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HistoryVersailles through the centuries

Charles Le Brun

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Chief Painter to the King (1619-1690)

The illustrated decorator of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, Le Brun was the author of a considerable body of work that made him the painting genius of the Great Century.

PA painting prodigy from his childhood, Le Brun entered the service of the king in 1660. He painted for him the Tent of Darius. Presented at the Salon de Mars, it earned Le Brun his reputation as a French genius of painting and his confirmation in 1664 in the post of Chief Painter to the king. From then on he accumulated commissions and honours.

Versailles enabled him to exercise the full scope of his genius. He produced here his greatest decorative works which succeed each other at a breathtaking pace: the staircase of the Ambassadors (1674-78), the Hall of Mirrors (1679-84), the salons of Peace and War (1685-86). Each time, he glorified the actions of the king. He also directed the decors of the grand apartments, entrusted to the best painters of the time who worked on his drawings. At Versailles, Le Brun also drew the statues of the park (great commission of 1674).

A founding member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, Le Brun became Director of the Manufacture des Gobelins in 1663. As such, he was in charge of all the production of royal furniture and tapestries. He provided the cartoons for several series including the most celebrated such as The History of Alexander (Louvre) and The King’s History king (Versailles). As director and theorist of the Academy, he believed that a painting must be addressed firstly to the intelligence rather than to the eye. His work shows a painter as attached to baroque colours as to classical drawing.

Trained in the studio of Simon Vouet, Le Brun was spotted by the Chancellor Séguier, his first patron. His Portrait on Horseback (Louvre) is a masterpiece of the genre. The painter then travelled to Italy with Poussin who gave him a classical training to complete the baroque teachings of Vouet. Protected then by Fouquet, he produced for him at Vaux-le-Vicomte the decors that were to make his reputation at Versailles, as well as the Apollo Gallery of the Louvre, his first royal decor, completed in the 19th century by Delacroix. Colbert then hired him and his death in 1683 marked the artist’s decline, as the king preferred to him his rival Pierre Mignard. Le Brun from then on only delivered easel paintings.

The author of numerous drawings and engravings, he trained a series of talented disciples who ensured the reputation of French painting in the 18th century (La Fosse, Jouvenet, Houasse, Boullogne, etc.)