Versailles and France as "Art Capital" of the World

I think Versailles is a big deal. And I don’t mean that the palace of Versailles is big in terms of physical space (that fact is beyond obvious!), but I have long thought that Versailles needs to have more recognition for its role in art history – particularly in terms of why France became the art capital of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Up until this point, I’ve never seen a fantastic explanation for how and why the artistic scene shifted from Italy (and Southern Europe) to France. A lot of possible ideas for this shift could be put forth, such as the establishment of the Academie de peinture et de sculpture (Paris) in 1648. Obviously, this artistic academy helped to promote art and establish France within the artistic scene, but I don’t think that this event caused Europe to focus its attention on France. Likewise, if one looks to the 18th century, it is easy to pinpoint how the establishment of the Louvre museum in 1763 was connected to France’s preeminence among the arts (not only so that artists could study art, but in terms of France becoming a major artistic attraction for tourists).

Although these are both very significant events, I don’t think that either the Louvre or French Academy was the initial cause of a major geographic shift in Europe’s artistic scene. Instead, I really think that it was the redesign of Versailles which brought France to the forefront of the European art scene. Versailles, which originally functioned as a hunting lodge, underwent a major redesign and enlargement in the 17th century. One of the major additions to the palace was begun by the architect Le Vau in 1668. Subsequent additions, remodels, and changes were made over the next several years (including he creation of the “Hall of Mirrors,” which was begun in 1678 by Hardouin-Mansart and Le Brun). Louis XIV finally moved to the palace in 1682, and eventually required his court to live at the palace as well.

Versailles was over-the-top in terms of luxury, space, and design. It was so huge and so ostentatious that it immediately attracted the attention of other countries. In fact, Versailles was so impressive that many European monarchs wanted to model their own palaces after Versailles. Subsequently, Baroque palaces popped up all over Europe. You can see a great compilation of Baroque residences here (complete with photographs). One such Versailles-inspired palace was the Würzburg Residenz, in Würzburg, Germany (1720-1744, shown above). In essence, Louis XVI became a major trend-setter with Versailles. Everyone wanted to live like him. And, consequently, I think that this is the reason that the art world moved to France. Europeans focused their attention to French art and architecture, a focus that would continue for over two centuries.

Although I don’t think that Versailles is the sole reason that the artistic scene shifted to France, I think the remodeling and establishment of court at Versailles are very pivotal points in art history. Obviously, I’m a little biased as a Baroque scholar, but I can’t overlook Versailles on this point. It’s just too big both physically and metaphorically!

Can you think of historical events which helped to foster (or solidify the presence of) the artistic scene in France?

*Photo of Versailles courtesy of Eric Pouhier, as found on Wikipedia.

  • H Niyazi says:

    M! I think you've glossed over the creation of The Louvre as a Museum far too quickly! I would venture to say that the widespread Napoleonic plunder of Italian art treasures was a visceral and obvious reason for this shift! The greatest treasures were now physically in France, and artists flocked to the Louvre to study and be inspired.

    I remember when researching Mary Cassatt, despite her own travels to Italy, and her inability to join the Academy in Paris, her mentor Jean-Leon Gerome would send her to the Louvre for 'lessons' from the old masters.

    Versailles, and its collection has a significant role – though it could equally be argued that its importance in fostering advances in architecture, literature and the sciences was just as important.

    Accounts of 18th and 19th Century artists being entranced by the Louvre are common, from Cassatt's example to Rosetti's enamoured sonnet for 'The Pastoral Concert'.

    The Louvre and the Academy also became the focus of what movements like the Impressionists were dissident to.

    Have you found any references from artists of different eras citing Versailles specifically?


  • heidenkind says:

    LOL You shared your own post? 🙂 Why don't you turn this into an article?

    I never thought about Versailles being connected to a shift in focus in art from Italy to France (although if you asked an Italian I'm not sure they'd think a shift took place at all ;). If anything, Versailles is an extension of the Capets' interest in and patronage of the arts, which is also what fueled the establishment of the Louvre and the Academy, right? Not to mention their own egos….

