If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Château de Versailles

View of Versailles, 1664-1710 (photo: Marc Vassal, CC BY-SA 2.0)
When the King of France, Louis XIV, first decided to build a new palace and move his court out of Paris, there was nothing on his chosen site at Versailles but a smallish hunting lodge. Today, the palace stands as a prime example of the over-the-top excesses of the French nobility that led to the French Revolution.
Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles, 1664-1710 (photo: ToucanWings, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Huge, but oh so stylish

Thanks to the team of Louis le Vau (architect to the aristocracy), André le Nôtre (landscape designer extraordinaire), and Charles le Brun (über-fashionable interior decorator and painter), Louis XIV’s enormous and stylish palace was completed 21 years after it was begun in 1661 allowing Louis (and his closest friends, family, courtiers, servants and soldiers—all 20,000 of them) to officially set up court there (by that point, the next superstar architect, Jules Hardouin Mansart, had taken up the design reins). Enormous is no joke. The place has 700 rooms, 2,153 windows, and takes up 67,000 square meters of floor space (for those of you keeping track at home, that’s over 12 American football fields or a bit more than 9 soccer pitches).
Over and above anything else, Versailles was meant to emphasize Louis’s importance. After all, this is the guy that called himself The Sun King; as in, everything revolves around me. “L’état, c’est moi” (I am the state), he said, famously and oh-so-modestly. By building Versailles, Louis shifted the seat of French government away from the feuding, gossiping, trouble-making noble families in Paris. He had the whole palace and its massive gardens built along an East/West axis so the sun would rise and set in alignment with his home. And he filled both the palace and its gardens with sculpture, painting, and fountains that all focused on…you guessed it…himself.

Buttons and bedchambers

Queen's bed chamber, Versailles (photo: Scott SM, CC BY-NC 2.0)
When you walk through the palace at Versailles, you’re bombarded with room after room of marble and gold and paintings: ceilings painted to place Louis in the company of the Greek gods, busts of him in a huge formal curly wig staring at you wherever you go, and gold gold gold, so you never lose sight of how wealthy the King of France was. To give you just a hint, we’re talking about a man who spent the equivalent of 5,000,000onbuttonsoverthe54yearsofhisreign.Thatsanaverageofalmost100,000 a year. On buttons.
Of the 700 rooms inside the palace, there are a few notable ones that served very particular functions. The king’s official state bedroom is one, where the incredibly detailed lever (rising) and coucher (going to sleep) rituals would be performed each day. Both involved a whole host of courtiers waiting on the king while he got up or went to bed, following strict rules of position and rank to determine who got to perform which parts of the ceremony.
The queens of France who lived at Versailles were the focus of a similar ritual (the Toilette) in the queen’s main bedchamber, a room where they also gave birth in public. The symmetrical Salon of War and Salon of Peace are decorated with paintings highlighting, unsurprisingly, France’s military might and the benefits of living calmly under a tranquil ruling government. And the Cabinet des Chiens (literally, the Study for Dogs) was a room that Louis XV’s valets shared with his dogs, who also got to sleep in a room full of gilding and painted decoration.
Antoine Coysevox, Equestrian Relief of King Louis XIV as a Roman Emperor, Salon de la guerre, 1715 (photo: Anna Carol, CC BY 2.0 - corrected)

Hall of mirrors

The most famous room is the Hall of Mirrors, which runs along the entire length of the central building. One wall contains a row of giant windows looking out over the gardens (almost 2,000 acres of manicured lawns, fountains and paths arranged in the formal garden style that André le Nôtre was known for), and the other wall is covered with 357 mirrors that catch the setting sun’s rays inside the palace and remind us yet again (as if we could forget) of Louis XIV’s power.
Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) in the Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France (photo: Myrabella, CC BY-SA-3.0)
Though the room is over the top in its grandeur, it was mainly used as a passageway. After the king got up for the day, he proceeded through this mirrored hall to his private chapel, and as many courtiers as could fit would squeeze in, waiting for their chance to beg a favor of the king as he passed by them. Since Louis XIV’s day, the room has also been used for parties (the masked ball for the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) and military agreements (the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I was signed here in 1919).

