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The Gardens of Versailles

Fit for a king.

The Château de Versailles features the ultimate formal French garden, created with geometric precision. Long walks are lined with statues, pools and waterways abound, vistas are—literally—king-sized.  These monumental grounds just outside Paris are as much of a draw as the sumptuous palace of Versailles itself, and this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of the birth of the genius behind the greenery, landscape architect André Le Nôtre. Now, an exhibition titled André Le Nôtre in Perspectives, 1613–2013 brings events to a grand finale, showing his lesser-known sides with over 500 works.

The gardens of Versailles are extraordinary, even by Louis XIV’s unquestionably royal standards. This was a colossal undertaking—40 years in the making—that saw laborious shifting of endless wheelbarrow loads of soil, and the installation of 400 sculptures and 1,400 fountains.

All this year, the palace and the parterres have buzzed with events, and an army of gardeners maintain the grounds. New restorations, reconstructions, and the return of sculptural masterpieces have all ramped up the gardens close to their original magnificence when, with crowds of dukes, viscounts, and courtiers in his orbit, the Sun King ruled.

André Le Nôtre in Perspectives is an eye-opening exhibition that makes plain that Le Nôtre was much more than Louis XIV’s principle gardener. You wonder where he found the time. Beyond his royal roles, Le Nôtre was also a major collector of paintings, bronzes, and medals. His art collection was so revered that his house featured in Parisian guidebooks of the time.

Within the exhibition, a 15-metre-long model shows how Le Nôtre used optical illusion to cheat the eye, playing with perspective by gradually increasing the size of water features so they appeared closer, and “hiding” pools and stairs in what only appeared to be a flat landscape. Visitors also learn that, far from the popular idea of his gardens as stiff and unbending, Le Nôtre also invented gazons Japonais, “wildflower meadows”  (unlike the trim grass of English landscaping). Movies, photographs, technical drawings, and even Le Nôtre’s own desk all bring the thinking behind this 17th-century living masterpiece to life.

André Le Nôtre in Perspectives, 1613–2013 runs from October 22, 2013 to February 23, 2014 at the Château de Versailles.