Le Nôtre : a connoisseur and art collector

Already a living legend under the reign of Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre remains one of the “mythical” figures of French history[1]. Seven years ago, an international symposium celebrated the tercentenary of his death (1700-2000) defining the royal gardener as “an illustrious unknown”[2]. The discussion portrayed the General Controller of the King’s Buildings as an emblematic and insufficiently known personage. And nobody would deny that however the French artist remains famous for his design on landscape, his personality is still obscure, and his collection unfamiliar. This is also the very paradox of his memory: the opposition between public renowned achievements, and private realizations.

Meant for his personal delectation and taste for fine art, his collection is an aspect of Le Nôtre’s life barely tackled. Beginning in the 1650’s, by using his substantial earnings, Le Nôtre assembled a very coherent treasury. The items of his collection were identified through a list of presents he gave to Louis XIV in 1693 and the inventory made after his death, the 24th September 1700. Filled with a wealth of contemporary pictures and objects, his house was, at the time, a real gallery, gathering all kind of fashionable art, but remote from public viewing. It included costly Italian paintings as well as Dutch and Flemish ones, sculpture, porcelains, and a great number of medals and prints.

Having described the collection and treasury, the main question would be to define the taste and motivations of its owner. In other words, what kind of collector was Le Nôtre? Was he a Parisian amateur with fashionable tastes and consumption for modern art? Considering the context of late seventeenth century’s fashion, the Court life and the King’s influence, to what extent did the collection of the gardener Le Nôtre fit into contemporary notions of taste and consumption? What were they at this time amongst Parisian amateur and curious collectors? Fame and renown, Le Nôtre had them already through his design landscaping (Versailles, Chantilly, Les Tuileries, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Saint-Cloud, Vaux-le-Vicomte amongst many others). What were thus the main motives of the gardener for the formation of his collection?

The following discussion will thus consider three main aspects of Le Nôtre personality, through the analysis of his collection: first of all, his genuine passion and knowledge of art; then his curiosity and consumption for expensive art; and finally, the display and magnificence of his all collection, and his motives. 

 

I.

Louis XIV’s era had seen a significant change in the way of collecting[3]. While artificialia and naturalia disappeared gradually, paintings and fine art took the major place in the private galleries. Although they survived until the mid-XVIIIth century, encyclopaedic gatherings became less and less numerous. Moreover, it has been observed that medals were very fashionable at this time, and largely displayed in Royal collections. Besides, who is more fashionable than the King himself? Undoubtedly, Louis XIVth collection cannot but be the best example of fashionable taste and consumption, alongside with the important Parisian collectors. Thus, leaving nearby the King, and sharing his friendship, Le Nôtre was lead to a very up-to-date consideration of art. 
As a starting point, it should be remembered that Le Nôtre owned 149 paintings at the time of his death, valued at 14 203 livres[4]. Most of them were from Italian artists, echoing Parisian taste and sensibility in the mid seventeenth century. Nobility of subject, balance of composition, expression of passion, as well as the importance given to colours, typical of Roman and Bolognese school, fascinated Parisian’s collectors[5].

32 pictures were attributed to Flemish and Dutch artists. The consumption of Northern paintings appeared in the mid XVIIth century and became a true passion. Le Nôtre’s sensibility, once more, fitted French contemporary taste. Amongst others, he owned the Gallery of a curious man by Adrian van Stambelt, the Schoolteacher sharpening a feather by Gérard Dou; some landscapes by Josse de Momper, sea ports by Thomas Willebort. But Louis XIV was not so keen on Northern aesthetics, preferring Italian representations.

Surprisingly, French paintings were not so valuable at that time for collectors, except for Poussin’s and Le Lorrain’s works. The only artist able to combine all the best aspect of the different Italian schools was thought to be Poussin. His paintings, usually biblical or from Greco-Roman antiquity, the intellectual subject matter, the complex allegorical subject with moral theme, the hidden geometrical framework, the importance given to drawing and the expression of passions, were what Parisian amateurs looked for. Thus epitomizing Parisian’s taste and consumption of art, his work was fulfilling the ideal of painting. Le Nôtre ordered The adulterous woman[6] in 1635, the only painting we are sure he himself ordered[7]. Aside from Poussin and Le Lorrain’s paintings, Le Nôtre had only five French pictures, two Architectures by Jean Lemaire, Saint Jerome by Louis de Boullogne the elder, a copy of the Night by George de la Tour, and the Dice player by Valentin de Boullogne.