  • Sedef says:

    I would like to offer my very naive opinion, if you don't mind. Don't you think it was actually very deliberately orchestrated by Louis XIV. I read "The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour" by Joan DeJean and although it does not specifically discuss the arts, everything else was done to put France on the map for all that was stylish and beautiful…

  • Douglas says:

    I wonder if Francis I and his predecessors may have played a role. Certainly they did a lot to attract foreign artists to France,and Francis seems to have been rather important in making France a major mannerist center.

  • P. M. Doolan says:

    My tuppence worth:
    1.The rich court culture at Versailles meant that it became the centre, not only of painting, but also of music, opera and architecture. Artists go where the money goes. Composers, writers, painters, etc. flocked to Versailles.
    2. The destruction of court culture during the revolution meant a shift to the city (which had gradually been happening anyway, with the rise in wealth of the bourgeoisie, and the rival populist court of the duc D'Orleon at Palais Royal).
    3. The opening of the world's first public art museum at the louvre in 1793.
    4. The Ecole des Beaux Arts which, by the mid-19th century had become a public art college and the best in the world
    5. The rise of an entire industry of art ateliers in the vicinity of the art college, in the Latin Quarter.
    6. The culture of cafe society, particularly in the same area – the Latin Quarter. Cafe Procope had opened in 1694 (it is still open)and became a centre for the new itelligensia during the revolution. Likewise the scores of cafes near the Louvre at Palais Royal.
    7. The rise of affordable fashion, beginning with Roussean simplicity pre-revolution, revolutionary fashion, the sobriety of the Directory and Napoleon periods, the flamboyancy of the Second Empire – all of this meant that design, fashion and the perfume industry became centred in Paris.
    8. The rise of the enclosed passages (the world's first shopping arcades – see Walter Benjamin), which began in the ancien regime but really took off in the early 19th century, created a space for the small, independent art gallery.
    9. The rise and rise and rise of opera in 19th century Paris meant opera composers could hardly make it without m0ving to Paris. ditto for ballet. All of this reenforced the other arts.
    10. Europe's first department stores opened in Paris in the mid-19th century. By this time Paris had become the "Capital of the World" (as Patrice Higgonet calls it). With the steam boat and trains people came from all over to Paris to visit the opera, stroll though the passages, shop in the department store, be seen in the cafes – all of which contributed to a vibrant, independent, non-court art market, and, where the money is, artists will follow.
    11. The annual exhibition at the Salon.

    Whew! Sorry this is so long.

  • Margarida Elias says:

    Intersting idea. I'm going to think more about this subject.

  • Michael Robinson says:

    The relatively large size of the French economy and land mass in C17 & 18 (despite the inefficiency of French public finance relative to Holland and England) coupled with the prestige of the military prowess of the French state in the C17 and the deliberate centralization of cultural production and administration within that state, as a matter of policy, much of which was concerned with the deliberate creation and conscious propagation of a cultural image of supremacy. One can read, for example, of Charles II, when under financial pressure in the 1660’s getting his courtiers to give up elaborate French dress and adopt a deliberately simplified style of waistcoat while Louis XIV, in response, dressed his servants in the English style. Much of this is discussed, passim, with much more of direct relevance in Peter Burke ‘The Fabrication of Louis XIV’ New Haven: Yale, 1992 which also can be used as a useful introduction to many of the more detailed specialized older studies of this process. (I am aware that others describing these process have expressed a contrary view, notably Peter Thornton in 'Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England France and Holland,' Yale: 1981. However Thornton chooses consciously to describe and discusses design as autonomous and autochthonous field and conspicuously avoids any mention of C17 politics, economics or any other external event except in passing)

