Thanksgiving 2013 marks 400 years since the birth ofAndré Le Nôtre, the "King of Gardeners and the gardener of kings ". On this occasion, Versailles paid him a special tribute from March 12, with the creation of a French garden installed on the square of the Saint Louis cathedral, a "garden of scents" as well as the "garden of the Gobert ponds" , these old ponds which were used to supply the great waters of the castle, becoming a public garden, concerts and exhibitions.As for the site of Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose gardens were among the first to be transformed by Le Nôtre, it will host an exhibition bearing his name. But who was the “Gardener of the Kings”?
Gardener from father to son
André Le Nôtre was born on March 12, 1613 in the Tuileries, in a family of gardeners: his grandfather, a gardener from Catherine de Médicis; his father titled "designer of plants and gardens" and "gardener of the king at the Tuileries". André therefore naturally spent his youth in the Bord de l'Eau gallery in the Louvre, then followed architecture lessons with François Mansart as well as painting in Simon Vouet's studio, meeting Le Brun and Mignard. Always wanting to educate himself, he is learning agronomy, hydrology, mathematics and is already making gradual changes in level. From the 1630s, Le Nôtre worked in the garden under the orders of his father and Claude Ier Mollet before obtaining in 1637 the certificate of gardener of the Tuileries then in 1643 the post of "designer of the plans and flowerbeds of all the His Majesty's Gardens ”, but he will never bear the title of“ The King's First Gardener ”.
He married in 1640 Françoise Langlois, daughter of an ordinary commissioner of the artillery of France; their three children die at an early age. However, the tradition continues as two of André's three sisters will marry gardeners.
In the meantime, at the age of 22, he became Monsieur's First Gardener, taking care at the same time of the Tuileries Gardens, those of Luxembourg, the Royal Palace and Fontainebleau. He was noticed by Fouquet who attracted him to Vaux le Vicomte, while acquiring the office of Controller General of Buildings and Gardens of the King in 1657, still living in the Tuileries and still maintaining gardens. Due to his function, he must be able to supervise the most diverse works at the level of locksmithing, sculpture, masonry and control the memories of contractors with a view to their payment by the general treasurers.
His conception of gardens
He now sets the rules for so-called “French-style” gardens, transforming marshy grounds into magnificent gardens, into airy spaces offering a distant perspective, unlike the use of the Renaissance, which wanted enclosed gardens, with alternating light. and shade, a mixture of sculptures of marble and plants. Using a small number of simple geometric shapes made of circles, squares, rectangles, hexagons, octagons, sometimes in combination, he combines highly ornate parts near dwellings with more refined ones. The terraces are open on the landscape composed of refined flowerbeds, groves, as far as the eye can see, as in Saint Germain en Laye where the terrace overlooks the Seine but offers a view of Paris or like the perspective at the end of the Tuileries gardens, estimating that "the Tuileries lead to nothing other than an ugly road" thus creating the future Champs Elysées!
André Le Nôtre, gardener of the Kings
Louis XIV hearing only good things about this man, called him in 1661 to take care of the gardens of Versailles. Le Nôtre is surprised to see a large swamp facing the castle, but he has a “Pardi! We are going to turn it into a grand canal! ". His painting lessons as well as his knowledge of Le Brun and Mignard served him well; it enhances the terrain, creating perspectives where the size of the trees lengthens as one moves away from the castle.
From then on, the great ones of the kingdom demand it: Monsieur à Saint Cloud, Colbert à Sceaux, Madame de Montespan at Clagny; he works on the sites of Trianon, Maintenon, Saint-Cyr, Marly, Chantilly, Paris, as well as in several mansions in Saint-Maur, Saint-Martin de Pontoise, Chaville, Louvois, Pontchartrain and Conflans.
In Europe, Charles II of England called on him for the gardens of Greenwich, Hampton Court and Windsor; the name of Le Nôtre is associated with the Charlottenburg garden in Berlin; the royal gardens of Drottningholm in Sweden resemble the Chantilly basins; in Russia, the Peterhof gardens in Saint Petersburg are adorned with waterfalls, fountains and pavilions recalling the splendor of the great French gardens; in Spain, we find “his paw” in the gardens of La Granja near Segovia… Even the Pope asks him to redo his gardens! Ours is loved everywhere.
André Le Nôtre is a subtle courtier, staying away from the intrigues of the Court, but knowing how to attract the good graces of the king, so much so that he is the only one to kiss Louis XIV during a walk, to stand up to him or place his chair next to that of the king in the gardens. Ennobled in 1675, he composed his coat of arms "three snails crowned with a cabbage stalk, with a spade and a rake". In 1693, the king made him a knight of the royal order of Saint-Michel, a rare distinction reserved for writers and artists. For thirty years, he thus shared the intimacy of the king, to such an extent that the young Louis XIV considered him almost as his father ... To thank the monarch and express his gratitude to him, Le Nôtre offered him around seventy paintings, bronzes and only porcelain from his collection which he had been building since 1650, a great collector, he owned prints, paintings of Italian, Dutch and Flemish paintings, sculptures, porcelains and above all a large number of modern medals.
The Greats pay homage to him
Very attached to his house near the Pavillon de Marsan, he retired there from 1694 and died on September 15, 1700 at the age of 87.
The Mercure Galant comments on his death in these laudatory terms: "Le Roy has just lost a rare man, & zealous for his service, & very singular in his art, & who did him honor. It is Mr. Le Nostre, Controller General of His Majesty's Bastimens, Gardens, Arts and Manufactures of France. (...) Never has man known better than him all that can contribute to the beauty of the Gardens ... "
Saint Simon is not to be outdone and makes his funeral eulogy "illustrious for having been the first to give the various designs of these beautiful gardens which decorate France, and which have so erased the reputation of those of Italy, that the most famous masters like this come from Italy to learn and admire here. Ours had a probity, an exactitude and a right which made him esteem and love everyone. He never left his state or misunderstood himself, and was always perfectly disinterested. He worked for individuals as well as for the king, to reduce the true beauty to the hands of expenses that he could ... a month before his death, the king, who liked to see him and to make him talk, led him in his gardens, and because of his great age, had him put in a chair that porters rolled up beside his own and Le Nôtre said there "ah! my poor father, if you were alive and could see a poor gardener like me, your son, walking around in a chair beside the greatest king in the world, nothing would be lacking to my joy ”.
His portrait has stood for four centuries in the Gardeners Building near the Orangery. On the main table, we find the "general plan of the garden" dating from 1720 requested by Louis XV, a plan which has always served as a reference for gardeners since 1992, in order to restore the park to its original state.
Considered today as the first modern landscaper, his contemporaries still rely on his work, to use all the qualities of a site: the relief, the views, the orientation, the water, the substrate in order to achieve a beautiful composition. As a result, in July 2013, the "André Le Nôtre International Prize" will be awarded for the first time to a landscape designer for all of his work!
- Portrait of a happy man: André Le Nôtre, 1613-1700, by Erik Orsenna. Folio, 2012.
- André le ours, by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin. Fayard, April 2013.