Jean-Michel Othoniel brings the Sun King back to life at Versailles

Daytime, outside image, gold and glass decorative piping garden water feature, trees in the backdrop, blue cloudy sky
The 'Bourrée of Achilles', a detail from 'Les Belles Danses [The Beautiful Dances]' by Jean-Michel Othoniel, a fountain inspired by the Sun King, Louis XIV for the gardens' Water Theatre Grove.
(Image credit: Philippe Chancel)

In the spring light of the Gardens of Versailles, there are winks and flashes from every gilded surface. Yet few of them radiate quite like the 2,000 Murano-glass globes filled with gold leaf that dance across the remodelled Water Theatre Grove.

Paris-based artist Jean-Michel Othoniel designed Les Belles Danses in homage to the Sun King, Louis XIV, who first commissioned the classical gardens here. The difference between his contemporary fountain and the surrounding landscape, masterminded by André Le Nôtre in the 17th century, is the audience. 'This is my republican project,' says Othoniel. 'This fountain is literally for the public. It serves the people.'

The elaborate Water Theatre Grove historically served as an outdoor stage where spectacles were performed for the king's pleasure. Louis XVI had it dug up during his reign, and a series of storms in the 1990s destroyed it completely. When palace officials chose landscape architect-du-jour Louis Benech to bring it back to life, he plucked Othoniel to fashion its central feature. The public will first experience this fresh take on the Sun King's legacy when the grove opens on 11 May.

Othoniel arranged the glass bulbs - his artistic signature - in three seemingly abstract arrangements titled 'The Entrance of Apollo', 'The Rigadoun of Peace' and the 'Bourée of Achilles'. In fact their shape can be traced back to 17th-century ballet notations popularised by the king and published by Roger-Auger Feuillet. Othoniel discovered Feuillet's artfully printed work - one of only three in existence - during his 2011 residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner museum in Boston.

'When I first saw them, they were so similar to my own sketches. They were exactly what I had been missing in my research. As a French artist, being asked to do this project was very moving, but also stressful. Those drawings formed the connection for me. They were my key to entering the world of today.'

The recreated grove is the first modern addition to the Versailles landscape since the French Revolution and 'Les Belles Danses' is the most significant project of Othoniel's career. In one of Versailles' largest groves, the grand scale of the fountain has been a revelation.

It's also the artist's first moving piece. To complete it, he expanded his studio from five to 10 employees, who spent a year installing it alongside Versailles' official fontainiers. It all slipped into place when they began testing the jets, which force the water through the glass in the same arc as Versailles' historic main fountain. 'Antique jets coming from the contemporary sculpture,' says Othoniel. 'That's where the piece takes its rhythm.'

Daytime, outside image, close up a gold and glass decorative piping garden water feature, trees in the backdrop, blue cloudy sky

Watch 'Les Belles Danses' in motion. Pictured here: 'The Entrance of Apollo'. Video courtesy of Versailles

(Image credit: Philippe Chancel)

Workshop image, glass blower making a glass piece for the water feature, another man helping to hold a metal bar in place, man in the back ground hands on hips watching the process, industrial space blurred in the backdrop

Jean-Michel Othoniel & Matteo Gonet working on a melting glass bead.

(Image credit: Philippe Chancel)

Daytime, outside images, two different angle shot of gold and glass decorative piping garden water feature, trees in the backdrop, blue cloudy sky

Although seemingly abstract, the fountains' three arrangements can in fact be traced back to 17th-century ballet notations. Shown here is 'The Rigadoun of Peace' (left) and 'The Entrance of Apollo'.

(Image credit: Philippe Chancel)


Les Jardins de Versailles
Place d'Armes
78000 Versailles