Made of bronze, marble or lead, the 386 works of art in Versailles (including 221 decorating the gardens) make it the biggest open-air sculpture museum in the world. The vast space in garden at the foot of the Palace and the vast wooded area of the park allowed Le Nôtre to develop the principles he had applied at Vaux-le-Vicomte on a greater scale.

Much more than just a gardener, André Le Nôtre – Landscape Architect and Controller General of Buildings – also mastered the rules of perspective and painting which he had learned from Simon Vouet in his youth, in a dynamic studio where he befriended the sculptor Louis Lerambert and notably also Charles Le Brun. The latter was a great artist who came into the public eye thanks to Fouquet with Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte and was quickly promoted to the position First Painter to the King. He established himself as head designer for decoration and celebrations and, alongside Le Nôtre, went on to work on the majority of the royal houses. It was therefore a tried and tested team which Louis XIV commissioned in 1662 with carrying out a very ambitious programme for the embellishment and expansion of the estate inherited from his father. From the outset, Louis XIV made clear his desire to make the estate a dramatic statement of his power in addition to the notion of enjoyment inherent to any garden. The use of water, a costly resource, required the construction of the famous pump known as the Marly Machine, as well as aqueducts, reservoirs and a network of canals which was unique in Europe at the time. Likewise, trees, mature plants and different species (as rare as they were expensive) demonstrated the monarch’s power, while the sculptures which gradually filled the Petit Parc were designed to celebrate his glory.

From Eros to Apollo

Although the exact process remains unknown today, the iconography was gradually designed by the customer (the King), the Administrator (Colbert), Architect (Louis Le Vau then Jules Hardouin-Mansart), Painter, Gardener, Sculptors and Fountain Engineers (the Francine family). The very first sculpture commissions seem to have celebrated love and gallantry. From the 1660s onwards the gardens moreover played host to grand celebrations (the Delights of the Enchanted Island in 1664, the Great Royal Entertainment in 1668) which first and foremost manifested the pomp and extravagance which the king was able to display. The first group of sculptures, made in stone in 1664 around the Grand Rondeau Fountain (now lost), contained fauns, dancers and nymphs in a burlesque, amorous mood.

The following years saw the start of major embellishment work, and very soon this trend characteristic of the early years of the King’s reign gave way to the Apollonian theme so dear to Louis XIV. Apollo, the sun god who bestowed his blessings across the land and ensured order in the world, would thus be represented at various points in his life in all his vengeful and beneficent power. The god is shown as controller of the cosmos, like Louis XIV, who made the Apollo Room in the State Apartments his throne room and a physical and symbolic expression of his power.

Apollo as a metaphor for the King

From this point onwards the gardens revealed the god’s different attributes and brought together representations of the unlimited scope of his power in fountains and groves, which – like the motto nec pluribus impar adopted by Louis XIV – also revealed other worlds. André Félibien, author of the famous work Description Sommaire du Château de Versailles (“Summary description of the Palace of Versailles”) published in 1674, highlighted the correlation between the Palace’s indoor spaces and the gardens, all for the glory of the monarch: ‘Since the sun is the emblem of Louis XIV, and poets link the sun with Apollo, there is nothing in this superb house that does not relate to this divinity’. The preferred material for the sculptures, primarily destined to decorate the fountains, was lead, which was less costly, could be coloured or gilded and did not corrode. Figures created by great artists appear to be genuinely emerging from pools or playing with the jets of water they are directing.

Apollo also ensures that time proceeds properly. At the end of the Royal Way, Apollo in his Chariot (Jean-Baptiste Tuby, 1668-1670, lead) emerges from the depths of the water and to start a new day, at the end of which – after having spread his blessings across the land – he will end his journey and go to rest in the Grotto of Thetis, the sister and wife of Oceanus. François Girardon and Thomas Regnaudin created a marble group of seven figures depicting the god surrounded by nymphs serving and washing him (Apollo Served by the Nymphs, 1667-1674), while his Horses (two groups created by Gilles Guérin and Balthazard and Gaspard Marsy, 1667-1674) are also cared for and groomed after their long celestial journey. Initially, these three groups, key masterpieces of French sculpture, decorated the Grotto of Thetis which was constructed in 1666 on the north side of the Palace. When the Grotto was destroyed in 1684 to make way for the construction of the North Wing, the groups were transferred to other groves before finally taking up position in 1781 at the centre of a large rock, a pre-Romantic composition created by Hubert Robert.

