In the distance, the size of the gardens leaves me cold. It seems miles away from life among plants, weeds and squirrels, the level at which English gardeners are most comfortable. It takes a notable birthday and a special occasion to persuade me to contemplate it closely. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the genius of greatness, Frenchman André Le Nôtre, king of formal landscaping. His masterpiece, Versailles, is so gigantic that this column has circled it for 40 years. There are no more excuses. Until next February 23, it is the place of a superb exhibition in honor of the great man. Deep down inside me, I have so far preferred the second mistress of Le Nôtre’s royal patron, Louis XIV. The portrait of this lady, the Marquise de Montespan, shows her with her four (explicitly legitimate) children and gives her an alluring, compressible stature. I have now downgraded it. It’s not just that she would need a personalized Trianon built in her honor if I were to have a chance, like Louis XIV, of seducing her among the flowers. Ours is so much more fascinating, so modest, so admired and so brilliantly talented. His range of interests went far beyond formal lakes and terraces. He is the real wonder of the age, far greater than that threat to European unity, the Sun King himself.
Like his gardens, his life has taken on fascinating new dimensions. Architectural historian Georges Farhat, now in Toronto, recently unlocked some of the secrets of Le Nôtre’s perspective planning. With an entire room to themselves, they’re explained in a helpful video and streamlined transparent model of Versailles’ main park. Even my non-geometric eye can understand them. It is no longer enough to speak vaguely of the philosopher Descartes as the inspiration for Le Nôtre’s “Cartesian” sense of geometric space. The landscaper applied tricks called “anamorphosis” and “collimation,” perspective means of making distant objects appear large and allowing levels and features to unfold as the viewer advances from specific viewpoints in the foreground.
These were not new inventions of the 17th century, nor learned from great thinkers like Descartes. Le Nôtre met them in his twenties during his years with the painter Simon Vouet and his constant relations with artists around the Tuileries in Paris. Farhat only regained use of it after meticulous measurements on the very site of Versailles. Ours did not use a new secret instrument. He applied the old tricks of artists to a new area – the garden space.
In the meantime, his life has brightened up despite the absence of any autobiography and the proliferation of legends and invented jokes. After 15 years of archival research, the biographer Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin gives us a study of the man and his contacts which is of the utmost importance. It is the ideal garden book to offer to your French-speaking friends this Christmas. She writes with such clarity and verve. She is also the commissioner of the Versailles exhibition. She kindly invited me to see him for four hours with her.
If you think Le Nôtre was a one-horse thing, specializing in vast, long canals and inhumanly large terraces, you must do penance. He was a lover of flowers and a serious collector of coins and medals, including a lot from Louis’ sworn enemy, the Protestant William of Orange. He was a first-rate buyer of contemporary paintings and, as Bouchenot-Déchin shows, a man also fascinated by the old classics. An astonishing first room of the exhibition recreates the octagon with which Le Nôtre enlarged his privileged house in the Tuileries. We see many paintings that he offered to the king, including two high-class Poussins, bought from the artist, and a superb pair by Claude.
At the same time, his biography deepens our knowledge of Le Nôtre’s family and connections. He gives a new vision of his visit to Italy in his late sixties. He tactfully refutes so many legends, including the one that still terrorizes the great modern financiers, the story of the king’s visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte, the proud new home of Finance Minister Fouquet. Louis quickly expropriated the house, Le Nôtre’s garden and all the garden staff, allegedly because they and Fouquet had put on such a spectacular show that the king was intolerably jealous. In fact, Fouquet’s downfall had been in the air for much longer, and the main gardeners had been working for Louis for quite some time. The financier’s party for the king was not to blame for his arrest, though its magnificence makes a modern hedge fund party look like a tame tea party.
The garden at Vaux unfolds before the visitor in a way that makes it the favorite of many modern historians. I admire Sceaux, also near Paris, and the brilliantly balanced plan that Le Nôtre later drew up for Fouquet’s financial successor, Colbert. There is so much more to discover. As we went through the exhibition in detail, its curator suddenly exclaimed with excitement when he noticed for the first time a scribble in pen on a Le Nôtre map of Turin. It describes a garden slope in the master’s own handwriting. Le Nôtre’s modern influence from Moscow to Washington to Munich to Belgium wraps up the huge show, but the biggest thrill is the Hall of Garden Paintings, completed during his lifetime.
The winning exhibition is a large painting of a Juvisy garden, halfway between Paris and Fontainebleau. For years it was in private hands, but when the exhibition formed it was brought to market by the Pelham Galleries in London. It is a stunning snapshot of a visit by Louis XIV and the horsemen accompanying him to a formally designed formal garden. The landscaping is on one side of a house that could not be expanded or moved because of the church next door. Bouchenot-Déchin saw it by chance while browsing the Internet and immediately matched it with the documented comments of François Blondel, the designer of his remarkable garden of canals and waterfalls. He remarked that he was working within a conception of “that (famous) man”, clearly someone very famous and obviously, as the owner and the gallery had simply suspected, Le Nôtre himself. same. The painting had already been purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is now a big blow for London. It shows how one of Le Nôtre’s formal gardens could blend into a flower and vegetable garden and an outlying farm with bucking horses and grazing cows. Versailles was not its only style and scale.
Some have claimed that Le Nôtre was not much interested in formal parterres, others that he was not interested in flowers. Bouchenot-Déchin is a keen gardener herself and includes fascinating evidence of Le Nôtre’s love of flowers, a fact also documented by a chapter on his ‘floral embellishments’ in the excellent exhibition catalogue. The king wanted fresh flowers in his gardens for each month. We still have initial orders for thousands of tulips, hyacinths, etc. A vast nursery trade underpinned the flowery heavens planted to delight the king’s mistresses.
Exposure is my top Christmas tip for traveling gardening enthusiasts. The same goes for its surrounding garden. As the afternoon light faded, I was treated next to a tour of Versailles of unsurpassable excitement. The biggest garden is the biggest of all. Wait until next week. The Marquise didn’t even glance at it.
“André Le Nôtre In Perspective, 1613-2013”, Palace of Versailles, until February 23
“André Le Nôtre”, by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin (Fayard, €27)