Grand Designs: André Le Nôtre and the Gardens of Versailles


Plan view of the gardens of Versailles

On the 15th of September 1700, French landscape architect, and the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France, André Le Nôtre died in Paris. Regarded as one of the greatest landscape designers of all time, Le Nôtre was responsible for the design and construction of such famous French gardens as Chantilly, Fontainebleau, Saint-Cloud, Saint-Germain, and, most of all, Versailles. In 1643, he obtained the post of Designer of the Royal Gardens and within two years he had become premier gardener to Louis XIV, or rather to his ministers, since the new king was just seven years old at the time. Le Nôtre remained in this post until his death in 1700, 55 years later, linking his own name with the elaborate and much copied jardin à la française forever.

Le Nôtre‘s involvement in the art of landscape design was not accidental. In fact, in seventeenth-century France, gardening operated as a manual trade, passed down from father to son. For example, Pierre La Nôtre (1570-1610) – André’s grandfather – was appointed one of the chief gardeners in Catherine de Médicis’s newly created Tuileries Garden in 1571; he was succeeded in this post by his son Jean in 1618, who was in turn succeeded in 1637 by his son André. The traditional system brought security to many French gardening professionals; some also achieved wealth and recognition. But the profession continued to operate like a manual trade or mechanical art throughout the seventeenth century, and the gardeners themselves did not band together to seek the higher status that might come through guilds, societies, academies, and the like. Unquestionably,  La Nôtre’s achievements brought him fame, wealth, and international reputation comparable to that of some of the greatest French artists.

51dWPna9lHLOut of all his designs, the grandest and the most significant one in his career was probably Versailles. “It is well known how André Le Nôtre came to design the gardens at Versailles. Louis’s [the XIV] finance minister, Nicholas Fouquet, hired a trio of artists—the architect Le Vau, the painter Le Brun, and the gardener Le Notre—to create his new chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. There was no preexisting structure to improve or renovate. The entire complex was built from scratch. It was an undertaking on an unprecedented scale, employing some eighteen thousand men. As William Howard Adams reports, “three offending villages were leveled and the river Angueil marshalled into a canal over three thousand feet long. Earth was moved to form massive terraces, parterres, and ramps, followed by tree planting on an imposing scale.” A grand fete was held in 1661 to celebrate the completion of the ensemble. Offended by the conspicuous extravagance of his underling, Louis had him arrested and shortly hired away his trio of artists to improve the small hunting lodge he had inherited at Versailles.” (Stephanie Ross, What Gardens Mean)

download (4)La Nôtre was highly original in his design. His invention is one of recombination and transformation, frequently accomplished through a jump in scale with the simplest of elements and unexpected juxtapositions. “The gardens at Vaux (considered by some Le Nôtre’s masterpiece) and at Versailles exhibit the quintessential traits of the French formal garden: symmetry, grandeur, and great expanse. These gardens are rectilinear and architectural, unified by recurrent geometry and relentless axial symmetry. Their design relates house to garden and each garden part to every other. The broad alleys crossing at right angles or radiating outwards in a patte d’oie (goose foot) pattern mark the gardens’ structure. While earlier French gardens were often centered on some architectural feature which closed off the view, Le Nôtre swept the alleys to the very horizon, appropriating and controlling all the visible landscape. The rectilinear areas within the intersections of these alleys were often given over to parterres. These were low gardens (the word comes from “par” and “terre,” meaning on or along the ground), in which dipped boxwood, flowers, and colored gravel traced ornate patterns recalling Venetian lace or elaborate brocade. Hence the term parterre de broderie, in reference to the art of embroidery. The parterres were designed to be viewed from a lofty vantage point, often one within the chateau itself.” (Ross)

The clarity of the French formal style expressed in La Nôtre’s work was imitated across the continent. La Theorie et le pratique du jardinage by Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, written in 1709, summarized the elements of the French Classical garden based on La Nôtre’s work. The book became enormously popular, diffusing the grand style throughout Europe.