Apollo’s childhood is also depicted in Leto’s Fountain, where the god is shown as a young boy whilst his mother Leto (Gaspard and Baltazard Marsy, 1668-1670, marble) flees from the wrath of Juno, Jupiter’s wronged wife. Standing in front of the Lycian peasants who forbade her from quenching her thirst despite her exhausting journey, Leto raises her hand to the sky and curses them. The terrified men were changed into frogs emitting jets of water from their mouths. Lastly, the sun god ensures order in the world; the Dragon Fountain at the bottom of the Water Walk depicts the monstrous Python (Marsy brothers, 1668, gilded lead) in his death throes, pierced with Apollo’s arrows because he tried to prevent Leto from giving birth to punish her for her union with Jupiter.

Similarly, battles between divine powers and evil forces – such as in the Enceladus Grove where the eponymous giant is imprisoned beneath the rocks of Mount Etna which he had gathered to reach the gods (Gaspard Marsy, 1675, lead) – are all metaphors for a powerful Louis XIV, pacifying and just.

The Great Commission of 1674: a triumph of marble and allegory

1674 saw what art historians refer to as the Great Commission, marking the pinnacle of marble works at Versailles. No fewer than eight abduction figures representing the four elements (Water, Earth, Air and Fire) and twenty-four statues grouped in fours portraying the Four Parts of the Day, the Seasons, the Elements, Human temperaments and Forms of Poetry were created over the course of nearly twenty years by teams of sculptors who had worked on the Grotto of Thetis and Water Walk. Alongside Girardon, Regnaudin, Guérin, the Marsy brothers and Tuby to name but a few of the most famous craftsmen, was Martin Desjardins, a talented artist who was notably responsible for Evening (marble, 1674-1683) depicted as a woman in fine drapes, a thinly veiled reference to the famous Diana of Antiquity, and a treasure of the royal collections.

Designed by Le Brun who produced the drawings for all of the figures, the Great Commission was initially designed to stand on the Water Parterre created by Le Nôtre at the foot of the Palace. As highlighted by Le Brun’s biographer Claude Nivelon, ‘the parterre is a representation of the whole or of universal construction’, placed under the kindly influence of Apollo, i.e. Louis XIV. This clever system of correlations (Seasons, Hours etc.) was a true cosmogony and portrayed the King as the great controller of good world order. These sculptural quartets also served another purpose: the works made from Le Brun’s drawings were designed to celebrate the apogee of French sculpture as well as proclaim the sovereign’s glory.

Exalting the King and his kingdom

Le Nôtre’s water parterre was destroyed shortly after its creation and the sculptures were dispersed across the gardens, mainly in the North Parterre. This marked the start of a new era in which mythological themes full of symbolism were abandoned in favour of exalting the King and France.

As early as 1678, the year of the Peace Treaties of Nijmegen which established Louis XIV as the most powerful monarch in Europe, two new groves were created bearing witness to this new iconographical orientation. The Pheme Grove, named after the allegorical figure holding the trumpets of good and bad fame but blowing into the good, was a clear celebration of this victory (Gaspard Marsy, now lost). The highly evocative Triumphal Arch Grove, which has since been greatly modified, was home to the France Triumphant group by Jean-Baptiste Tuby, Antoine Coysevox and Jacques Prou (gilded lead, 1681-1683).

