2013 was the 400th anniversary of the birth of the greatest of all French gardeners – André Le Nôtre.
André Le Nôtre, 12 March 1613 – 15 September 1700, revolutionized the art of gardening in France. Born into a family of gardeners, he followed closely in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father, Jean, working first in the gardens of the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where the gardens still follow his original designs.
Whilst working at the Tuileries Palace as a young man, Le Nôtre was influenced by others working on site – painters, engineers and other gardeners and it was there that he forged strong relationships with artists such as Charles Le Brun.
In 1648, Le Nôtre took over the family business from his father Jean, who had been a head gardener for Louis XVIII, and became a gardener for Louis XIV.
Le Nôtre was commissioned by Nicholas Fouquet, the King’s Superintendent of Finances to work with his friend Le Brun to design one of the most beautiful chateau and gardens in France – the Chateau of Vaux Le Vicomte. His design was ground breaking – the use of water and fountains, the terraces and above all the sense of perspective he introduced were innovative and radical for their day.
The chateau and gardens of Vaux le Vicomte were in fact so spectacular that they aroused envy and ire and caused the end of the King’s relationship with his right hand man.
Le Nôtre though, went from strength to strength, garnering wealthy patrons and designing more garden masterpieces – including Fontainebleau, Saint Cloud, Chantilly and Meudon and of course the glorious Versailles gardens.
Le Notre’s design meant the draining of swamps, movement of thousands of tons of earth, planting of huge numbers of trees and plants, the creation of ponds and canals and the installation of fabulous statues and fountains. Today the fabulous Versailles gardens still use much of the same network of hydraulics as was used during the Ancien Régime, making the gardens of Versailles unique. The Versailles gardens covered 800 hectares and took 40 years in total to complete involving thousands of workers.
Le Nôtre is today probably best remembered for Versailles but he designed dozens of gardens in France and as his fame spread overseas, he also designed gardens in London, Italy and Germany.
One of the greatest gardeners of the world, his work can be admired still today.
Where to see Le Notre gardens in France
Versailles of course – one of the most famous gardens in the world and a listed World UNESCO site. Visit if you can on weekends from late spring to early autumn when the Grandes Eaux takes place – spectacles during which all the fountains in the gardens are in full play. Open: daily, 8am to 8.30pm until October 31 (then until 6pm from November). See the website for details of garden and Le Notre exhibitions: www.chateauversailles.fr
Vaux-le-Vicomte – Le Nôtre’s first major creation and the garden that has inspired generations for centuries. See the website for details of early opening for tranquil visits, guided walks, candle lit garden tours and exhibitions. Open: to November 11, 10am to 6pm, or 11pm on summer Saturday evenings.
Chantilly – said to have been Le Nôtre’s favourite garden, created for the Prince of Condé with extensive parterres and Le Nôtre’s signature spectacular water features. Open: daily, 10am to 6pm until September 29; gates close at 8pm. www.chateaudechantilly.com