    This occurred in ways both advertent, French diplomatic gifts of state furniture, the dissemination of books and sets of engravings of interiors and royal ceremonial etc. the creation of the vast cadres of skied craftsmen and designers necessary to build, decorate and furnish the Royal Palaces and inadvertent, the dispersal of large numbers of skilled Huguenot craftsmen across protestant Europe who were capable of retaining a distinct cultural identity as French protestants while spreading the French cultural style with their skills. There is no doubt that by 1660 the French layout of buildings and gardens was widely studied and their designs for interiors—the correspondence of Tessin the elder is but one example — and France provided for the grand and rich, and those who sought to be perceived similarly, the answer to the question how should people like us live and appear to be refined and the French were perceived as continually making admirable improvements in refinement . (The anglomania of the C19 and early C20th., and its later American expression and dissemination via Ralph Laurenisation, is an example of an analogous but continuing phenomenon. The innumerable and varied discussions round countless aspects of the current English Royal Wedding provides some idea of how individual events can be used to supply potential models for claims of style and distinction.)


  • Michael Robinson says:


    The French cultural institutions, their associated schools and cares of skilled artisans, provided much of the glue that held France together as an identity in the sequence of weak political structures of the C19th. and it was this identity in its late C19th form that was adopted by the group amongst the industrial nouveau riche of Europe and the Americas in the second half of the C19th. that wished to appear conspicuously sophisticated, very often in opposition to the domestic style of the native ‘old money’ – and so it goes, the historicist Beau Arts grandeurs of French parvenus, the decorative delights of stock speculators and railroad financiers, was adopted in mistake, with various distinct national variants, as if it were an established historical style. I think there can be no doubt that the stylistic choices of the members of the Rothschild Family – le style and le gout Rothschild – had an enormous influence on financiers across the globe. Were it not for this second phase of 70 years at most, mainly 1870-1929, French influence and leadership in the visual and decorative arts would have continued to wither, as it did in the two generations immediately following the Congress of Vienna. Just as successive generations of the grand and the rich among the Romans sought out what they perceived as the Greek in taste as a medium to display distinction, permanence and sophistication, the Carolingians and Ottonians in their various versions of Rome, so we have sought the same in our fantasies of France, be these dreams embodied as one persons collection in a museum{89D08D20-9E54-473F-A986-09E98BFE8DD7}, or the mass luxe of hotels and malls,, and best-selling books

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    H Niyazi, you're absolutely right that the Louvre and Napoleonic conquests were very important in solidifying France's place in the art world. I agree with you, as do I agree about the influence that the Academy/Louvre held for artists in the late 18th and 19th century. In this post, however, I'm trying to argue that the artistic center had already shifted to France over a whole century before the Louvre was established. Even before the Louvre was established, both the Rococo and Neoclassical movements flourished in France.

    I will look to see if I can find artists from different eras citing Versailles. Since Versailles was functioning as a palace at the time, I'm not sure that many artists would have had first-hand experience with the art in situ. Instead, I think that Versailles first served as a source of artistic/architectural inspiration to royalty (different monarchs visited the palace in the 18th century, such as Czar Peter the Great's visit in 1717). Monarchs then would have referred their architects and artists to the Versailles design, in order to have it copied for their own palace design. I'll look to see if I can find primary documents specifically citing Versailles for when stipulating their own palace remodels. Perhaps these monarchs even were able to send their artists and architects to Versailles for first-hand observation.

    heidenkind: I like that you extended this interest to the Capetian family. Perhaps I'll have to look extend my idea to a larger, familial scope.

    Sedef: You have a very interesting idea about how this was an intentional idea on the part of Louis XIV. I'll have to do some follow-up research on that point. But it is interesting how France is still considered pre-eminent in the world of fashion, cuisine, etc.

  • M says:

    Douglas, you've brought up an interesting topic. I actually considered Francis I a little bit when formulating my ideas on this topic. Even though I think his patronage of the arts was very significant in the 16th century, I don't think that he was able to solidify France's position as the artistic world. In contrast, the Counter-Reformation in Rome (during the late 16th and 17th centuries) helped Italy to encourage and support the arts (and thereby remain the artistic center) for about a century after Francis I.

    P.M. Doolan – what a great list! I like the ideas you presented for the 19th century, especially regarding the culture of cafe society, rise of opera, etc. Great points!

