In 1661 Louis XIV entrusted André Le Nôtre with the creation and renovation of the gardens of Versailles, which he considered just as important as the Palace. Work on the gardens was started at the same time as the work on the palace and lasted for 40 or so years. During this time André Le Nôtre collaborated with the likes of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Superintendant of Buildings to the King from 1664 to 1683, who managed the project, and Charles Le Brun, who was made First Painter to the King in January 1664 and provided the drawings for a large number of the statues and fountains. Last but not least, each project was reviewed by the King himself, who was keen to see “every detail”. Not long after, the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, having been made First Architect to the King and Superintendant of Buildings, built the Orangery and simplified the outlines of the Park, in particular by modifying or opening up some of the groves.
Creating the gardens was a monumental task. Large amounts of soil had to be shifted to level the ground, create parterres, build the Orangery and dig out the fountains and Canal in places previously occupied solely by meadows and marshes. Trees were brought in from different regions of France. Thousands of men, sometimes even entire regiments, took part in this immense project.
To maintain the design, the garden needed to be replanted approximately once every 100 years. Louis XVI did so at the beginning of his reign, and the undertaking was next carried out during the reign of Napoleon III. Following damage caused by a series of storms in the late 20th century, including one in December 1999, which was the most devastating, the garden has been fully replanted and now boasts a fresh, youthful appearance similar to how it would have looked to Louis XIV.
The Versailles gardens, designed by André Le Nôtre, have been a worldwide reference since the 17th century. These works of art are also a paradise representative of the ambitions of Louis XIV when he was a young king.
Versailles before Louis XIV
Before becoming today’s vast domain made up of parks and gardens, Versailles was the hunting grounds for the young Louis XIII and his father, King Henry IV, where a hunting pavilion and later a palace were built. For Louis XIII, the place was not only a refuge where he could enjoy hunting but a place where he could get away from the authority of his mother, Marie de Medici, who would guarantee his ascension to the throne.
André Le Nôtre and The Gardens of the Royal Residence
The work that André Le Nôtre carried out for the Château de Versailles marked not only his career but the history of France. A humble gardener without specialized training, Le Nôtre designed and conceived a series of gardens, groves, and parks for the palace and its domaine. His achievements were, and still are, considered to be the work of a genius and spanned 25 long years during which the gardens of Versailles would continue to grow in size and in splendor.
One must understand the young Sun King’s ambition in order to grasp the plans conceived for gardens of Versailles. Because he sought a world of pleasure and luxury in which he and his court could thrive, the Sun King chose the castle of his father, Louis XIII. Although Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance, wanted to demolish everything, the young King preferred to integrate the old building with the new.
Park and Versailles Garden : the Plan
André Le Nôtre is known for the finesse of his formal flowerbed compositions and for optical illusions without precedent. The use of large, sweeping perspectives allows for impressive panoramas. In reality, however, it’s nearly impossible to see the Versailles domaine all at once, a fact which bears witness to the talent of Le Nôtre. Indeed, thanks to a series of flat parterres the gardens unveil themselves with every step. As a result, as the visitor advances so does the landscape reveal itself slowly but surely, much like the succession of theatre scenes that end up creating a complete story.
Two achievements, the Embroidery parterres and the Grand Canal, have made the name Le Nôtre go down in history.
French-style Gardens of Versailles : the birth of a tradition
Jardins de Vaux le Vicomte, created by Le Nôtre
The embroidery parterre, or a formal flowerbed garden, is a theme specific to French gardening that harks back to a veritable tradition. This type of garden is geometric in nature and traces symmetric, arabesque lawns in front of buildings. There’s no such thing as a French-style garden without an embroidery parterre! Those that currently exist at Versailles are reconstructed ones that date from the 1920s and are therefore not entirely faithful to the originals. Old etchings show that rather than lawns bordered by a hedge of small bushes, as is the case today, parterres were the outlines of lawns traced directly onto gravel.
The Grand Canal, an optical feat
The Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles is without a doubt André Le Nôtre’s most famous work. The landscape artist’s task was to create a perfect visual harmony. However, the Grand Canal has two lateral canals that are not the same size; one measures 62 meters and the other 80 meters wide. The main bassin in the form of a cross measures 23 hectares. On paper, the cross appears asymmetrical but when the King would arrive at the bassin -- or more specifically at the Latone part of the bassin -- everything appeared perfectly harmonious and symmetrical.
At the time, this technical prowess was the result of a slow-motion optical perspective that initially provides onlookers with the impression that the canal is much larger than it really is. It’s thanks to anamorphose and the use of distorted imagery that the Grand Canal still provides an astonishing visual harmony without equal.