Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Views of Versailles by Alexandre Benois

Versailles, 1906
I'm wondering what the most drawn/etched/painted/photographed garden in the world might be, and I'm betting it's Versailles. 

And though I've never seen them mentioned in so-serious garden history analyses of the landscape, my favorites Views of Versailles are the watercolors of Alexandre Benois (1870-1960).

The King Walked in Any Weather

I love them because they teach me something new about the ridiculous it all was.

It's difficult to see a famous, beloved garden with fresh eyes. But Benois' 1897 series "The Last Walk of Louis XIV"  juxtaposes the frail, slightly cartoonish characters of an aging king and a few handlers against the bareness, not just vastness, but bareness, of Le Notre's scale.

Louis XIV is feeding fish
I noticed the vastness on my own visits (who can miss it) but not the bareness since the space is now peopled with thousands of tourists who fill in its scale, even though as ants.  But in Benois' images the garden is bone-chillingly, soul-killingly, barren, as party places always are when they are empty.   The lines of the forced perspective begin to feel like a distortion field...I think it would have driven me mad.  And Benois heightens the sense of the ridiculous with banal titles for what was clearly not your average walk or feeding of the fish.

At Curtius

At the Pool of Ceres

In his paintings the garden is beautiful still, but we become aware of its strangeness.  

Benois helps me know, not about the layout or which fountain was built first, but about the experience of Versailles, not to those who visited it but to those who inhabited it.  And since I am a garden historian not so much for the plants as for the people and their stories, they're my favorite Views of Versailles.

King's Walk (note the irony)

[all images via wikipaintings]


Katya said...

These are great, have never seen them before. Versailles is one of those gardens with such an interesting long history beyond just the most famous moments and images (although they are the ones I seem to end up working on...)

The Artful Arranger said...

The loneliness of an unshared garden.

Művelt Kert said...

Interesting - also a bit creepy - without the sweet colours!

I visit your blog every now and then as your posts are candies for garden history enthusiasts. Eszter

Janet, The Queen of Seaford said...

Love the paintings. Having seen the gardens, it is a stark contrast filled with tourists vs the very lonely looking existence of the ailing King. Think my favorite painting is the last one.

Angela said...

Thank you for the post. I love historical gardens!

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