Famous was his consumption of prints. Le Nôtre binded 12 of his 130 prints volume on red morocco leather, creating a collection of engravings, amazing both for the inner and outer content[8]. He started gathering them before 1673. Although most of them were contemporary’s works, various subjects were represented: numismatic, engravings from the royal Cabinet, Van Dyck’s portraits by Nanteuil; and different artists: Rubens (six volumes), Poussin, Vouet, Van der Meulen, le Pautre, Baur…[9]

This collection and sensibility for painting is all the more impressive that Le Nôtre was born in a gardener’s family with no predisposition for fine art. However, his taste for painting and sensibility for art emerged very early, according to his contemporaries (Félibien, Guillet de Saint Georges, Lister[10]) Le Nôtre spent six years in Simon Vouet’s workshop in the Louvre, and worked as well in François Mansart workshop. It was during this apprenticeship that the gardener is supposed to have met the painter Le Brun”[11] and developed a genuine taste for painting, mostly Italian and French.

On the other hand, to become a fashionable Parisian collector, displaying painting was not enough. Le Nôtre, likewise seventeenth century collectors also had many objects, bronzes, sculpture, stones and medals. As far as bronzes are concerned, the classical taste of Le Nôtre was typical of mid-century collectors, sensitive to the perfection of the cast-iron, the precision of the engraving, and the wonderful patina. In this art too, the Italian aesthetics triumphed, especially the Florentine school.

In a few words, the posthumous inventory helps us to understand Le Nôtre’s tastes which were very similar to the sensibility of Parisian’s amateur and curious of that time. The obvious predilection of the collector was for Italian contemporary art (painting, sculpture, bronzes), which he shared with the King. Le Nôtre can be defined as a sincere collector, gathering paintings, medals, prints and bronzes with rather traditional tastes. However, some of his objects were not so traditional, and did not fit into contemporary consumption so much.

 

II.

Less classical was his taste for expensive and foreign art, like Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese works. For eighteen years, two Egyptian sarcophagus were the rarity of Le Nôtre’s collection. Pereisc first bought them in 1632, and then Louis Chambon (collector from Marseilles) in 1648 acquired them. Nicolas Fouquet purchased the very prestigious and expensive statues in 1652 for the gallery of his castle (Saint Mandé). Le Nôtre finally bought them from his heirs in 1680. At the time of the gardener, they were thought to be Khéops and Kephren’s sarcophagus, pyramid’s builder who lived 2600 years before Christ. They are actually dating from Ptolemaic Egypt, dynasty that reigned from IVth to 44 BC. But, antique pieces did not seem so required at this time, stressed Jules Guiffrey[12]. For a classical collector, such items were even more surprising, although their display might be justified by a taste for curiosity and prestige.

Less massive, but much admired as well, Le Nôtre porcelain collection was unexpected and avant-garde. It was said to be the larger gathering of his age[13] (valued at 18 590 livres). Yet, the importations from Far East started to arouse the amateur’s curiosity, and from 1680 to 1710[14] a new fashion for old ceramic was born. Amateurs and connoisseurs would compete for the consumption of Chinese porcelain, often upholstered with copper or golden silver[15]. The inventory mentions 136 porcelains in the gardener’s collection, mostly blue and white ones, fitting the taste of that time and the supply of the market. Japanese porcelain were also fashionable but much more expensive, because less numerous. Jules Guiffrey emphasized as well his gathering of precious stones. Some of them were very expensive, notably a cross decorated by five diamonds, valued at 5 000 livres[16].

Typical of the seventeenth century collectors is the consideration of books as works of art, rather than intellectual objects. It has been argued that the royal gardener was genuinely interested in history, not only through medals, but also by reading. The most important subject to be found in his library was French, English and Turkish history, as well as religious subjects: Bible, the Koran and the Reformation. Le Nôtre library is, as far as I am concerned, the aspect the most striking of his collection, bearing in mind that he was not an intellectual, and learnt everything from his father, having been educated in a gardener’s family. Ninety volumes are mentioned in the posthumous inventory.  

Jules Guiffrey mentions as well “quelques curiosités comme des aiguières, des gobelets de diverses matières… qui prouvent encore la curiosité universelle de notre amateur”[17]. Here is another motive for collecting: curiosity. Alongside with a genuine passion for painting, his collection is also the result of a real curiosity, for historical knowledge and foreign civilisation. Nobody would deny, thus, that Le Nôtre was definitely a man of his time.

 

 

III.

