Old Master Paintings

Before Versailles, There Was Vaux-le-Vicomte

By Jean Bond Rafferty

Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte and Hennessy are two of France’s most treasured institutions, both celebrated for their dedication to exceptional craftsmanship passed from generation to generation. The Versailles-era chateau and the 250-year old cognac each strive to preserve a deep connection to history, all the while looking to the future. In a partnership honouring these two French icons, Hennessy Paradis Imperial presents ‘Treasures from Vaux-le-Vicomte,’ an original video series by Sotheby’s exploring the chateau’s fascinating history. The three-part series will be accompanied by related stories on Sothebys.com. The first chapter, A Grand Ambition, introduces the visionary family who is restoring Vaux-le-Vicomte to its original splendour.

L ocated in the French countryside near Fontainebleau, set like a jewel in the centre of a rectangular moat, surrounded by spectacular French formal gardens, the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte may be this country’s most historically and aesthetically significant best-kept secret. As the first large-scale collaboration between three major 17th-century figures in architecture, interior decoration and landscape design, the estate directly inspired Louis XIV’s Versailles. And as the highly sophisticated combination of Louis Le Vau’s magnificent Baroque architecture, artist Charles Le Brun’s imaginative decorations and André Le Nôtre’s exquisite jardins à la française, it is a true gem.


Still, Vaux-le-Vicomte, the largest private chateau in France, has not received the international recognition it deserves. But Alexandre de Vogüé, who manages his family’s historic landmark with his brothers Jean-Charles and Ascanio, is determined to change that. “Vaux is not known at all outside of Paris, nor in the United States,” says Alexandre de Vogüé. Awareness among foreign and domestic visitors alike is sure to increase as an ongoing series of extensive restorations is completed. The signature project – the refurbishment of Le Brun’s spectacular Baroque ceiling paintings in the Chambre des Muses – was unveiled this past March.


Erected between 1658 and 1661, Vaux-le-Vicomte was dreamed up by Nicolas Fouquet, who served as superintendent of finances for the young Louis XIV from 1653 to 1661, during which time he managed to reestablish the war-depleted French treasury and considerably embellish his personal fortune. “At the time, how you showed your wealth demonstrated your intelligence,” explains de Vogüé, who oversees the chateau’s communications and patronage. A fervent supporter of the arts, Fouquet enlisted great talents to design his new estate: Le Vau, the architect of the elegant houses on Paris’s Île Saint-Louis; Le Brun, an acclaimed painter and decorator; and Le Nôtre, who worked with his father, Jean, at the Tuileries gardens, where he succeeded him as the king’s gardener. The ambitious Fouquet had a novel master plan. The creative trio would be given “a lot of money,” says de Vogüé, “and be free to do what they wanted, but the result had to be a completely new style, as bold and audacious as possible, and they had to work together, hand in hand.” That they did. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, harmony reigns on a grand scale.


Steeped in the chateau’s history, de Vogüé explains that the young Louis XIV observed what his superintendent was doing – using art, architecture and landscaping to convey his power – and took away a crucial lesson. He continues: “The king planned to take it to another level at Versailles, which was then just a rustic hunting lodge, to show Europe and the world the extent of his own power.” But by 1661, when Vaux-le-Vicomte’s buildings were being completed, Cardinal Mazarin, the Sun King’s all-powerful prime minister, died, and things changed. Aware that Fouquet would be competing with him for Mazarin’s position, Jean-Baptiste Colbert – a war commissioner who managed Mazarin’s financial affairs – had poisoned the king’s mind with accusations that Fouquet was embezzling from the royal coffers and raising an army. So by the time the flamboyant Fouquet honoured the Sun king at his chateau on 17 August 1661 – offering the most extravagant entertainment the French court had ever seen – his fate had already been sealed. Arrested three weeks later, Fouquet spent the rest of his life in prison. Vaux-le-Vicomte’s treasures were sequestered by the King, but the architecture, gardens and Le Brun paintings that dazzled from the ceilings of Fouquet’s formal state room, the Chambre des Muses and the Salle des Jeux, remained intact.


