chair. A third nymph washes his back and neck, while two others fill a basin with water The seventh nymph takes an already used basin away.
The gardens planned by Le Notre and the sculptures designed by Le Brun and others cannot be seen in one day. The Palace is large, the gardens are even larger. Le Notre’s plan was adopted thereafter for several new gardens in Europe. When Charles L’Enfant designed the plan for the city of Washington, Le Notre’s design for the garden of Versailles was the primary influence.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.