“Monsieur Le Nostre Cabinet, or Rooms, wherein he keeps his fine things (…) at the side of the Tuileries, was worth seeing” said Martin Lister, after having visited his house by the Tuilerie[18]. Despite the honours conferred by Louis XIV, including the reward of a residence in Versailles, Le Nôtre remained much attached to his own home. Located near the Pavilion of Marsan, it housed his collection, like a “splendid museum made up of curiosities of all kind”[19] But where were display this wealth of paintings, bronzes, books, medals and sculpture? How did Le Nôtre secure them?

Alike his contemporaries, Le Nôtre appreciated the accumulation of items and their mixing to confer an impression of wealth and a feeling of admiration. The gardener’s house is not known only by a study of ground plans, and contemporary testimonies. Linster mentioned three Cabinets on the ground floor: “There were in the three Appartments, into which it is divided, (the uppermost of which is as Octogon Room with a Dome) a great Collection of choice Pictures”[20]. This octagonal cabinet is also described by Germain Brice[21]. At the top of the dome was a campanile, lighting the paintings, marble sculptures and porcelains displayed in the room, precisely like in the Medici’s Tribuna! The room was filled with a wealth of furniture, amongst which were to be found a pietra dura desk, and one only chair. The gold and blue hanging might have been cored by 135 paintings, marbles medallions, and low-relieves. In a second cabinet were the library and two marquetery cabinets in bois violet. In the lower part of the chest were displayed 56 porcelains. The more spacious cabinet was lighted by two windows, and had blue, white and gold walls. Most of the prints volumes were housed there, likewise porcelains. Marble busts stood up against the wall. An armchair and two seats have been mentioned, but no desk. These three cabinets were on the ground floor of his house, and sometimes open to amateurs. Made available for viewing to art lovers from 1670-1675, the collection revealed the enlightened taste of its owner, as well as his accession to an elevated social status. Besides, the most precious items were kept secret and safe on the first floor of his residence, as testified by some lucky visitors: “Le Notre is very curious and owns wonderful paintings. He leaves the keys of his cabinet in a special place that is known by every honest people; and, although there are some very small items as well as books, he never lost anything”[22]

Within a few years a genuine semi-private museum was organized in his house. Besides, to embellish his house he purchased 18 tapestries pieces: six of them representing The Story of David, gallant stories in three panels, and nine Flemish landscapes[23]. Even though some historians described sometimes his house as a museum, le Nôtre never had a gallery. His collection was primarily for private delectation, and to share with close friend. We can go as far as to say that his public gardens were enough success, and his collection remained all private, and never meant to be open (except for the King and the Court).

Through collecting, gathering, buying, le Nôtre accumulated a real treasury, valued after his death at 50 617 livres[24]. Not only the gardener became a great amateur and connoisseur, but he was as well in possession of a real personal fortune. Art historians explain this wealth and time for collecting, mainly by the fact that he had no children. Having no heirs, nor anyone interested in art in his close relatives, he gave a very large amount of his collection to the King (September 1693): almost seventy paintings, bronzes, marble busts and porcelains all in accordance with the fashionable taste, and valued at 15000 livres[25]. Richness was not, thus, the aim of the collector, neither investment nor savings. How can we understand, nowadays, this luxurious gift to the King? What did it say about Le Nôtre’s personality and consideration of art?

First of all, the costly present can be interpreted as a sign of gratitude and admiration. The friendship between the King and his gardener had never been a secret, even for Lister, the English traveller, who confirmed it in his report: “The French king has a particular kindness for him, and has greatly inricht him, and no man talks with more freedom to him; he is much delighted with his Humour”[26].

Besides, by this gesture, the gardener would also have guaranteed his honour as well as the renown of his collection. Le Nôtre was thus not gathering for investment or money, but for prestige, a greater motive (reminding us of the Renaissance idea of “magnificence”). Thus, it can be thought as the main expression of his passion for painting, fashionable taste and above all, to save “glory and honour” for posterity. That is the main explanation he gave in his testament : “aiant toujours été enclin à faire des dépenses pour mon cabinet et curiosités sans songer à conserver du bien, mais seulement de la gloire et de l’honneur”[27]. This sentence shows, better than anything else, that collecting became a very honourable activity, following the King’s example, as well as the Grand Dauphin and Monsieur. As a result, Le Nôtre was so famous for his collection through all Europe that some important people travelled from far to see him and his “three cabinets”.

