Jardin à la Française

It is 400 years since the birth of France’s greatest landscape architect, André le Nôtre (1613 – 1700) and there have been a number of celebrations to mark this.

He is the renowned creator of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles.

Chateau de Versailles

Chateau de Versailles

But it is his earlier work at the very pretty Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte which is, to me, more breathtakingly harmonious and satisfying.

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Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte

This is the height of formal garden style or jardin à la française, with its strict geometric layout, clipped box hedging, symmetrical parterres and classical statuary.

Topiary and classical statue - Versailles

Topiary and classical statue

Le Nôtre’s first great garden design, at Vaux-le-Vicomte, was commissioned by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendant of Finances. The splendour of Fouquet’s Chateau  and grounds may have led to his downfall – three weeks after the King visited, Fouquet was arrested for embezzlement and imprisoned until his death.  He was never to see his beloved Vaux-le-Vicomte again.

Vaux -le-Vicomte was to be the forerunner of Versailles.  After Fouquet’s arrest, Le Nôtre was employed by Louis XIV, along with Fouquet’s architect Le Vau and painter Le Brun, to work on the Chateau of Versailles and other major projects.

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Le Nôtre’s vision at Vaux-le-Vicomte was on a grand scale – a vast symmetrical plan was conceived with gravel walks, parterres and canals and pools.

He played with perspective so that the canal is invisible from the steps of the house and the garden seems to be a relatively small landscaped area of parterres.

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View from the steps of the Chateau – no canal visible.

“The eye creates perspective and walking makes it live”, said Le Nôtre.

So one sets out to walk through the parterres….

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… towards the grotto ahead and the statue of Hecules visible on the hill.

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The statue of Hercules on the hill and the grotto at the end of the path.

At the end of the path, one realises the genius of Le Nôtre as he plays with perspective and exploits the varying levels of the land – out of the blue, a canal appears and makes the grotto seem inaccessible and the statue of Hercules much further away than appeared at the steps of the Chateau.

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How did we not suspect this canal was here? Why does the statue of Hercules now look further away than from the Chateau?

Of course one circumnavigates the canal and heads up the Hercules hill to study the gardens now laid out below as we look back at the Chateau.

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The Chateau now appears quite different – as if sitting on a pedestal of successive parterres and walkways.

The pleasure one feels at observing this scene, is due to its unparalleled harmony and balance.

Of course there are many smaller details to be admired :

Detail of the grotto

Detail of the grotto

Roof detail

Roof detail

Statues - this one hinting at modesty

Statues – this one hinting at modesty

The view from the roof

The view from the roof

What are the lessons we can learn about design from Le Nôtre? Are there any key principles we can use in our own humbler back gardens?

Firstly, one of the key features of the French garden was its timeless quality – the use of evergreens means it looks good throughout the seasons. These photos were taken in both June and November.

Secondly, the use of water – canals, pools, fountains, cascades – with its reflective qualities ensures the garden is not static.

Thirdly, the illusory nature of the garden means that the walker is rewarded for exploring – it cannot all be seen at once; there is an element of surprise.

A grand party was held in 1661 at Vaux-le-Vicomte and meant that Le Nôtre’s fame spread far and wide.

The grand party of 1661

The grand party of 1661

A 40 year friendship developed between him and Louis XIV. For his coat of arms, he showed his characteristic simplicity, inventiveness and humour.

Le Notre's coat of arms, complete with cabbage and slugs.

Le Notre’s coat of arms, complete with cabbage and snails.

Vaux-le Vicomte remains one of my very favourite formal gardens.

The interior is worth a visit too.

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View from one of the rooms

View from one of the rooms

Child's chair by the fireplace

Child’s chair by the fireplace

It makes a wonderful visit if you’re near Paris, and far less crowded than Versailles.

If you could invite anyone from history to dinner, who would it be? – goes the party game.

Le Nôtre would always be top of my list ….. just have to improve my French first!

(All photography mine; feel free to use any of Jardin’s images but please credit and link back)

15 thoughts on “Jardin à la Française

  1. I first visited Vaux-le-Vicomte many many years ago with an old school friend then living in Paris and fell in love with it–just as you have done.
    It is Bach in a garden!

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    • Well, Versailles is Le Notre’s most famous garden so at least you saw that…
      However, I’m glad you liked this little tour of Vaux-le-Vicomte – to whet your appetite for a future visit perhaps?

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