Classical restraint

The palace’s outside isn’t as ornate as its inside. Sure it’s still huge, and sure it’s still got plenty of gold and statues and embellishments, but the basic structure is classical; it’s symmetrical, repetitive, and based on simple elements that are directly borrowed from ancient Greek temples. The façade that faces the gardens looks remarkably similar to the White House in Washington, DC, albeit much bigger and not so white.
Versailles, 1664-1710 (photo: Susan Ware, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 - adjusted)
Before you go thinking that this is a sign of Louis XIV’s hidden modesty, keep in mind that classical architecture was intended to remind people of the greatness of the antique Greek and Roman past (Greek and Roman civilization were often lumped together and called classical). When Versailles was being built, this ancient past was seen as the root of the intellectual and aesthetic superiority they believed had descended to the French nation. Classical architecture was the name of the game at Versailles, and although it wasn’t as complicated as some of Louis XIV's other choices, he was making a direct link from himself all the way back to the great thinkers and builders of the ancient, classical, past.

Sun King or Sun God

Louis, ever modest, especially liked linking himself directly to the Greek god Apollo (Sun King = Sun God… subtle wasn’t Louis’s middle name). The Apollo Fountain and Apollo Salon remain two of the major highlights of a visit to Versailles. Not content with the restraint of pure classical design, he had his team create a palace that used classical structures to contain the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque style that was all the rage in the mid-seventeenth century. He wanted to make the biggest possible statement and what he ended up with was Versailles: a palace designed to glorify the French monarch by incorporating both ornate Baroque decoration that amply demonstrates his wealth and glory and the stricter rules of classicism that express his intellectual and cultural stature.
Essay by Rachel Ropeik
Additional resources:

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I have been to the Palace of Versailles and I must admit...I truly felt that if ever architecture or art could bring a man to believe that he is in the presence of something otherworldly or divine...this palace is it. The gardens, the water ways, the palace itself are all so incredibly larger than life that to simply be in the palace's presence makes you feel as if you are in the presence of god.
    (25 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Tana
    Was this palace ever damaged in a war or had artwork stolen? It seems like it would be hard to protect, or maybe there were agreements in place.
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Vivien Deng
      During Louis VI's reign, commoners were facing starvation and the economy was failing. They were frustrated at the king for living in such luxury when they were suffering so they barged into the palace one day and stole everything of value. This eventually led to the French Revolution.
      All the statues in the Hall of Mirrors today are replicas as the real ones were stolen and melted down.
      (17 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Hotaru Williams
    Under the Hall of Mirrors, it says "the other wall is covered with 357 mirrors that catch the rising sun’s rays inside the palace" but isn't the hall facing the garden = the west side? which makes the mirrors facing the west too? How do they catch the "rising sun's rays"? Is this some kind of metaphor? I'm confused.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Alphonsos Pangas
    In the first paragraph under 'classical restraint', the similarity between the facade of Versailles and that of the White House is pointed out. How would you explain that similarity? Could it be that the American rulers where also trying to make a statement linking them both to the classical past and to Louis XiV?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • female robot grace style avatar for user Julianne H
      I think that ancient Greek architecture was interpreted differently in the later American context. Athens, in particular, is famous as an ancient democracy, so they were emphasizing the ideals of freedom and equality by building in that style. I think you're correct in assuming that they wanted their civilization to be glorious (like that of ancient Greece) but I don't think they were trying to identify themselves with Louis XIV. After all, they had just replaced a monarchy of their own.
      (5 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
    The essay said he spent 5,000,000 on buttons, but 5 million what? dollars? francs? Euros? What would that have been in terms of a current medium of exchange?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Lady Stormhold
    May I know what are some specific aspects of the Palace of Versailles (eg windows, furnishings) that identifies it as being of the Baroque style? Or would its general opulence and grandeur in itself be indicative of the style?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
      The Palace of Versailles is a landscape architecture(it has gardens), which becomes an important artistic expression in the Baroque. Also, its interiors are richly designed to combine all the arts and produce a dramatically unified effect. Lastly, it is large. Baroque architectures seek to impress with their size and elaborate ornamentation.
      (3 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user louisaandgreta
    The marriage between ancient Greece, its mythology and architecture, the vatican, and french gardens.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Rodriguez Ana
    Did this building modernize running water?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user 24plam
    The Castle of Versailles was enormous with different rooms, a lot of windows, and many bedrooms that are luxury. In the picture the palace with halls in it is so brighter and richer when entering Versailles. It has 5,000,000 million buttons when entering Versailles which sounds crazy. It has some classical structures of the statue in the building where it is made of gold. King Louis XIV is the first person to decide to build the palace Versailles for his friends and other members; it can fit around 20,000 people.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Lisa Pantoja
    Road that leads to palace
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user