    Michael Robinson – thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I think that politics and economics definitely could have affected this geographic shift of the arts. I'm curious to look at "The Fabrication of Louis XIV" book that you mentioned. Since you've brought up this point, I would also like to examine the political and economic climate in Italy at the end of the 17th century. I wouldn't be surprised if a weaker Italian government/economy also caused the arts to migrate to (and remain in) France.

    Also, thanks for mentioning the correspondence of Tessin the Elder. I wasn't familiar that French examples are mentioned in his correspondence. That will be a good starting point for me as I pull together primary documents written by artists/architects. I know that Versailles was remodeled and expanded at the end of Tessin's career. I am curious to see if he specifically mentions the palace.

    I also have to say, I love how you brought this discussion up-to-date with your mention of the upcoming Royal wedding. Who knows what cultural and artistic trends might be set by this significant event?

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Extracts from the correspondence of Tessin the elder are published in Kristoffer Neville ‘Nicodemus Tessin the Elder. Architecture in Sweden in the Age of Greatness’ Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. The lengthy correspondence of Tessin, the younger, about France is published, in part, in Weigert & Hernmarck ‘Les Relations artistiques entre France et Suede, 1693-1713.' Stockholm: 1964 and his description of his visit to Versailles in 1687 in Ragnar Josepson and Pierre Francastel ed. ‘Nicodeme Tessin Le Jeune. Relation de sa visite a Marly, Versailles … en 1687.’ Rev. d’hist de Versailles et Seine et Ouse 28, (1926) pp. 149-67. A selection of the many drawings he made and gathered of the construction of Versailles is reproduced in Elaine Dee & Guy Walton ’Versailles the View from Sweden’ NY: Cooper Hewitt, 1988.

    The surviving correspondence and manuscript collections of all three Tessins in the Kungliga biblioteket are indexed in Ediffah and the drawings included in Libris:

  • M says:

    Cheers, Michael! Thanks for the references. You're making my work quite easy!

  • H Niyazi says:

    Amazing discussion and contributions!

    @M – I was wondering what you consider the focus of this 'Versailles as cultural capital' to be?

    I think it is important to note differences between elements of the arts – in some aspects it could be more strongly argued Versailles was a leader, but with painting specifically, you will have a harder time.

    After Caravaggism set the early 17th Century aflame, didnt the focus(and patronage) switch to the Spanish and Flemish masters for a period?

    Coupled with major historical events, it wasn't really until Jacques-Louis David that French *painting* sent ripples around Europe.

    Perhaps the best physical evidence we have is the establishment of the French Academy in Rome (presently at the Villa Medici) in 1666 by Colbert, Le Brun and Bernini under the auspices of Louis XIV (also indicated by Sedef above).

    If Versailles was the beating heart of art historical Europe, why would there be a need for such a place?

    One only needs to look at the list of artists whom studied there to get an idea of its pivotal role in the development of French Painting. The tale of Jacques-Louis David's trials and tribulations trying to get into the Academy at Rome are a great story on their own, including the infamous threat to starve himself were he not admitted.

    When David finally got to Rome though, it's influence was profound. Would he have painted the ground-breaking Death of Marat had he not seen Caravaggio?


  • P. M. Doolan says:


    While Rome was certainly important, wasn't David most influeneced by a French artist, Poussin? Indeed, at the time "Poussinesque" was the decription given to David'd neo-classical style during the French revolution. And though Poussin lived in Rome for years, he went there to study classical antiquity, not the then current baroque style, which he despised. I would say it was Poussin who had the greatest influence on David.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! This is a fun discussion.

    H, I think that the architectural design of Versailles first served as inspiration for other countries in Europe. However, I would be curious to see if the Baroque palaces across Europe (the ones which mimicked Versailles) included paintings similar to the style of LeBrun (I'm particularly thinking of LeBrun's paintings in the Hall of Mirrors). As of yet, I have not delved into research on this topic.

    In regards to architecture, though, I think it's easy to pinpoint how European nations were subsequently influenced by the French artistic/architectural movements that came about after Versailles. I'm particularly reminded of the popularity of the rococo style in Germany.

