Visiting Versailles from Paris
with a knwoledgeable & Professional Tour Guide
The Power of Art with Louis XIV
Art can have an enormous impact on us as people. There are times when a single painting will move you to tears, when a symphony will bring back a memory, or a film will define a period of your life.
That power of art has often been tapped for other purposes — to promote religious ideals, to create strong group bonds, and spread social messages.
But it’s also been used by leaders of all kinds to secure their political position.
One of the greatest to ever wield art as a tool of control was the Sun King himself Louis XIV. It is his legacy as King of France that gave us some of the greatest works of art of all time. And yet, the reason for his patronage was not only for the pleasure of beauty.
It is Louis XIV who commissioned the artistic and architectural masterpiece of the Palace of Versailles and transformed the political system of France into an absolutist monarchy. Those two things, it turns out, were much more connected than they may seem.
Who Was Louis XIV?
Before we dive into the motivations and process of building Versailles, we need to understand the man behind it all — Louis XIV (1643 - 1715).
As a boy, when he was heir apparent to the throne, his mother Anne of Austria filled his ears with her beliefs. Being of exceptional royal blood, she believed that power should lie fully in the hands of the king. This created a mindset in the young boy that total political power was rightfully his.
It was in his youth that he also experienced the most traumatic event of his life, one that came to emotionally underscore all of his paranoia and mistrust of the aristocrats.
His father Louis XIII led a state that frequently came into conflict with the nobility. This continually created moments of great tension and even outright civil war. Collectively, these spats were known as the Fronde. And each explosion of conflict would threaten the coffers of the state and the rights of the nobles.
During one of these episodes, a mob of aristocrats stormed the palace where the young Louis was. They demanded the boy’s head.
Though he managed to live, thanks in part to his play-acting being asleep, the psychological scar this left remained with him until his death. He saw the greatest threat to the throne was not the peasantry or other kings but the nobility.
That stance toward the nobility combined with his mother’s teachings from an early age to form a fierce ideology he carried with him throughout his life. And perhaps, it is the reason for his success. Louis XIV would go on to incredible prominence, making historical changes to the country that would later earn him the title of Sun King.
The Need for a Pleasure Dome
After taking the throne, Louis began making plans for quieting the aristocrats while also keeping a close eye on them. His father had tried to fight them, this didn't work. So Louis would go about things a much different way — he would kill them with kindness.
The idea was to create a palace outside of Paris where he and the court would be sequestered. To gain access to the king, you had to be secluded with him. Because the palace wasn’t in the city, the nobility could not easily communicate with the outside world.
But who would come stay there for extended periods of time? Wouldn’t nobles simply return to their normal lives once their business with the king was completed? Louis knew he would need to make the palace absolutely irresistible, filled with delights of all kinds and excess that even the nobility could never dream of. With a palace like that, they would be seduced into Louis’s orbit, leaving only when absolutely necessary and returning as quickly as possible.
In this way, Louis could keep the aristocrats confused and intoxicated on grand parties and lush works of art. At the same time, if they ever did get ideas to plot against the crown, they would do so under Louis’s nose — and his spies could easily surveil the subversives.
It was also a way to propagandize his regime as one befitting the leading King in all of Europe. By hosting unbelievably decadent parties, he was known throughout the land as the greatest leader alive.
Versailles would end up becoming the true capital of the country, with its center in King Louis XIV himself — just as his mother wanted it so many years before.
Before it was the pinnacle of luxury, Versailles was swampy land used for hunting by the royal family. There was a lodge on the grounds, but nothing fitting the plans of Louis.
Construction started in 1661, and it continued to develop and grow over decades. Throughout Louis’s reign, with victories in wars or particularly good turns of fortune, the palace would expand.
It was a lifelong project, one that came to define not only one monarch’s reign but the entire line of French monarchs. And when we take a look inside its ornamented halls and walk through its lavish gardens, we see why it came to be synonymous with royalty.
The Artwork of Versailles
Even early on in the project, it was clear that Versailles was the crown jewel of France. You can see its full grandeur and elegant balance in View of the palace and gardens of Versailles, seen from the avenue de Paris (1668) by Pierre Patel.
This painting shows the palace as it existed after the first round of plans were complete. It was architect Louis Le Vau who pioneered the grand project (he’d already helped Louis’s father build the hunting lodge on those same grounds decades earlier).
This glorious painting, which can be seen at Versailles today, displays vaulting ambition matched by seemingly endless resources. These alone, however, would not be enough to make what might be the grandest palace of all time. No, that took the efforts of an army of artists and artisans working to create singular works of art that fill Versailles.
When you visit the palace today, you visit an art museum — complete with a staggering collection of over 60,000 works.
So many paintings hang in the halls of Versailles that justice cannot be done to them in the available space. But a couple examples can show how significant the collection really is.
The collection includes many famous portraits of the palace’s former inhabitants. The Queen and her children (1787) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun is an important example, and it marks Vigée Le Brun’s accomplishment becoming the first woman chosen as painter to the king.
Henri Testelin’s Foundation of the Académie de Sciences et l'Observatoire in 1666 (1675) is a large painting celebrating Louis XIV’s patronage of science. It also reveals the view of science in the popular imagination at the time.
Being a royal palace, Versailles is filled with artwork that honors and lionizes royalty. And what better way to do that than with perfectly formed marble busts?
Maybe the most prominent is one of Louis XIV himself by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Completed in 1665, it is one of the earliest works of art commissioned for the palace. It shows a young king who will soon remake the country. Bernini depicts him in military garb despite Louis’s lack of military experience.
If you don’t look up, you’ll miss many of the greatest artworks at Versailles! The ceilings here are magnificently decorated and painted, with fantasy scenes dancing among golden detail work.
For instance, in the Hercules room, the ceiling is adorned with a stunning painting by François Lemoyne — a piece commissioned for the wedding of Louis XV’s daughter. Called Apotheosis of Hercules, it’s a swirl of mythic characters leading up to a sky as blue as the real thing.
And of course, you can’t miss Nicolas Coustou’s ceiling in the Chambre du Roi (bedroom of the king).
Gardens of Versailles
The Gardens were a long, continuous project, resulting in an unmatched outdoor art sculpture museum. Charles Le Brun was put in charge of creating more than 300 sculptures for the area. These works bring Greek and Roman myth to life, turning the land into an enchanted garden.
Though many works of art inside have been moved around, the sculptures in the garden remain where they were originally placed. The greenery is also maintained to exquisite standards still, meaning that you can experience a stroll through them just as an aristocrat would have centuries ago.
A Royal Day trip to Versailles
What you will see in Versailles with an accredited guide
I use my expert knowledge to bring out the fascinating stories and details that make Versailles endlessly enjoyable.
But, when you visit the Palace of Versailles in person, you can still feel the power of art as vividly as its peak of Power during the 17th century.
In the magnificent works of art and architectural splendor seen in the stonework and gardens, we feel overwhelmed.
It’s unlike any art experience you could ever have, and it’s available to the public.
If you would like to see this inspiring palace in person, book a tour with a specialist guide.
Starting price 450 euro
visit from Paris
I must admit that Versailles is my favorite tour.
The reason is simply because the Versailles Palace is the most French, the most decorated, the most beautiful place that will make you travel through the past centuries of French Royal History and get a feel of France's Designer culture and soul.
What an amazing castle, well preserved, unchanged, unmoved !
Still standing, still alive and still attractive as it were before !