The first great architect of the Versailles of Louis XIV, Le Vau built the grand apartments of the king and queen as well as the stone façade of the Château facing the garden, known as the “Le Vau Envelope” or “1668 Envelope”.
Versailles was certainly the last major achievement of this great architect of the middle of the 17th century. After the Grand Divertissement of 1668, Louis XIV entrusted Le Vau, Chief Architect to the King since 1654, with the extension of the brick and stone palace of his father Louis XIII. Around the courtyard he built in the same style the symmetrical wings, the Stables and Grand Commun buildings, but chose stone to envelop the primitive château on the garden side. This is the famous “Envelope”. Abandoning the French tradition of slate roofs overlooking the courtyard, Le Vau adopted the Italian style of an invisible roof hidden by a balustrade adorned with trophies and ‘flaming urns’. This style was adopted and extended to the wings by his successor Hardouin-Mansart.
In Versailles, Le Vau also built the first Orangerie and the Menagerie in the park. He began the construction of the Ambassadors staircase − the fabulous ceremonial staircase of the king’s grand apartment − and the decors of the royal apartments. These projects were completed by François d’Orbay (1634-1697), the principal collaborator and brief successor of Le Vau before the arrival of Hardouin-Mansart in 1675.
A rich and powerful man, Le Vau made his name also by building numerous town houses in Paris for rich parliamentarians (Lambert, Tambonneau, Hesselin) and châteaux. The most famous − and the most expensive − of them was Vaux-le-Vicomte for the financier Nicolas Fouquet. A smaller Versailles before its time, Fouquet brought here − apart from Le Vau − Le Brun, Girardon and Le Nôtre. No private patron before him had ever so well employed the king’s artists.
Before Versailles, Le Vau had worked for Louis XIV in Vincennes (pavilions of the king and queen), in the Louvre and the Tuileries. Facing the Louvre across the Seine, on the orders of cardinal Mazarin, he built the Collège des Quatre Nations (the present Institut de France). Here as in Versailles, the architect adopted a classical aesthetic with baroque details in the decoration and some Italian features characteristic of the architecture of the mid-17th century. He brought this aesthetic approach with him to Versailles.