His collection also let him enter another world, the one of the Court, and Parisian aristocracy. André Le Nôtre was the son and probably the grandson of the gardeners in the Tuileries. Despite his humble origins, and thanks to his hard work, Le Nôtre managed to become as famous as grand collectors, and aristocrats of that time. At the end of his life he was at the head of a proper fortune, the inventory mentions 540.000 livres, amongst which 42.000 in cash, five houses in Paris, 63.000 livres of collected art’s works, 50.000 livres of items given to the King in 1693[28]. The high point of Le Nôtre’s career was without doubt his ennoblement in 1681. He chose for his coat of arms, “a large headed cabbage, the outer leaves hanging over both sides, like feathers.” In 1693, the king made him, in addition, knight in the royal order of Saint Michel, a rare distinction reserved for writers and artists. In a word, as well as a personal passion, his collection was also a key to enter the aristocratic world, a key to knowledge, and above all a key to the Royal Court. Collecting was thus part of his social success and financial wealth and let him go through the intellectual world of his time.

 

 

            The fame of Le Nôtre’s landscaping has long covered up his taste for fine arts and the wealth of his collection, gathered in his house by the Tuilerie. The flattery reputation of the gardener’s cabinet amongst his contemporary is the only evidences of his costly gathering, which was unfortunately spread out at his death. His taste and predilection reflected exactly the Parisian consumption of art and the market of these days: Italian and Northern paintings, Poussin, Le Lorrain, prints, bronzes, medals, curiosities (two sarcophagus), Chinese and Japanese porcelain, a library, and so on. Indeed, he displayed his items with care and safety, and they were famous all around Europe. From the wealth of his collection, and the interest he had for art, we can infer that Le Nôtre was a passionate collector, gathering at heart for glory and honour’s sake. According to Jules Guiffrey, Le Nôtre deserves very well his fame and place next to the brilliant artists surrounding Louis XIV[29].



[1] According to legend, Le Nôtre was a warm-hearted, honest gardener, and an outspoken man. However, the supposed simplicity of this “good man” is contradicted by the renown of the personage, which spread throughout Europe.

[2] Organised by the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication in 2000, at Versailles and Chantilly. Le Nôtre, un inconnu illustre?  Idées & débats, Edition du Patrimoine, Paris 2003. International symposium.

 

[4] « Le Nôtre, jardinier collectionneur » Stéphane Castelluccio, p46. But, valued at 24,934 livres by Jules Guiffrey, in his posthumous inventory. Testament et inventaire après décès. Bulletin de l’art français – 1911.

[5]  S. Castelluccio, p45.

[6] The Adulterous Woman, painting by Nicolas Poussin, given by Le Nôtre to Louis XIV in 1693.

[7] Curieux du Grand siècle. Antoine Schnapper, p400.

[8] “A great collection of Stamps very richly bound up in Books; but he had lately made a Draught of his best Pictures to the value of 50 000 Crowns and had presented them to the King at Versailles” according to Martin Lister, in A journey to Paris in the year 1698. London printed for Jacob Tonson, 1699.

[9] Antoine Schnapper, Curieux du Grand Siècle. P400.

[10] Antoine Schnapper, Curieux du Grand siècle.

[11] See the government website: www.lenotre.culture.gouv.fr/

[12] p217, Testament et inventaire après décès communiqués par M. Jules Guiffrey.

[13] Jules Guiffrey, Inventory.

[14] Curieux du Grand siècle. Collections et collectionneurs dans la France du XVIIème siècle. Paris, 1997.

[15] Les Grands Artistes : André le Nostre. Jules Guiffrey p99.

[16] Les Grands Artistes : André le Nostre. Jules Guiffrey.

[17] « Some curiosities like ewers, beakers of different fabrics… attesting again the universal curiosity of our amateur”.

[18] A journey to Paris in the year 1698. Martin Lister.

[19] Jules Guiffrey, Testament et inventaire après décès. P225.

[20] Martin Lister.

[21] Description nouvelle de ce qu’il y a de plus remarquable dans la ville de Paris, 1698, 2 volumes, I, p123 124.

[22] Tallemant de Réaux

[23]Les Grands architectes” André le Nostre 1613 1700. Ernest de Ganay.

[24] Testament et inventaire après décès. Jules Guiffrey.  

[26] A journey to Paris in the year 1698. Lister

[27] Antoine Schnapper. Curieux du grand siècle.

[28] Ibid.

[29] André le Nostre, par M. Jules Guiffrey. Institut de France, lu dans la séance publique annuelle des cinq Académies du 24 Octobre 1908. Paris, 1908.