Louis Le Vau

The French architect Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) was one of the creators of the French classical style, which dominated the academic architecture of the 17th century.

Louis Le Vau was born in Paris, the son of a master mason of the same name. By 1639 he was a successful architect whose interests centered on developing île Saint-Louis as a residential area. There he designed town houses for a number of wealthy patrons, including Sainctot, Hesselin, Gillier, Gruyn des Bordes, and Jean Baptiste Lambert. The Hôtel Lambert reveals the architect to be a brilliant innovator in adjusting an imaginative plan to a highly irregular site. He also designed country residences. Before 1645 he built the château of Livry, later named Le Raincy (destroyed in the French Revolution).

In 1654, with his appointment as first architect to the king, Le Vau was catapulted into the limelight. Three years later he received from Nicolas Fouquet the important commission for the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte. The building and its garden complex outshone in splendor all others of the day. The grouping and the contrasts of shape within the heavy masses of the building, monumental in scale, assure an impressive visual effect. In general, Le Vau was more interested in an overall effect of grandiosity than in properly applying the classical idiom to structural problems.

Particularly noteworthy at Vaux is the great central oval salon facing on the gardens; it represents the culmination of a novel idea employed at Le Raincy, where a similar form governed the shape of the principal section of the building. Le Vau collaborated closely at Vaux with the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre.

During the 1660s Le Vau was occupied largely with royal projects. In his capacity as first architect he made additions to the château of Vincennes, designed the hospital of La Salpêtrière, reworked the facade of the Tuileries, rebuilt the Louvre's Galerie d'Apollon, which had been destroyed by fire in 1661, and designed and erected the new south wing of the Louvre. He also executed a plan for an additional wing for the Louvre facing St-Germain-I'Auxerrois, but it was rejected by Jean Baptiste Colbert; the final design of this facade (the Colonnade) appears to have been a collaborative effort of Le Vau, Le Brun, and Claude Perrault.

From 1661 until his death Le Vau worked sporadically at Versailles. Initially his work was confined to altering the château built by Louis XIII in 1624. Later he added service the I wings to the sides of the forecourt, and after 1668 he created his famous "envelope," which completely cloaked the garden facade of the older structure in magnificent, monumentally scaled classical dress. The grand staircase, or Escalier des Ambassadeurs, designed by Le Vau, was constructed after his death by François d'Orbay, Le Vau's constant collaborator. The staircase (destroyed in the 18th century) was considered one of the most impressive in Europe. The decorative scheme was planned by Le Brun.

One of Le Vau's most enduring contributions was his design (1660s) for the Collège des Quatre Nations (today the Institut de France) in Paris. Executed after his death by D'Orbay, it is unique to France in embodying in its plan and elevation many of the principles of Roman baroque architecture as practiced by Pietro da Cortona and Francesco Borromini. The design reflects Le Vau's constant quest for visual grandeur.

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Further Reading on Louis Le Vau

Le Vau has been neglected by architectural historians. Hence, the definitive study of his life and works has yet to be written. Presently the best reference to his architecture is the general study of French art by Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1954; 2d ed. 1970).