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The Masterpiece of 17th century France

Vaux-le-Vicomte in a gold frame
The photo of Vaux-le-Vicomte above is taken from the highly recommendable guide of Vaux-le-Vicomte, obtainable at the chateau. Please go and see for yourself, if you have the chance,  it is the most beautiful place on earth I have ever seen. Thank you to everyone who keeps this epitome of beauty alive and a thousand thanks to Monsieur Fouquet who built it. Please never forget: World Art Treasures need your help to survive! How to join and support the Friends of Vaux-le-Vicomte (official website)

"Aussi doux que severe, aussi puissant que juste"

"Just as gentle as he is severe, just as powerful as he is fair"
(With many thanks to Prof. Russell Ganim for the translation)

This line was sung by an actress, appearing from a shell on the night of the fete at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which was given in honour of Louis XIV, on 17th August 1661. This night, which was never to be forgotten in history, because of its display of Fouquet's wealth and refined taste in the arts, its unbelievable splendour, for its ballets and theatricals, fireworks and jeux de l'eau. For its music, written by Lully and its poetical words, like Moliere's Les Facheux which was performed. The actress who sung these words, was not only addressing the young King of France for whom she sang, being the guest of honour, but above all about the brilliance of Fouquet himself, and summing up the entrancing beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte and its magical gardens.
Let us imagine the night of the fete and the garden being occupied by ladies and gentlemen in the magnificent costumes of 1661, lavish plumes gently swaying in the breeze, tall walking sticks being handled most elegantly, gold embroidery and laces shimmering first in the sun and then in the golden light of the torches and candles, rich and heavy silks and brocades reflecting the sparkle of the fireworks at night, the soft sound of voices like a thick carpet of joy and pleasure underneath the clear voices of actors and actresses and the sopranos of singers, all these gloriously clad nobles moving through the gardens and the sequence of splendid events like a part of the entire spectacle, as if being choreographed themselves. 
The fountains were constantly painting ornaments of water into the air, while the elegant steps were leading towards the front and the harmonious elegant symmetry of the chateau with its towering dome, only to be reflected once more in a pleasing symmetry by the stepped cascades of the axis in the back, the Grille d'Eau towards the vast lawns and the imposing statue of Hercules. All these enchanted guests were taking part in the most lavish dinner imaginable, served on golden plates, with every delicacy a gourmet's palate could imagine. After the dinner, they were to be entertained by a performance of Moliere's Les Facheux, and the very same stepped cascades of the Grille d'Eau were to be the stage. Yet no actors nor actresses were to be seen, but when Louis himself commanded the play to begin, suddenly a shell opened, and a water nymph emerged from it, singing the lines above "Just as gentle as he is severe, just as powerful as he is fair". While she commenced to reiterate the prologue, the amazed guests were enchanted when all of a sudden it looked as if trees came alive, and statues became animated. But the greatest magic was yet to come: with the arrival of dusk, lanterns were placed along the cornices and the grotto was illuminated, setting the entire place into a subdued, golden light, with the sandstone of the chateau shimmering in the centre of it all.

And this magical place, which has and always will enchant every visitor whom it welcomes into its precincts, has survived for more than 300 years, has sustained wars and revolutions, changes of fashion, went majestically through sad times and splendid bliss, during these 300 hundred years of turbulent European history.

Nicolas FouquetNicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), the former Surintendant de Finances under Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin, had bought the village of Maincy in 1641 at the age of 26 and added up to the estate for years to come to be able to build this architectural masterpiece, created by an unparalleled combination of talents: the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André Le Notre, and the painter Charles le Brun. Nicolas Fouquet's brilliance and his very name have been kept alive and known to many through all these years up to the present day not only by this evidence of his matchless taste in the form of the magnificent château, but also by his friendships with such outstanding people in history like the poet La Fontaine, Madame Sévigné, d'Ormesson, Nicolas Poussin, Voltaire, Moliere and many others. 
Perhaps we should be thankful in a perverse way to Louis XIV and his hatred and obvious fear of Fouquet, because if he hadn't sequestered the estate and the chateau after the minister's fall and imprisonment, only to give it back to the Fouquet family no earlier than 1673, who managed fortunately to pay back Fouquet's debts which were forced upon him, with the help of the profit of the huge farmlands and forests, if all this hadn't been the case, then Vaux-le-Vicomte would probably not be as well preserved in its original glory at it is now. With its rooms inside, its outbuildings and its gardens almost exactly as it was in Fouquet's own times. 

Yes indeed, it has to be clearly said and emphasised,  that this unusual survival is due to the passion and the hard work from many men, generation after generation, whose love and admiration for this magical place united them all, no matter from which level of society they came, and this love gave them the necessary determination to keep Vaux-le-Vicomte alive and to preserve it in its beauty. To all of those who have through three centuries donated their work to Vaux, a heartfelt thanks! To their subsequent owners, the architects and gardeners, the sculptors, painters and carpenters, and never to forget the crafters of wonderful words who rendered Vaux immortal: the poets La Fontaine and Voltaire. 

