Le Nôtre: Gardens of Paris – Ancien and Modern

by Abigail Willis

Catch it while you can – an exhibition celebrating one of garden history’s greats is closing next month.  It’ll mean a trip to France, but it’s worth it to see the venue alone.  Held at the Palace of Versailles, André Le Nôtre in Perspectives 1613-2013 presents the fruit of the latest research on the man who not only created the iconic gardens at Versailles but whose work continues to influence urban planning and garden design today.

André Le Nôtre

Born in 1613, Le Nôtre followed in the family footsteps to become a royal gardener, working at the Tuileries before bagging a plum job as designer of the king’s plants and gardens in 1643. Le Nôtre’s earlier apprenticeship with the painter Simon Vouet was crucial to his success: it was in Vouet’s studio that he studied the art of drawing from nature and learned new techniques of dealing with perspective – skills that would prove essential when it came to laying out the enormous vistas that became his trademark.

le Notre

The exhibition – timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Le Nôtre’s birth – reveals a cultured man operating at the heart of Louis XIV’s court.  Le Nôtre, the connoisseur, commissioned works from leading painters of the day (such as Poussin’s Adoration of the Shepherds, on loan from the National Gallery in London), and was also an active collector of classically-inspired bronzes. It is a measure of both the quality of his collection and the closeness of his relationship with the monarch that when he retired in 1693, Le Nôtre gave his best pieces to Louis XIV.

His work for the king included Fontainebleau, Vincennes, St Germain-en- Laye as well as Versailles, but in a 65 year career, Le Nôtre also found time to undertake commissions for foreign monarchs. A wall map of his ‘interventions’ reveals a geographic range that reaches from Greenwich in England to Het Loo in Holland, and Racconigi in Italy. The exhibition itself is generously provisioned with paintings of Le Nôtre’s finished creations – usually aerial views to show off the whole layout to best advantage. 

Le Notre Versailles

Site visits for every project were not always possible and Le Nôtre relied on trusted assistants, many of them recruited from within his family.   Beautifully drawn garden plans with laconic annotations and corrections in Le Nôtre’s hand show his delegation skills; displays of surveying tools evoke the painstaking ground work required to prepare them.  A room-length model of the Grand Canal vista at Versailles reveals, contour by contour, how Le Nôtre manipulated the landscape and explains his use of perspective techniques such as collimation (visual alignment) and anamorphosis ( elongating and widening of distant shapes).

Parterres were another baroque staple that Le Nôtre made his own, building them on a larger scale than before and with a greater emphasis on ornamental topiary and sculpture.  Le Nôtre’s ‘broderies’ at Versailles are being restored to his original designs and, in a forward-looking development, his long since dismantled Water Theatre Grove (one of 15 woodland groves or ‘bosquets’ he created at Versailles) is being reimagined by landscape designer Louis Benech and sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel and is due to reopen later this year.

The exhibition concludes with Le Nôtre’s often surprising legacy. Far from being relegated to history, Le Nôtre’s crisp lines, relentless energy and epic grandeur struck a chord with urban planners of the modern era.  Sketches made by Le Corbusier, on the spot at Versailles, show the architect absorbing Le Nôtre’s mastery of the landscape, an influence that can also be detected in the radiating avenues in his 1922 Project for a Town of 3m Inhabitants.   Brothers André and Paul Vera reinterpreted the Le Nôtrian parterre for the Art Deco age in the garden they created for themselves in St Germain-en-Laye in 1920.   More recently landscape architect Peter Walker’s long-standing fascination with Le Nôtre’s use of ‘emptiness’, axial grids and forced perspectives has been expressed in the 9/11 Memorial on the site of the Twin Towers in New York City.

Incidentally, a selection of the Vera garden designs are on display at the Vera Foundation in St Germain-en-Laye, as part of a small reciprocal exhibition (“Andre Le Nôtre chez Paul et André Vera”) which runs until 17 May 2014. 

A visit to St Germain-en-Laye has the additional draw of Le Nôtre’s Grande Terrasse, created in 1669 in the grounds of the old royal palace.  This 2,450 metre long rampart occupies a ridge above the Seine and enjoys panoramic views across to Paris and it’s worth walking to appreciate Le Nôtre’s skill on the ground.  By playing on the differences in level, and by using a ‘half-moon’ to create a break in the view, Le Nôtre was able to foreshorten the distant perspective that would otherwise have deterred strollers.  It’s still a pretty daunting prospect but one that irresistibly draws you on, despite the uphill slog on the return leg.  

Grande terrasse

Apres Le Nôtre: Onwards and Upwards

And what would Le Nôtre make of landscape architecture in Paris today?  While he had the luxury of working on large estates (the land around Versailles was bought up, parcel by parcel, for decades while he laid out the gardens there), today’s space-poor designers increasingly have to look upwards.  Built along the old Vincennes railway line in the 12th arrondissement, the Promenade Plantée is like a modern version of the Grande Terrasse, with one third of its 4.5 km length being at viaduct level.  This raised pedestrian allée, created by Philippe Mathieux and Jacques Vergely and opened in 1993, offers strollers views over the city from a tranquil car-free environment, provisioned with glades of whispering bamboo, fragrant rose bowers and flowering evergreens.

Promenade Plantee

Paris is also home to the maestro of vertical gardening Patrick Blanc and a good place to see his work. The Oasis d’Aboukir was planted in April 2013 and has transformed a grotty street corner at the junction of Rue d’Aboukir and Rue des Petits Carreaux in the 2nd arrondissement.  Like Blanc’s ‘Living Wall’ at London’s Athenaeum Hotel, this 250m square garden was an exceptionally public-spirited private commission on the part of the landlord. Some 7,600 specimens, ranging across 237 species have provided an instantaneous boost to the area’s biodiversity but despite its exotic looks the garden features plants that will be familiar to many British gardeners – Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’, Choisya ‘Aztec Pearl’, Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ and Sedum spectabile ‘Iceberg’. 

Bland oasis

Another recently installed Blanc garden can be tracked down – once you’ve got past the doorman and the elegant vendeuses – in the courtyard of the pristine white showroom of Azzedine Alaia at 5, Rue de Marignan.  A more established (and accessible) example of Blanc’s work can be found on the street frontage of the Quai Branly Museum, on the Left Bank near the Eiffel Tower. The museum (dedicated to non-European cultures) merits a visit in its own right.

Quai Branly

Approaching the museum on foot one can experience the fruit of the outgoing Mayor Delanoë’s efforts to reduce the dominance of cars in Paris.  His recently realized Projet les Berges has magicked a stretch of busy Seine-side expressway into a car-free zone dedicated to ‘nature, culture, and sports’ featuring floating gardens and a potted orchard. And with just two months left in office, Delanoë has announced another controversial proposal – to turn busy, bourgeois Avenue Foch into a 1.3km pedestrian allée, with the creation of a new green, tree-filled space at the Bois de Boulogne end.  In this ‘year of Le Nôtre’, this is a grand project that seems particularly apt in its scale and intent, and its willingness to take – quite literally – the long view.

© Abigail Willis, January 2014

André Le Nôtre in Perspectives 1613-2013

The Palace of Versailles, until 23 February 2014


André Le Nôtre  chez Paul et André Vera à Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Fonds permanent Paul et André Vera, until 17 May 2014


Patrick Blanc


Paris Quais


Musee du Quai Branly


Leave a Reply