Alexandra Noble Design I Award Winning Garden and Landscape Designer working across London and further afield
Gardens and Landscapes


An essay on André Le Nôtre’s use of perspective and optic techniques at Vaux-le-Vicomte garden in France


In November 2013, I travelled to France to visit the gardens of Chantilly and Vaux-le-Vicomte designed by André Le Nôtre; See below for an excerpt written after my day at Vaux. The full text may be read at the bottom of the page.

View from the château steps towards the statue of Hercules placed at vanishing point

View from the château steps towards the statue of Hercules placed at vanishing point

The manipulation of perspective is a particularly notable design tool at Vaux-le-Vicomte. A view from the platform of the house seems to reveal the garden in its entirety. Only by travelling through the grounds does one find the reality; a series of terraces so well integrated that the break from one to the next is imperceptible. From the house, the canal is not seen and the vista seems to suggest a progression directly toward the statue of Hercules across a flat plane.

The use of perspective not only allows construction of spatial devices but also a means of unifying vast areas of land via use of an axis to amalgamate a mosaic of territories. Indeed from the steps of the château it is almost impossible to believe the statue of Hercules is almost half a mile away.

Upon travelling down the central axis, disymmetries and different levels reveal themselves. The vast space reveals itself as much larger than it initially appeared and the pool which appeared circular when viewed from the château becomes oval and one must walk around it. Once the spectator has moved around the oval pool, a transversal canal becomes apparent, previously hidden from the terrace viewpoint.

As the spectator continues down the central axis the pool originally viewed as rectangular reveals itself to be square and appears poised on the edge of the grotto; undoubtedly the centrepiece of the scheme. After advancing further into the garden, it becomes apparent that the grotto does not feed the square pool, it is in fact lower and further back away from the pool. In the void that opens beneath one’s feet an immense canal appears which is perpendicular to the primary axis. This canal constitutes a second major transverse axis; a ribbon of water half a mile in length stretching in a straight line until visually lost at both ends in dark green shadows of dense forest. Two glimpses outside the realms of the garden present themselves at either end of this canal; the previously definite edge is broken through to invade nature.

Having passed the square pool, if the viewer turns back to look at the château they discover the entire building reflected on the surface, despite the distance of more than 400 metres. To achieve this effect, Le Nôtre has applied Descartes Law where the ‘angle of incidence is equal to the angle of refl ection.’ In addition, a further illusion exists where all four pools, the oval, pair of quatre foil basins, and square pools, appear to be of equal weight. However in reality, the square pool’s surface is eight times greater than the oval pool and they are 720 feet apart. It is apparent when viewing the design in plan form that the pools increase in size the further away from the château they are thereby presenting an illusion of a promenade of short distance; a decelerated or forced perspective that is ‘slowed down’ which has the eff ect of the pools seeming closer to the viewer than they are in reality. The technique serves to off set the apparent reduction in the size of distant parts: the further the shapes, the more they need to be elongated and widened.

As mentioned earlier in this assignment; when viewing the garden from the château the plane seems to progress horizontally the vanishing point. On approaching the statue of Hercules, one realises that the large lawn towards Hercules is steeply sloping. According to Allen Weiss, in Mirrors of Infinity, this optical effect is a result of the use of the tenth theorem of Euclid’s Optics which asserts that “the most distant parts of planes situated below the eye appear to be the most elevated.”18 On reaching the statue of Hercules, the garden is viewed from the initial viewpoint’s vanishing point, thus completing the circuit as intended by Le Nôtre. A further surprise is revealed where one finds the statue is actually six metres in height rather than life size as previously thought when approaching from before the canal. This imposing presence reinforces an awareness of scale and serves as an illusion that the garden is less vast than the reality.

It is interesting to consider the conceptual sentiment of view point and vanishing point being reversible. By placing the statue of Hercules at the garden’s vanishing point, infi nity is captured at a known distance. The laws of perspective are momentarily defi ed as paradoxically, the vanishing point can be defined as subsiding at an infinite distance.

The central axis is no longer the focus when looking back towards the château from the sloping lawn; instead the horizontal terraces dominate with the château appearing on a pedestal of successive terraces. Irregularities of level and diversity of components in the overall composition become instantly discernible and the pools, lawns, steps, ramps and yew trees create a mostly orthogonal composition oflines and planes. From the final vista, the view seems also telescopic when considering the original wide angle view from the château steps akin to a panorama.

View from the Statue of Hercules where the vanishing point and view point have been reversed

View from the Statue of Hercules where the vanishing point and view point have been reversed

At Vaux-le-Vicomte, Le Nôtre has successfully extended the realms of anamorphosis to landscape architecture, which as previously acknowledged, underwent accelerated development in the seventeenth -century. The anamorphosis creates visual effects which are not inherently encountered in nature whereby the viewer experiences a tension between the natural perspective cues in their peripheral vision and the forced perspective of the formal garden. Th is implies that the whole garden itself acts as an optical device rather than just utilising optical (or perspective) techniques.

Despite existing in an era of great extravagance, Vaux exhibits qualities that relate to contemporary minimalist ideals. Th e use of evergreen shrubs and vast planes of still water create a sense of classicism and timelessness that transcends seasons, years, decades and even centuries.

The garden is incredibly successful at breaking down the scale of the vast land so it relates to the scale of a human being. Th e succession of terraces is psychologically manageable and space is further divided via the central axis into a wealth of outdoor rooms which echo those inside the chateau. Whilst exploring the grounds, one feels as if they are entirely consumed within the design which serves to act as a microcosm of seventeenth century life.