Yet, this most beautiful chateau of France was doomed to vanish in the 19th century, when the Choiseul-Praslin Family, the owners of Vaux after the Villars family, who had bought the estate from Madame Fouquet in 1705 after her eldest son's death, decided to sell the lands and the chateau. Naturally, it was assumed that the site would be divided up, since the estate was so extremely large and the chateau and flanking outbuildings were expensive to be kept. Yet a miracle happened again: Alfred Sommier, a wealthy industrialist, was not only a very successful businessman, but also a lover of the arts. Perhaps very similar to Nicolas Fouquet all these years before. Mr. Sommier was struck by the chateau's beauty when he first visited it, and he also realised the importance of this piece of world art treasure, the epitome of beauty and sublime architecture of the Grand Siècle, to be an important relic of the 17th century to be preserved and to be shown to generations to come. Thus Mr. Sommier bid successfully for the estate in 1875, and from that day on he gave so much of his time and passion to restore Vaux-le-Vicomte, an undertaking of great size. Yet he had not planned in the beginning to restore the vast gardens, since this project seemed to be too big to carry out, but after several years Mr. Sommier realised that the chateau could only regain its true splendour if it were set in the gardens as they were laid out in Fouquet's time.
His son Edme Sommier and wife finished Alfred Sommier's work and restored the gardens after his death in 1908. Finally, in 1965, was the entire estate, the chateau and the gardens, granted the status of 'historic monument'. This was achieved by Comte Jean de Vogüé (1890-1972), Edme Sommier's son. The current owner is Comte Patrice de Vogüé.

Louis Le VauThe architect Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) had already contributed greatly to architecture, when he put his signature under the plans of Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1656. He had built the Hotel Lambert, the church of Saint-Louis-en-l'Isle and the Hotel Lauzun in Paris. Furthermore, at the outskirts of the city, the châteaux of Saint-Sepulchre and Le Raincy, and renovated the château de Meudon. He had rebuilt the Cour Carrée at the Louvre, having been assigned by Mazarin in 1654/55 to redecorate the King's bedchamber and Anne of Austria's summer apartments. He had become First Architect to the King in 1654, succeeding Jacques Lemercier after his death. After the building of Vaux, he began working in 1660 with the northward extension of the Tuileries, finishing in 1664. Hewas to go on to build the seat of the Academie Francaise, and to direct the first enlargement of the château of Versailles for Louis XIV in 1668.

Charles Le BrunCharles Le Brun (1619-1690) was thirty-seven when Fouquet commissioned him to decorate Vaux-le-Vicomte. As decorator at Vaux, he was to execute the most important of the ceiling paintings, and direct the young artists who laboured on the decoration of the panelling. In the neighbouring village of Maincy, he established a workshop for the production of tapestries, (removed to Paris after the minister's fall, it became the Gobelins factory), drew cartoons for the hangings that were woven there, and designed the majority of the statues and furniture at the château. Le Brun was a decorator then in the fullest and most prestigious sense of the word. His success at Vaux was to earn him the title of first painter to the King, and the commission to decorate Versailles. 

André Le NotreAndré Le Nôtre, (1613-1700) had worked under his father, who was head gardener in the Tuileries Gardens, but had not, as yet, made a name for himself. Yet he was given the chance by Nicolas Fouquet to create the garden, envisioning together with the minister a single composition, which was to embrace both the chateau and the landscape. Therefore the magnificent garden was to act as a frame and an embellishment to the house and its harmonious architecture, complete with fountains and running water, enchanted groves and grottos. Le Nôtre's vision did create indeed an elegant, symmetrical garden which forms a perfect composition with the architecture, and even if the garden at Vaux were the only one to have survived from the 17th century, it would be sufficient to explain the principles of gardening and the effect of sublime beauty it creates of this grand and elegant age of the Baroque.  The garden at Vaux-le-Vicomte earned Le Nôtre the royal commission to design the gardens of Versailles.

The château and gardens are laid out today as they were for Fouquet's celebrated fête on 17th August 1661. On this immortal and fateful night in which Fouquet's glory shone the brightest ever, and his darkest despair began. Louis XIV resolved on this night, with the assistance of those same artists whom Fouquet had selected for Vaux, to create residences of still greater splendour. Foremost of all this was to be Versailles, yet he didn't succeed in ever surpassing the splendour, magnificence and sublime beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Rise & Glory | Downfall & Injustice | 'Une Rose...'
Vaux-le-Vicomte | Virtual Tour I | Virtual Tour II | Les Amis de Vaux
The Author at Vaux
| 17th August 2001 - Fête Anniversary

Contents Copyright © N. Kipar 1999.
Graphics © N. Kipar 1999. All rights reserved. Fouquet's crest in the title graphic © Vaux-le-Vicomte

Photo of Vaux Copyright © Vaux-le-Vicomte. The copyright remains exclusively with the copyright holders.