Friday, August 8, 2008

Notes on the Garden of Versailles

Andre Le Notrê was from a family of gardeners called upon by Louis XIV to design a garden grand enough to his image as “The Sun King”. Le Notre spent 50 years of his life upon the magnificent gardens of Versailles.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gardens were recognized as high artistic achievements. In 1770 Horace Walpole listed gardening along with poetry and painting as the “three sisters or graces”.

Versailles, as a garden aiming at beauty did not serve the lowly purpose of growing fruits and vegetables. Kant saw the gardener as someone who paints with forms and he listed gardens in his classification of fine arts.

Kant did not examine the garden as a signifier of social status, educational privilege, or our human relationship to God and nature. He emphasized instead that excellent form produces a harmony of the faculties, which prompts us to label the garden beautiful. Kant might have praised Versailles as orderly without being regular and predictable. Entering into a grove or bosquet, one is surprised by each new arrangement and by the different but right juxtaposition of plants, statues, vases, and fountains. The constant changing variety within the landscape of Versailles, its seeming order that has no particular aim, and especially the play of sensations aroused by its varying fountains, would make it beautiful—something that stimulates free play of imagination.

Kant spoke often of the beauties of nature and praised the ‘free beauty’ of flowers and hummingbirds. His book revised traditional treatments of beauty by an account of the sublime: bold rocks, thunderclouds, volcanoes, and high waterfalls, or artworks with vast scale, like the pyramids of Egypt and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Kant’s treatment of the sublime paved the way for new genres of landscape painting, for which Nature would serve as both inspiration and elemental backdrop—not orderly, tame, and playful, as shown by Versailles.

Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford U Press: New York, 2001.

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