Rediscovering antiquity

This shift occurred in 1682, the year in which the Court of Versailles (from then on the seat of government) was established. Whilst Le Brun was depicting the King’s exploits without references to fable or mythology on the vault in the Hall of Mirrors, on which construction was started in 1678 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, new sculptural designs were being created for the gardens. Louvois, who became Superintendant of Buildings in 1683 after the death of Colbert, pressed for the renewal of the iconography and gradually established a position for Pierre Mignard, a renowned painter who in turn also sketched models for the works which the sculptors produced.

Antiquity thus became a favourite topic for Louis XIV, who as a collector as powerful as he was knowledgeable, included references to great Roman emperors who were depicted in the rooms of the State Apartments. To compensate for the protectionism of the popes, who placed harsh restrictions on the export of ancient sculptures out of Rome, Louvois encouraged the creation of copies of the most famous Roman works, made by residents of the French Academy in Rome, then at the Palazzo Mancini on Via del Corso. Iconic works from the greatest Roman collections such as Commodus as Hercules (Nicolas Coustou, 1683-1684), Antinous, the Apollo Belvedere, the Paetus & Arria Ludovisi group and the Borghese Faun were reproduced and installed in the gardens. The iconographic theme which had prevailed during the first twenty years seemed to have been definitively forgotten and Versailles became the largest open-air museum of sculpture and was a source of inspiration for numerous European royal and princely residences.

The triumph of bronze

The culmination of this very political influence from Antique creations consisted in important commissions (encouraged by Louvois) for sculptures made in bronze. This material was the most prestigious of all and its use at the time provided a vision of rediscovered Antiquity. The new Water Parterre built in 1683 was composed of two large pools and the greatest sculptors of the time were commissioned to provide models for groups to be placed around them, representing the four main rivers in France and their tributaries. These were subsequently cast in bronze by the famous Gunfounder Jean-Balthazar Keller between 1688 and 1691 (The Loiret, Jean-Balthasar Keller based on a design by Thomas Regnaudin, 1685-1690).

This ambitious programme, using male allegorical figures for rivers and female figures for tributaries, celebrated the territory of the kingdom of France and was complemented to the west by four groups of fighting animals. Masterpieces of animal art (Tiger Bringing Down A Bear, Jacques Houzeau, 1685-1687), these great, remarkably high-quality bronze works superseded lead for the first time to create fountains where water brought the sculptures to life..

Time out at the end of the reign

The Apollonian theme was definitively abandoned in the late 1690s. For the Menagerie built in 1699, the aging Louis XIV told his head architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart that ‘childhood must be everywhere’. Graceful children in gilded stucco, which now run playfully around the cornice of the Bull’s Eye Antechamber, were matched by the putti in the Trianon Gardens.

Fountains and arbour chambers hosted joyful chubby putti playing with small newts or riding astride dolphins (Gaspard Marsy, 1672-1673, bronze). 1700 onwards saw the creation in this rural and intimate setting of the Salles Vertes, decorated mainly with smaller sculptures.

Finally, in 1710, eight child figures in lead – made a few years previously by Hardy, Lespingola and Poirier – were assembled to form the delightful Children’s Island group in the Water Theatre Grove. The final years of Louis XIV’s reign thus brought with them relaxation, gentleness and gaiety. Although unexpected, they were without doubt in the spirit of joy and rest which were more than ever being sought in the garden.

With their Apollonian references, the sculptures in the gardens went hand in hand with the sun myth developed by Louis XIV at Versailles. The figures, whether standing alone, in groups or as ensembles, were created by the best sculptors as metaphors for the King’s power, magnanimity and strength. In addition, the importance given to ancient sculptures and works copied from masterpieces from great Roman collections meant that Versailles under Louis XIV became a second Rome. Rivalling the grandeur of the Ancients served as a way of showcasing the French school of sculpture which reached its zenith at Versailles.

Nevertheless, this heritage remains fragile, and a project for the production of copies has been launched to preserve major works in the gardens which have been exposed to weathering and pollution for several centuries. Original works, replaced by accurate copies, can be protected and preserved in reserves which will soon be open to the public.