This prestigious series of seven rooms were parade apartment, used for hosting the sovereign’s official acts. For this reason, it was bedecked with lavish Italian-style decoration, much admired by the king at the time, composed of marble panelling and painted ceilings. During the day, the State Apartment was open to all who wished to see the king and the royal family passing through on their way to the chapel. During the reign of Louis XIV, evening gatherings were held here several times a week.
The Hercules Room
The Hercules Room was the last room to be built by Louis XIV at the end of his reign. From 1682 the space had been occupied by the palace chapel, which covered two floors and served until 1710, when it was replaced by the current Royal Chapel. A floor was laid to create a new room, but the decoration was not finished until the reign of Louis XV, who, in 1730, brought the huge painting by Veronese, The Meal in the House of Simon, to Paris from the Gobelins, where it had been stored since its arrival in France as a gift from the Republic of Venice to Louis XIV in 1664. Work on the Hercules Room was completed in 1736, when François Lemoyne finished the ceiling painting depicting The Apotheosis of Hercules. This vast, impressive, allegorical work, depicting no fewer than 142 persons, can be considered on a par with masterpieces by Italian fresco painters. It was created, however, using the marouflage technique, i.e. the scenes were painted on canvas and then stuck onto the ceiling. Despite being made First Painter to the King by Louis XV in return for his work, Lemoyne committed suicide a year later, in 1737, exhausted by this huge project which had taken four years to complete.
The Room of Abundance
During Evening gatherings, the Room of Abundance served as a refreshment room where coffee, wines and liqueurs were served on a sideboard. It was also the antechamber of Louis XIV’s Collection Room, or Room of Rare Objects (now Louis XVI’s Games Room) which could be entered through the end door. The king liked to show his guests the silver vases, gems and medallions kept there which served as a source of inspiration for the decoration of the vault, including a depiction of the royal vessel over the door. The King’s Vessel was a valuable object in the form of a mastless ship which was placed on the king’s table during important occasions or on the sideboard. It contained the sovereign’s serviette and was a symbol of power which had to be hailed by everyone who passed by.
The Venus Room
This room, as well as the Diana Room, constituted the main entrance to the King’s State Apartment because it was at the top of the great staircase known as the “Ambassadors’ Staircase”, before it was destroyed in 1752. Like all the other rooms, this room was named after a planet, following a running theme linked to sun mythology which inspired the decoration in Versailles during the 1670s. In this room Venus is depicted on the ceiling as the goddess of love, associated with the planet in Ancient Greece. The paintings decorating the arches show great men or heroes from antiquity whose actions, inspired by the goddess, often alluded more or less obviously to the deeds of Louis XIV. For example, the arch depicting Alexander marrying Roxana evokes the king’s own wedding, while the arch illustrating Emperor Augustus watching Roman circus games refers to the carousel in 1662, held in honour of Queen Maria Theresa.
The decoration in the Venus room is the most Baroque of all the State Apartment. It is the only place where Le Brun created dialogue between the architecture, sculptures and paintings, which were sometimes real and sometimes fake, such as the marble pilasters and columns created through perspective paintings by Jacques Rousseau, and the two trompe-l’oeil statues of Louis XIV near the windows, by Jean Warin.
During Evening gatherings, this room contained tables covered with baskets of flowers, pyramids of rare fresh fruit such as oranges and lemons, and marzipan and candied fruits.
The Mars Room
The Mars Room followed on from the two previous rooms and marked the start of the King’s Apartment. It was used as a Guard Room, making its dedication to the god of war highly appropriate. In the centre of the ceiling is a painting by Claude Audran of Mars on a chariot pulled by wolves. On either side of the work are two other compositions. The one to the east is by Jouvenet, called Victory supported by Hercules and followed by Abundance and Felicity. The other, to the west, is by Houasse and called Terror, Fury and Horror take possession of the powers of the earth. The arches have been decorated using gold camaieu and celebrate war victories by sovereigns from Antiquity, which naturally correspond to the military triumphs of the king, evoked in the gilded stucco spandrels by the Marsy brothers. Last but not least, the military character of the room is highlighted by the decoration on the cornice composed of a variety of helmets and military headgear.