    There is no doubt that the French were still looking to Rome around the time of Versailles' remodel and expansion (although I do have to point out that the establishment of the French Academy in Rome happened about two years before the remodel of Versailles – in other words, two years before I think that there began to be a major cultural shift towards France). But you have brought up a good point, and it would be good to do more research on the influence of this academy.

    In regards to David, I do also agree with P. M. Doolan's comment. Neoclassical artists like David (and even earlier academic artists like the "Poussinistes" of LeBrun's day) were undoubtedly influenced by Poussin. But, on the other hand, David also was undoubtedly influenced by Italian/Roman art. (And, admittedly, Poussin was also influenced by Roman art.) That being said, however, I don't think David's interest in Italian art signifies that Italy was still the "art capital" during David's lifetime. On the contrary, it seems to me that Neoclassical artists were more-so interested in emulating David, and not the work that influenced David. Does that make sense?

  • H Niyazi says:

    @M and PM Doolan – of course these artists were influenced by their antedecedents, but getting to Rome was important to both Poussin and David(et alia), regardless of Poussin's aversion for Caravaggio's style and method.

    @M – The hypothesis being put forward was that "Italy wasnt the capital" – if you are going to argue towards a hierachy of greater influence, you will need to supply evidence that Versailles and/or French art had a more dominating experience than the Italian.

    In the highly subjective world of art history, this is somewhat difficult! To do it properly would be to conduct a census of works across eras and describe the prevalence of Italian vs French iconographic vs stylistic antecedents. This is for painting alone, the study design for the other arts and sciences would be different by necessity. Maybe someone else has done it, though I highly doubt it! It's a huge task.

    I think a more exciting way to approach it (in this content) would be to take some key works/artists, and explore the prevalence of what is unique to French art, and has clearer roots in Italy.

    I'd be interested to hear what one particular Poussin scholar things of this meandering argument!


  • M says:

    I agree, Hasan, it is a huge task. I've thought the same thing.

    Personally, I think would be interesting to see a study of how many European artists were interested in studying the works of their contemporary counterparts in Italy and France. I think this would give us a good indication of what style and artists were considered to be the most "current" and active in the artistic scene. Even if 18th century French artists were copying and studying Italian paintings, I have a feeling that they were mostly interested in the work of earlier Italian/Roman artists (likely Caravaggio and earlier), and not the 18th century Italian artists that were active at the same time. Of course, this is just a hunch and would need to be backed up by a lot of research. But I think that a widespread disinterest in contemporary (i.e. 18th century) Italian painting could support an argument that the "cultural capital" had shifted away from Italy.

    As I've written this post and read these comments, I've been thinking about how art historical texts have promoted France as the cultural capital of the art world during the 18th and 19th centuries. General art survey texts don't really discuss much (if any) Italian art from the 18th and 19th centuries. If art history textbooks and scholarship had been written differently, no doubt that I would also have a different perception of the historical picture. (And hey, if I wasn't a Baroque scholar, I might also have a different opinion on the matter!)

  • Jane and Lance Hattatt says:

    This is something which, previously, we had not really considered and is a most interesting proposition. You present very cogent reasons as to why this might have been the case but, doubtless, as you say, there are probably a number of other factors as well, not least the gaining in strength and political power of France herself.

    We have discovered your fascinating and varied blog quite by chance and are signing ourselves as Followers.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the kind comment, Jane and Lance Hattatt. Yes, there definitely are a lot of factors to consider in relation to France's position in the art world. If I take this idea any further, I'm going to need to focus on extremely specific topics (not only in regards to politics and economics, but also in relation to different types of artistic mediums).

    Welcome to my blog! I'm glad to have you as a follower.

  • Hels says:

    Exactly. Versailles was so impressive that many European monarchs DID model their own palaces after Versailles.

    If I were an absolute ruler want-to-be in the early 18th century, I would certainly admire Louis XIV's handiwork. Firstly for the political power it exuded and only secondly because the architecture, furniture, paintings, sculpture, light fittings, mirrors, gold work and gardens were sensational.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.