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HistoryVersailles through the centuries

François Girardon

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Chief Sculptor to the King (1628-1715)

Employed by Fouquet in Vaux-le-Vicomte along with Le Brun, Le Vau and Le Nôtre, Girardon was then hired by Louis XIV for Versailles. Along with Coysevox, he is the most important sculptor of Versailles both for the extent of his production and its quality. He produced there the finest groups of French sculpture of the 17th century.

Born in Troyes, Girardon was the closest collaborator of Le Brun, and also the protégé of the Chancellor Séguier. Sent to Rome where he studied antique art, he worked on the decor of the Apollo Gallery of the Louvre, his first royal commission (1659), then in the Tuileries. Arriving in Versailles in 1666, he began with a masterstroke: the group of Apollo Served by the Nymphs. Placed in the centre of the grotto of Thetys, it was installed in the 18th century in the grotto designed by Hubert Robert. Inspired by antique models, the elegance of its figures made it the manifesto of classical statuary of the 17th century.

Girardon revealed equal audacity in the Pyramid Fountain borne by tritons, crayfish and dolphins, as well as in the fluid feminine figures of the Nymphs’ Bath, a lead relief that was to mark the painter Renoir. His talents earned him other important commissions: the Saturn Fountain (1672-77), the statue of Winter (1675-83) depicting a freezing old man with a heating pot-stove at his feet, and especially the famous group of the Ravishment of Proserpine (1677-99). Originally intended for the Orangerie parterre, it was finally placed in the centre of the Colonnade in 1699, a location that marked the consecration of Girardon. Baroque in its composition but classical in its figures, the group with its three interlocked figures was intended to be a challenge to the similar group of Bernini that had only two.

The rivalry with Bernini became even more outspoken when, disappointed by the equestrian statue that he had commissioned from him when he arrived in France in 1665, the king entrusted its transformation into Marcus Curtius to Girardon in 1688. Exiled at the end of the Swiss Ornamental Lake, it aroused new interest in the 20th century with the lead replica of the pyramid of the Louvre.

Girardon produced his last masterpiece in Paris: the bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV, on the place Vendôme. Designed on a scale with the setting, it was to influence all similar statues in France and in Europe. A faithful servant of the king, Girardon showed how attached he was by dying on the same day as him: on 1 September 1715!

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