In 1913, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs devoted a retrospective exhibition to The art of gardens in France from the 16th to the 18th century, to mark the third centenary of the birth of André Le Nôtre.

Numerous items exhibited were loaned by the landscape architect Achille Duchêne, sometimes called the “reincarnation” of Louis XIV’s gardener. In the Annuaire du Luxe à Paris published by Paul Poiret and Edy Legrand in 1928, he himself bragged that he had “renovated the art of gardening in France” and illustrated his words with a drawing: surrounded by figures in costume, seen from the back, a gardener-orchestra conductor reveals a jardin à la française (garden in the French manner) displayed before him like a scene from a play. In an amusing interplay of words and mirror images, a parterre of 17th century men admires a 20th century embroidery-patterned parterre, fully approving of it.

In fact, the art of Henri Duchêne (1841-1902) and his son Achille (1866-1947) profoundly affected the way we apprehend the gardens of the Grand Siècle. Anyone who admires the gardens by Le Nôtre at Vaux-le-Vicomte is in reality contemplating their 1923 re-creation by Achille Duchêne, using the engravings of them by Israël Silvestre from the late 1650s. At Courances or Champs-sur-Marne, the classical gardens are also modern gardens, done “in the manner of.” Having become a master in the art of reviving the jardin à la française, Duchêne saw himself entrusted with new residences inspired by the Grand Siècle and the Enlightenment: the home of Paul-Louis Weiller in Versailles, Moïse de Camondo’s mansion at the edge of the Parc Monceau in Paris, Boni de Castellane’s Palais-Rose on the Avenue Foch, and the Carolands Château, near San Francisco in California. Thus it is hardly surprising that the exhibition Versailles Revival, which has just ended, devoted a place of honor to him.


Like the architects René Sergent and Ernest Sanson whose constructions Duchêne’s creations often accompanied, he had sufficiently mastered the artistic language of the Ancien Régime to adapt it to the space and wishes of those who commissioned him. Going beyond pastiche, he ornamented his gardens with new species, played with geometry, combined perspective and English-style landscaping. The enchanting nighttime spectacles that he enjoyed creating are proof of his admiration for the engravings of the extravaganzas organized by Louis XIV at Versailles; to the original models he added zeppelins spewing water, tropical forests and spectacular water falls. One of his most surprising variations uses a setting of geyser pools in a crater in Iceland, with a regular garden slipping in sometimes… After World War I, the “gardener of princes,” so dear to French and English aristocracy, and to new American fortunes, became interested in collective public spaces, and devoted a book to it in 1935, Jardins de l’Avenir (Gardens of the Future).

Achille Duchêne et Henri Brabant, Big Trees

Achille Duchêne and Henri Brabant
Big Trees
Black chalk, blue and white chalk and scraping, 1930s
Paris, musée des Arts décoratifs, inv. CD 3027.11,
gift from the artist's wife, Gabrielle Duchêne, 1949

Not long after the death of Achille Duchêne, his widow Gabrielle gave the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs a magnificent group of one 136 drawings, in which the ideas of the landscaper were interpreted by professional artists. Beyond an intimate understanding of the art of Le Nôtre, these works on paper demonstrate a keen sense of the theatricality that gives unity to Duchêne’s creations. Twelve of them are exhibited for the Salon du dessin.


Bénédicte Gady
Conservatrice du Patrimoine, en charge du Département des Arts Graphiques du Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Achille Duchêne and Maurice Laurentin
Black chalk and oxidized white gouache highlights
Paris, musée des Arts décoratifs, inv. CD 3027.38,
gift from the artist's wife, Gabrielle Duchêne, 1949


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