Louis Le Vau led the building of the Versailles Palace in Paris during the 17th century. He was famous for his works in the magnificent rooms of the royal couple, Louis XIV and the queen, including the façade of the chateau that was built in stones. This façade is now known as the Le Vau Envelope.
For many of his contemporaries such as Charles Le Brun and Andre Le Notre, he was a great person to work with. Le Vau was often extravagant in his designs that appealed to the taste of the extravagant king himself, Louis XIV. He was the, or at least one of the, architect(s) behind the creation of several national and historical landmarks such as Palais du Louvre, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Hotel Tambonneau, Hotel Lambert, Chateau du Raincy, and the College des Quatre-Nations.
Louis Le Vau was one of the few French artists that had a successful career in Paris solely, without having the need to travel to other countries. He worked as a Chief Architect to the King for most years of his mature age. Therefore, he essentially designed Paris and established the very foundation to what the city would look like hundreds of years later.
Louis Le Vau was born around 1612 in Paris, France. His first exposure to architecture was with his father who was a stone mason. There are little documents to identify his earliest apprenticeships and education to some local artists, though. But it is known that he was heavily influenced by the works of Bernini and Pietro da Cortona, prominent Italian architects.
With Le Vau’s track of record, it would seem that he had a solid architectural training during his boyhood. The early stages of his career were spent designing Hotel de Bautru in 1634. This went successful that he took it to a higher level shortly after completing Bautru’s design. He was awarded the commission to design a very elegant hotel that would be named Hotel Lambert.
Hotel Lambert was his first major accomplishment. And at a young age, he was already an in-demand architect in the city. He would have also worked on designs of Ile Saint-Louis, which was created based on his knowledge and experience in French classicism and Baroque styles.
In 1654, Le Vau contributed to the building of Louvre Palace by redesigning its hall wings and by adding a colonnade. King Louis XIV was so pleased with his work that he appointed him as the Chief Architect of his court. The 1650’s eventually became the golden years of his independent career due to the series of royal commissions he had been receiving.
In 1656, he began working on the designs of the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, a considered masterpiece in the history of French architecture. This was owned and commissioned by Nicolas Fouquet, the Finance Minister to the King.
The chateau is also considered as a very important architectural work produced during the Baroque period. It is because Le Vau and his company of architects made an exceptional design that displays all the characteristics of the said period; order, natural symmetry, balance and grand form to exhibit an overwhelming power and elegance.
By design, Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte is perfect for the King, and everything went according to the finance minister’s plan on impressing his majesty. However, this plan backfired at him when the monarch was told to believe that Fouquet misused the public funds to be able to finish the lavish, luxurious and grand chateau. Fouquet undeniably had elaborate plans for the chateau’s garden and castle that he had to demolish the villages that surrounded it.
Nevertheless, despite of its bitter history, Vaux-le-Vicomte embodied the kind of lifestyle and artistic judgment that Parisians had during the reign of King Louis XIV. Just by looking at its entranceway and façade, one could tell that it really resonates with the French architecture. Le Vau made sure of this by adding two lateral pavilions adjoining an avant-corps at the center. This kind of design would look similar to the design for Mansart for Maisons.
On the background of the entranceway are the steep caps and roofs that are reminiscent of the medieval times. This is believed to be the last time that Le Vaux had used this design for it went out of fashion immediately. It is also worth mentioning that Le Brun and Le Notre made successful attempts in designing the chateau’s gardens and its other areas. Le Notre, in particular, used the so-called hidden distortion which is an optical illusion, to make the gardens appear elevated through a decelerated perspective.
After completing his works on Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis Le Vau went back to central Paris to begin another project. He was particularly assigned to redesign the Galerie d’Apollon in Louvre. He did this alongside Charles Le Brun wo was increasingly becoming popular at the time as well. The architects finished the restoration of the Galerie by 1665, and moving forward, Le Vaux together with Perrault redesigned the Louvre Palace’s east façade.
Around 1661, he was also commissioned to work on the new building of College des Quatre Nations. He would have finished this by 1674 and the end-result featured a pediment façade emphasized with a large cupola on the background. The cupola is adjacent to the two quadrants near the pavilions that are facing the River Siene, to give some perspective. This particular assignment shared some resemblance to the designs of Bernini and Francesco Borromini in Rome. At the time, he would have seen the works of those Italian architectures through the royal collection of the King.
Louis Le Vau’s works on the Palace of Versailles began in 1667 until 1670. He worked alongside Jules Hardouin Mansart who was another illustrious architect. Le Vau was appointed as the structural architect of the palace while working alongside him were Le Notre and Le Brun as landscape architects and Francois d’ Orbay as another one.
In 1669, Le Vau focused on redecorating the Marble Court, which was part of the first phase of his structural project. He transformed it into a grand palace from its original structure, which was a hunting lodge. It was a great transformation in fairness to him, and the garden was remodeled as well and it now features the Escalier des Ambassadeurs.
The addition of the Le Vau’s envelope gave another room for the king and the queen to have new apartments, also known as chateau neuf. These apartments occupy the chateau neuf of the palace and the design followed the Italian Baroque architectural style. For instance, the placement of the apartments starting from the ground floor to the next floor level is a style borrowed from the 17th century palazzo design of Italy.
The Palace of Versailles is considered to be Le Vau’s last major work before his death. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he gained a princely sum of fortune out of his works for the king. He died a rich and highly influential architect in Paris on October 12, 1670.