To the left of the chimney is The Family of Darius before Alexander by Charles Le Brun. To the right is The Pilgrims of Emmaus, in the style of Veronese. These two works were hung as a pair upon the king’s request, and demonstrate the desire to show that French painters could rival the greatest Italian masters. Until 1750 there were two platforms on either side of the fireplace, where the two paintings currently hang, which were for the musicians during Evening gatherings when the room was used for music and dancing.
On the side walls are two State portraits of Louis XV and Marie Leszczyńska, both painted by Carle Van Loo. Over the door are four paintings from Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye by Simon Vouet, illustrating the royal virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Justice and Strength.
The Mercury Room
The Mercury Room was originally the royal bedchamber in the King’s State Apartment and was referred to as the “bedroom”, although the bed was removed early on in winter to make room for games tables. Tables, mirrors, andirons and magnificently chased chandeliers made in solid silver by the Gobelins silversmiths once decorated the walls, ceilings and fireplace, until 1689 when Louis XIV had to melt them down to finance the War of the League of Augsburg. The alcove was separated from the rest of the room by a balustrade, also in silver. Brocades – fabric made using gold and silver thread – once hung from the walls and bed, but were later used in their turn to support the War of Spanish Succession. One of the rare moments in which the Mercury Room actually served as a bedchamber was when the Duke of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV, was proclaimed King of Spain, and slept here for three weeks before travelling to his kingdom. It was also in this room that the coffin containing the body of Louis XIV was displayed from 2 to 10 September 1715.
The ceiling was painted by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne and depicts Mercury on his chariot pulled by two roosters. Mercury was the patron god of trade, arts and sciences and, as the gods’ messenger, of ambassadors. These themes are depicted in the arches in the ceiling: Alexander the Great bringing various foreign animals to Aristotle to allow him to write his Natural History; Augustus receiving Indian ambassadors; Alexander receiving Ethiopian ambassadors and Ptolemy Philadelphus talking with wise men in the library of Alexandria. These scenes evoke events from the reign of Louis XIV, such as the reception of ambassadors from far-off countries, development of the royal library, and publication of Histoire naturelle by Claude Perrault in the collection in the King’s Cabinet in 1671.
The bed currently in the room was brought here by Louis-Philippe while Versailles was being made over into a museum. On either side are two paintings that Louis XIV was particularly fond of, and which he hung in his bedroom: David playing the harp by Domenico Zampieri, and Saint John on Patmos, attributed at the time to Raphael.
The Apollo Room
Designed as the sovereign’s Ceremonial Room, the Apollo Room was used as a throne room from 1682 onwards. The celling was dedicated to the Sun King, the arts and peace. The symbol of the sun, adopted early on by Louis XIV, is illustrated through the image of Apollo on his chariot surrounded by allegorical figures. The arches illustrate the king’s magnificence and magnanimity though various examples from Antiquity: Vespasien building the Colosseum; Augustus building the port of Miseno, Porus before Alexander and Coriolan entreated by his wife and mother to spare Rome.
Until 1689 Louis XIV’s famous silver throne (a huge wooden armchair 2.6m tall and covered with silver plaques and sculptures) once stood here on a platform beneath a baldaquin. This extraordinary throne was melted down and replaced by a succession of gilded chairs in styles that varied according to the period.
Over the fireplace is the most famous portrait of Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud. The painter made the original portrait in 1701 upon a personal request by the king, who wanted to give it to his grandson who had recently become king of Spain. Exceedingly pleased with the result, Louis XIV decided to keep the original for himself and commissioned copies from the artist. The copy in Versailles was made in 1702. The original painting hangs in the Musée du Louvre.
Original publication: chateauversailles.fr