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The gardens of Le Nôtre

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André Le Nôtre

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Controller General of the Buildings, Arts and Factories of France (1613-1700)

The king of gardeners and the King’s own gardener, Le Nôtre made the French formal garden famous throughout Europe. He designed the finest gardens of the 17th century and made Versailles into his absolute masterpiece. His talents earned him a colossal fortune and an international reputation.

Biography

In the service of the monarchy since 1635, Le Nôtre began his career as gardener of Gaston d’Orléans, an uncle of Louis XIV. Born into a family of gardeners to the king beginning in the 16th century, he was trained in the Tuileries gardens which he modified between 1666 and 1672, creating the vast perspective of the Champs-Elysées. His work for Fouquet in Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1656-61 brought him glory and fortune.

Louis XIV summoned him to Versailles in 1662 when he was working on the gardens of Chantilly for the Grand Condé. Starting from the base of the primitive garden of Louis XIII, Le Nôtre laid out close to the Château two large parterres, the north and south parterres. He remodelled the great east-west axis which he intended to prolong in an endless perspective. While he kept the natural slope of the northern section, the rest was remodelled by human labour.

At Versailles, Le Nôtre refined his gardening concepts: the principal walks cut by secondary walks surrounding the groves; trellises and tree-covered archways formed vast walls of greenery that emphasized the perspectives; side or winding paths led to the groves in order to ensure the surprise of the spectator; original decors and water effects contrasted with the rigorous symmetry of the wooded masses. Using all the resources of water, Le Nôtre created a play on shadow and sunlight by alternating shady places (groves) with clearer areas (parterres). The parterres and principal walks were flanked by statues and clipped yew hedges in the most surprising shapes which make Versailles a key centre of the topiarist’s art.

This learned and refined balance between the symmetry of the walks and the fantasy of the groves is applied with more or less rigour in the other great achievements of the gardener: Saint-Cloud for the duc d’Orléans (1665); Sceaux for Colbert (1670-77); Clagny for Mme de Montespan (1674), etc. Apart from Versailles, Le Nôtre laid out for the king the grand terrace of Saint-Germain (1669-72) and the gardens of Trianon (1672-88). Ennobled in 1675, he kept the king’s favour right to the end and – a rare achievement – his friendship. In return, the artist left to him a part of his collections in 1693.

 

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