See biographies by A. Maurois (tr. 1956), H. Peyre (1980), and G. Robb (1997); studies by R. B. Grant (1968), E. M. Grant (1945, repr. 1966 and 1968), J. P. Houston (1974), W. M. Greenberg (1985), and V. Brombert (1986).
The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a classical French chateau located in Maincy, near Melun, 55 km southeast of Paris in the Seine-et-Marne département of France. It was built from 1658 to 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle-Isle (Belle-Ile-en-Mer), Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV.
Vaux-le-Vicomte was in many ways the most influential work built in Europe in the mid-17th century, the finest house in France built after the Château de Maisons. Here, together with the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of a new order: the magnificent manner that is associated with the "Louis XIV style" involving a system of collective work, which could be applied to the structure, its interiors and works of art and the creation of an entire landscape. Vaux-le-Vicomte is one of Europe's finest constructions of its kind.
Fifteen years later, Fouquet was King Louis XIV's superintendent of finances (finance minister) and construction began on what was then the finest château and garden in France. This achievement was brought about through the collaboration of the three men of genius whom Fouquet had chosen for the task: the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre.
The château and its patron became for a short time a great center of fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. In the inauguration of Fouquet's Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event, organized by François Vatel, and showing an impressive firework show.
The château was lavish, refined, and dazzling to behold, but rich in hidden drama. Indeed, the King had Fouquet arrested shortly after a famous fête that took place on 17 August 1661, with Molière's play 'Les Fâcheux'. The celebration had been too impressive and the superintendent's home too luxurious, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert had pushed the king to believe that his minister's magnificence was funded by the misappropriation of public funds. Fouquet was arrested by Colbert, who would replace him as superintendent of finances. Later Voltaire was to sum up the famous fête thus: "On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody." La Fontaine wrote describing the fête, and shortly afterwards penned his Elégie aux nymphes de Vaux.
After Nicolas Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The King seized, confiscated, and occasionally purchased, 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-vicomte: Versailles, which would be changed sequentially by the greatest architects, like Jules Hardouin Mansart and Ange-Jacques Gabriel, increasing its size, until the French Revolution.
Madame Fouquet recovered her property ten years later and retired there with her eldest son. After her husband's death in 1680, her son died too. In 1705 she decided to put Vaux-le-Vicomte up for sale.
The Maréchal de Villars became the new owner although he had never even set eyes on the place. In 1764 the Maréchal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants were to maintain the property for over a century. The château was the scene of a vicious murder in 1847, when the current duc de Choiseul-Praslin, Charles Laure Hugues Théobald, killed his wife in her bedroom there. After a thirty-year period of neglect, it was put up for sale.
In 1875, Alfred Sommier acquired Vaux-le-Vicomte at a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the renowned architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to work on the preservation of Vaux-le-Vicomte. The château remains a private property — owned by the comte de Vogüé — but, named by the state a monument historique, it welcomes visitors.
Like many châteaux in the north of France, Vaux is surrounded on three sides by a rectangular moat, with the axial arrival avenue continued across a bridge to the open forecourt. The structure is symmetrical and tightly integrated, with a slightly projecting central block and end pavilions, and two returned wings that project forward. Traditional tall slate roofs emphasize each structural element with a pyramidal cap.
At the rear, the structure is dominated by the projection of its central oval salon which rises the full height of the house, under an oval dome.
The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, with matured woodlands, than it was in the seventeenth century; the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.
Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.
The site, unlike Versailles, was naturally well-watered, with two small rivers that met in the park; the canalized bed of one forms the Grand Canal.