Fast-forward two centuries to 1875, when de Vogüé’s great-great-grandfather Alfred Sommier, a sugar magnate, bought Vaux-le-Vicomte. “He came for the Le Brun paintings, especially those on the ceiling of the Chambre des Muses – he loved art,” de Vogüé explains. If Sommier was the first to restore the chateau’s 17th-century grandeur, his great-grandson, Patrice de Vogüé, Alexandre’s father, took up the mantle a century later. After receiving the chateau as a wedding present in 1967, Patrice opened it to the public in 1968 and instigated a programme of restorations in 1976. Repairing six acres of roof took six years and cost “seven times” what is being spent on current work, Alexandre notes, but this crucial investment ensured the chateau’s preservation for the next generation.


Walking through Vaux-le-Vicomte today is to understand Fouquet’s genius in bringing these masters of form together. The sun breaks through the clouds to dazzling effect as you cross the Grand Salon, whose soaring dome and panoramic views of seemingly infinite gardens captivate visitors. “This room is a symbol of the transparency that inspired the SunKing’s Versailles,” de Vogüé notes. In the Chambre des Muses, Le Brun’s fabled ceiling – decorated with the nine muses and two remarkable paintings, The Triumph of Fidelity and The Night – is behind scaffolding. “None of the canvases are one hundred per cent 17th-century painting,” de Vogüé explains. “Fifty to fifty-five per cent are 17th-century, and the rest have repainting, mainly from the 19th-century and 1976 restorations.” The canvas of The Triumph of Fidelity has been brought down and placed against a wall for easier access. Four conservators are retouching part of the picture where the black serpentine form of Envy is visible. At the top of the scaffolding, more restorers are working directly on the ceiling. “The task now is to decide if the restoration has been badly done and if we can see original 17th-century painting under it,” de Vogüé says. “Then, we can do nicer retouching or we can decide if the repainting is okay.” 


Vaux-le-Vicomte’s team of restorers is headed up by the atelier of Ariel Bertrand, who worked on the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, with the participation of Bénédicte Gady, a Le Brun specialist and member of Vaux’s scientific committee, founded two years ago. These scholars work like detectives. “Gady was working at the Louvre’s Cabinet des Dessins and sent me a drawing of the same Le Brun nude that was completely lost to water damage on our ceiling,” de Vogüé notes; it is being used to model lost images. He himself solved an uncertainty around the damaged drapery and arms of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, when he was doing research at Paris’s Musée Carnavalet and found an identical image that Le Brun had created for a long disappeared town house. Such extensive and meticulous work requires time and money, of course, but the $450,000 restoration of the Chambre des Muses is being financed by American collector and former book publisher Alexis Gregory, a longtime visitor to the chateau who has become a de Vogüé family friend. “It’s terrific, a brilliant creation and the centre of everything,” says Gregory, a devoted supporter of preservation efforts in Venice and elsewhere. “Versailles was built to intimidate, but Vaux can be cosy,” adds Gregory, who is so at home there that he celebrated his 80th birthday in the company of Le Brun’s muses.


While growing up at Vaux-le-Vicomte seemed “normal” to the three de Vogüé boys, Alexandre concedes that he “didn’t realise at all the privilege I do feel I have today – the huge privilege to preside over Vaux’s destiny.” And so at age eighteen, reluctant to move into his parents’ lifestyle, he took a break – a long one. “I was a mountain guide in Chamonix for fifteen years,” he says. “About five years ago, I began to think, ‘Isn’t it time to come back down to earth and save what needs to be saved – this big chateau that has been in my family for almost a century and a half? So I came back and learned.” As did his brothers, who also took sabbaticals before returning: Jean-Charles was first, when he came to help their father fifteen years ago, and Ascanio arrived two years ago. 


Today, if Alexandre de Vogüé is a chatelain, he’s a 21st-century version. “We represent a completely different generation,” he remarks. “I hate tweed, I don’t hunt or go to fancy parties. We don’t care about the aristocratic part of this life.” What the brothers do care about are imaginative ideas that help owners of historically significant estates preserve their family’s heritage, from donors’ “adoption” of Vaux treasures to the application of Alexandre’s mountaineering skills to change the lights that illuminate the chateau’s exterior. Roping up and scaling the facade to replace a light “saves the thousands of euros that calling in a special company” would cost each time, he notes with a smile. Clearly, at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet’s innovative and ambitious heart is still beating strong.

Paris-based Jean Bond Rafferty writes about art, interiors and design.

Coming soon, Chapter 2: Discover The Quest, an art installation that reflects the Hennessy Master Blender's pursuit of perfection.
To watch episodes of Treasures from Vaux-le-Vicomte, presented by Hennessy Paradis Imperial, visit click here.  

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