Revolution in the Garden: The Reinvention of the French Landscape Garden, 1760-1789: A Six-Part Course with Dr. Gabriel Wick

Revolution in the Garden: The Reinvention of the French Landscape Garden, 1760-1789: A Six-Part Course with Dr. Gabriel Wick


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In the quarter-century before 1789, the design of French gardens went through a revolution; gardens became spaces of social and aesthetic experimentation and philosophical and ideological expression. This discussion examines how the fashion for 'naturalistic,’ 'picturesque,’ and 'English-style' gardens were signs of discontent and defection at the highest levels of Bourbon society.

Led by an expert in landscape and design history, Gabriel Wick, this interactive seminar series will examine how the design of gardens registered radical changes at the twilight of the French monarchy. Through pictures, contemporary descriptions, and the exploration of several gardens that survive today, we will look at how the privileged classes of this rigidly hierarchical society were beginning to question and embrace ideas of 'modernity,’ 'nature,’ and individualism. We will look at landscapes designed to prompt philosophical reflection like Ermenonville, carnivalesque fantasy like Orléans' Monceau or Condé's Chantilly, and poignant personal idylls like Marie-Antoinette's Petit Trianon.

Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away with an increased understanding of France on the precipice of Revolution, and how designed landscapes, are examined as historical documents that capture the fantasies, aspirations, and anxieties of their times.

Lecture 1: Nationalism, Patriotism, and the Landscape After the Seven Years War

What makes a garden French? What makes a landscape English? In this first session we will examine some of the backgrounds to Franco-British relations in this period and discuss the work of some key figures in gardening and landscape theory in the 17th and 18th centuries, notably André Le Notre, William Kent and had Lancelot Brown.

Lecture 2: The Philosophe’s Landscape: Rousseau, Girardin, and Ermenonville

After decades of travel, and disillusioned by the horrors of war, like Voltaire’s Candide, the philosopher-nobleman René de Girardin returned home to cultivate his garden. Around his château of Ermenonville, he would attempt to create a perfect community, where aristocrats and the peasantry might fraternize, and where, he hoped, the great Rousseau might eventually settle. Rousseau did accept his invitation to retire there, only to die only a few weeks later. In 1778 the burial of Rousseau on Ermenonville’s Island of Poplars transformed Girardin’s garden into one of the most revered and visited sites of the Enlightenment.

Today the gardens of Ermenonville are much as the marquis left them and open to the public. The body of the long-suffering Rousseau, however, was uprooted at the Revolution and taken to the Pantheon. This talk describes how the precedent of Ermenonville made English-style gardening synonymous with the ideas of the philosophes and hope for social progress and political reform.

Lecture 3: Princes in the Wilderness: the Prince de Condé at Chantilly and the Duc Chartres at Monceau

In the early 1770s, the king’s cousins, the so-called Princes of the Blood, found themselves exiled from court and began to experiment with the new modes of English-style gardening. At Chantilly, the Prince de Condé would transform a corner of his Le Nôtre-designed park into a pastoral idyll, with a picturesque hamlet at its center. On the outskirt of Paris, the Duc de Chartres (future Philippe-Égalité) was creating his carnivalesque take on the English style in the form of Monceau. This garden, which survives in part today as a city park, had everything from dromedaries to ruins, Turkish pavilions to masonic grottoes.

Lecture 3 considers what it meant for princes, the highest-ranking figures in the land, to show themselves to the public in such naturalistic settings, and more importantly to adopt the style of the national rival.

Lecture 4: A New Reign, a New Versailles

In May 1774, a 19-year old Louis XVI and his Austrian-born wife, Marie-Antoinette, succeeded the throne. Anxious to calm the ideological divisions that had marred the last years of the reign of his predecessor, the young king installed an ideologically-diverse, reform-minded government. This session examines how the new government under the guidance of Turgot, the Comte d’Angiviller sought to restore and reinvigorate the century-old gardens of Versailles, while also introducing new elements such as the Baths of Apollo and the Bosquet of the Queen.

Lecture 5: Rambouillet – the King As a Gentleman Farmer

In 1783, despite the kingdom’s empty coffers, in a highly complex and costly transaction, Louis XVI purchased from his cousin the Duc de Penthièvre, the domain of Rambouillet. It was a heavily-wooded and game-rich hunting estate with little else to recommend it. In the words of Marie-Antoinette, it was a toad-hole. Here on the eve of the Revolution, the director of the Royal Buildings, the Comte d’Angiviller, would create a model sheep-farm, a temple-like dairy, and an ambitious but unrealized project to remake the château into an Ancient Roman-style palace.

This talk looks at how Rambouillet constituted something of a pilot project of reform on the part of Angiviller and the king, that would never come to fruition.

Lecture 6 Gardening on the Precipice: the Désert de Retz

The last garden we will examine is the fanciful and bizarre Désert de Retz, the suburban retreat of the talented and wealthy Racine de Monville. With its Chinese library, Turkish Tent, and house in the form of a ruined column, few other gardens could better anticipate 20th-century surrealism. The talk will consider whether, as scholar Monique Mosser has put it, Retz was truly one of the “morbid” symptoms of a regime and society that were nearing collapse?

After decades of neglect and under-investment, the new owners restored the Désert de Retz, the commune of Chambourcy, reinstating many missing plantings and structures. Retz is open to the public for guided visits on Saturdays during the high-season.

Gabriel Wick is a lecturer in urban and architectural history at NYU-Paris. He received his doctorate in history from the University of London and also holds a degree in landscape architecture from UC Berkeley, and garden conservation from the National Architecture School of Versailles (ENSA-V). He is the author of a number of books and articles on historic landscapes. He is also consulting on the restoration of the gardens of La Grange, home of General Lafayette.

How does it work?

This is a six-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in French landscape history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $210 for 6 lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is not suitable for children under age 16

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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