Before Olmsted, before Capability Brown, there was André Le Nôtre.
Le Nôtre was born in 1613 and continued a strong family tradition of gardening. His father and grandfather -- and later André himself -- were charged with caring for the Tuileries in Paris. Le Nôtre studied painting and architecture and excelled at math as well. Some suspect his interest in math is largely responsible for Le Nôtre's use of warped perspectives in his designs (more on that later).
Le Nôtre became a sort of public figure early on in his life. He was responsible for updating the gardens at Fontainebleau and was appointed as state draughtsman for gardens by the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. But his influence on landscape architecture was not inevitable until he met Nicolas Fouquet.
Fouquet was the Treasurer for Louis XIV and was also a very very wealthy individual. In Louis XIV's reign, the king depended largely on financing from private individuals -- who he then rewarded with 'cabinet' positions. Fouquet helped fund many of France's activities, but he used some of his money for his own personal pleasure. He hired Le Nôtre, along with the architect Louis Le Vau and painter Charles Brun, to build a grand chateau that would be called Vaux-le-Vicomte.
When the work was complete, Fouquet held a grand party -- with a guest list that obviously included the King. When Louis XIV saw the gardens and the chateau he was, legend has it, overwhelmed with jealousy. It didn't help Fouquet very much that his political rival, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was plotting Fouquet's downfall by supplying the king with false information about Fouquet and his loyalties.
Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested for myriad reasons too complicated for a blog post about plants. After three years in court, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The king was disappointed and attempted to overrule the sentence in favor of Fouquet's death, but was unsuccessful. Fouquet lived in a prison for 19 years before dying.
With Fouquet out of the way, Louis XIV had Le Nôtre and his team all to himself. He demanded they create a gardens even more beautiful and more grand than Vaux le Vicomte and offered them to work on an old dilapidated chateau in the village of Versailles. Of course, the Palace of Versailles, which kept Le Nôtre busy for thirty years (!), has eclipsed Fouquet's chateau in scale and reputation, but many - myself included - prefer the proportions and design techniques employed at Vaux le Vicomte.
More on the chateau and Le Nôtre's design in the days to come.