In an extract from his book, Guillaume Picon explores the marvel that is Nicolas Fouquet’s Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, a jewel in France’s crown created by the greatest names of the Grand Siècle.
Excerpted from Vaux-le-Vicomte: A Private Invitation with permission from the publisher, Flammarion/Rizzoli New York. Words by Guillaume Picon. Photographs by Bruno Ehrs. Foreword by Alexandre de Vogüé, Introduction by Christian Lacroix
In 1641, Nicolas Fouquet, Master of Requests at the Parlement of Paris, acquired the viscounty of Vaux. Situated in an ideal location southeast of the capital, between the Château de Vincennes, where Cardinal Mazarin lived, and Fontainebleau, the summer residence of the kings of France, the estate comprised an old manor house and several dozen. acres of land.
In 1653, now Superintendent of Finances to King Louis XIV, Fouquet summoned the greatest artists of his day – the architect Le Vau, the painter Le Brun, the landscape designer Le Nôtre – to transform his property into a masterpiece, one that has survived the ages to enrich posterity: the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.
AN EXTRAORDINARY PROJECT
The cost of the Franco-Spanish war (1635–59) forced the Superintendent of Finances to seek massive funding. His personal credit took the place of the dwindling State coffers. But to inspire confidence in his investors, Fouquet had to live opulently and lavish his guests with luxury, his wealth and estate serving as guarantees.
Vaux-le-Vicomte was exactly what he needed for these political ends, and it would also allow him to consolidate his power and satisfy his passion for luxury and art. It would provide him with a more suitable backdrop for the impressive art collection he had assembled at his beautiful residence in Saint-Mandé with its French-style garden. The project began with reworking the grounds and gardens. Trees were removed or transplanted. A half-mile stretch of a small river crossing the property, the Anqueuil, was rechannelled. The old manor house was torn down along with three hamlets. Le Nôtre adapted his design to the local contours, creating terraces with the soil excavated to form the parterres. A new landscape was taking form. Fouquet then turned his attention to his new house, signing the plans for the outer walls with Louis Le Vau in 1656.
Accounts vary as to the number of workers engaged in the effort, but it is estimated that the kingdom’s grandest construction project employed between six hundred and two thousand labourers. Work progressed quickly. In 1658 the roofs and cupola were finished and the installation of the chimneys and woodwork had begun. Most of the interior decoration work was entrusted to Charles Le Brun, while the layout of the gardens was progressing under the supervision of André Le Nôtre. But it all came to an abrupt halt on September 5, 1661, when Louis XIV ordered the arrest of Fouquet for “misconduct”, leaving certain decorations unfinished, such as the ceiling in the grand oval salon.
When summoned by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis Le Vau was anything but unknown. The Hôtel Lambert on Île Saint-Louis in Paris and the Château du Raincy (later demolished) had already earned him the rank of First Architect to the King in 1654. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, Le Vau created a composite architecture mixing materials and styles. Faithful to the Louis XIII style, the architect had originally envisioned finishing the château and its service buildings in brick and stone to create a harmonious whole. This is seen in the plan signed by the architect and his client on August 2, 1656. In the end, the choice was made to face the château entirely in stone, a Creil limestone warmed by an ochre wash, contrasting more distinctly with the service buildings. The high roof shingled in dark grey slate emphasises the majesty of the façades. The main body of the building is flanked by elegant pavilions and surmounted by an elliptical dome – an impressive feat of engineering – that is crowned, in turn, by a lantern.
The moat around the château alludes to the pools and fountains in the gardens, which are laid out along the master perspective passing through the château’s courtyard and garden entrances.
The line of sight envisioned by Le Vau and Le Nôtre through the north and south avant-corps (the vestibule and the Grand Salon) gives eloquent expression to the profound unity between the dwelling and its gardens.
Ambassador of Italian influences, Le Nôtre developed a new and powerful style at Vaux, a classical aesthetic tinged with baroque that would influence French architecture throughout the Grand Siècle.
Splendours of Interior Decoration
In the early 1650s, Charles Le Brun was on his way to being recognised as the most gifted painter of his generation. He was summoned to participate in a host of major projects, both civil and religious, all at the behest of the king. Le Brun arrived at Vaux-le-Vicomte at the end of 1657, invited by Nicolas Fouquet. He developed the first major decorative scheme of the Grand Siècle with brilliant allegorical compositions responding to Fouquet’s quest for pomp.
The Birth of the French Garden
Appointed “designer of alleys and parterres of all His Majesty’s gardens” in 1646, André Le Nôtre was entrusted by Fouquet with the creation of a garden ex nihilo on a scale like nothing seen before: 80 acres (33 hectares) awaiting his multifaceted talent. Combining characteristics of the Italian garden with elements found in more modest form in various European gardens, Le Nôtre achieved a synthesis that marked the birth of a new art, that of the French garden. With its formally perfect layout, theatrical character and spectacular majesty, Vaux-le-Vicomte is the pioneering work, the model for an idiom that would be inflected in all prominent French and European estates.
Nature Sets the Stage
When André Le Nôtre arrived in Vaux in 1652, the existing garden was composed of three parterres and a nursery that would produce all the plants he needed for his new garden. These were the work of the architect and entrepreneur Daniel Gittard, who had thus laid the basis for the future garden well before Le Nôtre. The latter immediately envisioned an innovative style that both honoured and departed from prevailing norms. Traditionally, parterres were independent elements, at times completely self-enclosed. Le Nôtre undertook extensive landscaping work, creating open spaces and a succession of terraces at different levels with attractive features off to the sides. The result is a natural setting that is both theatrical and majestic, with many delightful surprises in wait for those strolling along its paths. Astutely exploiting the laws of optics, Le Nôtre also achieved a decelerated perspective, making distant elements appear closer to the viewer than they actually are.
Whether jetting, cascading or still, water is a protagonist in the gardens of Vaux. In addition to the numerous pools, such as the Bassin de la Couronne (Crown Pool), the Round Pool and the Reflecting Pool, Le Nôtre laid out two small canals running east-west and, further down, the Grand Canal fed by the Anqueuil. The canal is bordered by the Grand Cascades to the north and the famous grotto to the south, both situated along the principal north-south axis passing through the vestibule and the Grand Salon.
Beyond the large circular basin known as La Gerbe stands the statue of Hercules, leaning on his club as if resting after completing his twelfth labour. André Félibien, Louis XIV’s court historian, summed it up perfectly in 1661: “I do not want to leave this place without telling you that we beheld the most beautiful perspective in the world.”
From France Today magazine
You can learn more about the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte in the next Bonjour Paris Live presentation on April 13th. Register here