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The Palace of Versailles, built by Louis XIV.

The gardens at the Palace of Versailles built for Louis XIV by Andre Le Notre

When I think of the French garden, I picture an army of men on their hands and knees trimming grass and hedges with nail clippers. I wonder at the precision with which the chaotic growth of plants and the entropy of nature is contained by the sheer will of human reason.

It makes sense that the French Garden made its appearance during the Baroque era. After you have covered every square inch of your building with decorative elements, there is only one place left to look for more embellishments: the grounds. It also seems logical that it would come during the era of the absolute monarch, because once you have complete control over politics the monarch would look to dominate the natural realm.

Like just about everything, the French garden borrowed from the past. In this case, it’s roots go back to Italy where the idea for Renaissance gardens came to Paris via Catherine d’Medici when she became queen to the short-lived Henry II (remember, he was the chap who took a lance to the eye). She brought with her the aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance and immediately started to plant them throughout the capital.

By the time Louis XIV decided that the earth revolved around the Sun King, the formal French Garden had become an aesthetic ideal all its own with a highly controlled architectural space where balance and the complete manipulation of nature were the guiding principles. The design was imbued with Baroque dynamism: the illusion of movement, rejection of staid presentations, and above all order. “Fixed frontality was abandoned; mobility, metamorphosis, and active theatricality became the norm.” (Weiss, Allen S. Mirrors of Infinity: The French Formal Gardens and 17th Century Metaphysics p. 23) Symmetric and geometric designs were kept “alive” through the use of fountains, statuary, broderie (patterns that looked like embroidery), aviaries, and menageries.

Ultimately, the theories that drove French garden design was the tension between two diametrically opposed ideas: the formal subordination of nature to man’s rationality and the celebration of nature’s freedom and grandeur (source).

There was a much more culturally-relevant reason why the formal French garden rose during the time of the absolute monarch. It was an era of minute control as explained in the expression “politics of the gaze.” Aristocrats would gain–or lose–favor based entirely on the perceived commitment they showed the crown through even slight facial expressions. A sideways glance could cost you an estate. A well-timed deferential bow could earn you status, which was worth more than gold. Etiquette became both ritual as well as an instrument of power. Control was the driving force in both behavior, fashion, design, and politics. (Weiss, Allen S. Mirrors of Infinity: The French Formal Gardens and 17th Century Metaphysics.)

The French garden was the epitome of control.

A singular country, superior to all others, as Art is to Nature, where the latter is transformed by the dream, where it is corrected, embellished, and recast.” (Charles Baudelaire, “L’Invitation au voyage” as quoted in Mirrors of Infinity: The French Formal Gardens and 17th Century Metaphysics by Allen S. Weiss.)

André Le Nôtre was Louis XIV’s personal landscape architect and is probably the most influential designer to have developed the advanced aesthetics of the French Garden. He certainly possessed the pedigree. His family served the kings of France for at least three generations.

The following are some examples from Le Nôtre’s work:

The formal gardens at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte designed by Le Notre. Note the broderie (or embroidery) designs common to 17th century French gardens.

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"Vue du Bassin de Latone dans les jardins de Versailles" built in 1678 by Le Notre. Water features were common to Baroque gardens. They represented both wealth, control, and dynamism.

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Orangery in the ground of the Palace of Versailles. The broderie, the water feature, the plant varieties, and the expansive views are all common to Baroque garden design.

The plan for the Jardins de la Reine by Richard Micque, 1783. The geometric shapes of Versailles are giving way to a winding, free-form layout.

In the 18th century, the style of French gardens got old. The new style was to imitate the English garden which proposed a rugged, natural space (source). The illusion of the 18th century English garden was one of escape into nature. The rigid, geometric shapes of human reason were abandoned and replaced with Rousseau-inspired escape back to nature. Society–the city!–was the source of human ills. The soul could be rejuvenated only through visiting the countryside. The 18th century garden evoked the feeling, if not the actual chaos, of wilderness. In France, this style became known as “le jardin paysager” or the landscape garden. One could escape the city without leaving the city.

Artist rendition for the gardens at a manor during the 17th century...

...versus how they might look during the 18th century.

By the 19th century, gardens were designed for the benefit of those who wanted a relaxing stroll. The constitutional strengthened one’s health and social status. The garden paths were carefully laid out. Free-form nature was controlled within structured spaces. The flowerbed appeared for the purpose of pleasing those who would walk by.

When the home owners association complains that my yard looks horrible, I just explain to them that I do not ascribe to the 19th century ideals for formal gardens. I believe in the free-forming wilderness promoted by the 18th century English garden, thank you very much.

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