Reading the Gardens at Vallée aux Loups

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Kyra Sanchez Clapper

Like the transitionary periods between philosophical movements, private gardens are versatile, which make them unique pieces of art. Nineteenth-century politicians often view the garden as a place to demonstrate nationalistic power. Artists tend to view it as a place of self-expression, but also as an opportunity to obtain a commission from leaders to create a physical artistic representation of their nation’s power. Scientists, meanwhile, can view the garden as a place to cultivate knowledge and advance scientific knowledge in the areas of medicine and agronomy. Even this interest, however, ultimately led back to the state as European intellectuals wanted to help fulfill their benefactors’ desires to gain national glory. Gardens, whose styles are described in terms of nations, are accordingly one of the most nationalistic forms of art.[1] The only problem with the garden is that it almost never retains its original form. Biodiversity develops due to the transportation of new flora, management, and ownership changes, as well as climate change.[2] Gardens lack the fixity of the other fine arts, and these changes affect their purposes.

Gardens are multipurpose spaces, so knowing why they exist depends on their ownership and audience. Was it created to attract tourists, and thus for profit? Did someone commission it as a living artistic representation? Could it be seen as a place for someone to experience a modern-day Eden? If the garden contains numerous foreign specimens from colonies held by the country where it exists, is it a showcase of imperial power? After all, European imperial powers were in a race to show who knew how to manipulate the environment to its maximum potential.

Cèdre bleu pleureur de l’Atlas (Arboretum de la Vallée-aux-Loups Châtenay-Malabry, France) Weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus libani var. atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’) author: Jean-Luc Bailleul This is the first plant of the ‘Gluca Pendula’ as this plant was supposed to be a ‘Glauca’, but had the mutation ‘Pendula’.

For example, the garden of French Romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand displays the author’s travels. From 1807 to 1818, Chateaubriand was the proprietor of Vallée aux Loups, an arboretum located in Châtenay-Malabry on the outskirts of Paris.[3] Although Chateaubriand’s birthplace was the coastal town of Saint-Malo, he spent most of his childhood in the Breton forests, and his time in Combourg explain his particular interest in the forests that he encountered during his travels, as well as the purchase of numerous tree seedlings to include in his themed gardens. Although Chateaubriand’s original intention was to live out the rest of his days at Vallée aux Loups, his relationship with Napoleon I soured after Bonaparte’s capture of the Duc d’Enghien, who conspired with fellow royalists to overthrow Bonaparte’s regime. After this incident, he stepped down from his position as minister to the Rhodanic Republic, which ultimately forced him to live solely off his literary endeavors.  

Despite the plethora of references to the natural world in his prose, political writings, and his attempts at ethnography, there is a lack of existing scholarship on Chateaubriand’s writings and gardens in the field of “green studies.”[4] As a field, green studies is Anglo and American-centric; even work on France is lacking.[5] While there have been studies on more well-known French gardens such as Ermenonville, Versailles, Jardin des Plantes, and Jardin des Tuileries, there are only brief scholarly references, if any, to Chateaubriand’s Vallée aux Loups.[6] But by looking at lesser-known French gardens, such as Vallée aux Loups, we will better understand the connection between literature and the natural sciences in early nineteenth-century France, which mostly builds off of the studies of Versailles’ gardens.

Chateaubriand’s later scholarly works, particularly Voyage en Amérique, and his ownership of Vallée aux Loups, provide new perspectives on nature from both cultural and scientific standpoints. The father of early French Romanticism wrote Voyage as a serious scientific attempt at North American ethnography. This work’s timing fits alongside Chateaubriand’s appointment as the third president of the Société de Géographie, the world’s oldest geographical society. Although he was not a trained scientist like many of the savants of the Société (Pierre-Simon Laplace, Frédéric Cuvier, Alexander Humboldt, and Joseph Fourier, to name a few), Chateaubriand was determined to redeem himself for the inaccuracies of his descriptions of the North American environment. Before this appointment, the Vallée aux Loups gardens were somewhat structured, showing a mélange of Enlightenment rationalism and Romantic sentiment.

We can read about the gardens in Mémoirs d’outre-tombe, an autobiography that was meant to be published posthumously but was prematurely published to fund the purchase of Chateaubriand’s tomb on Grand Bé. At one point, the grounds contained livestock as well as plant specimens from all over the globe.[7] He modeled one of of his garden after the popular English garden, which contains numerous Asian plants.

Beyond this field is another piece of ground separated from the field by another retaining wall, with a green trellis interwoven with clematis and Bengal roses; that end of my estate consists of a clump of trees, a little meadow, and a poplar alley. The corner is extremely secluded: it does not smile at me as Horace’s corner did: angulus ridet.[8]

He goes into further detail by mentioning how even though the garden’s purpose is to incite joy, he wept when he beheld it. If there is anything to which Chateaubriand stays true, it is the melodrama of Romanticism. One of the plants that his gardens are most well-known for are the Lebanese cedars, which have a close tie to Christianity. Visitors can read these trees as a souvenir of his religious voyage to the Middle East. Since he and Madame de Chateaubriand were childless, they immortalized their memory by, quite literally, planting them into the ground.

Moreover, my trees scarcely know if they serve as a calendar for my pleasures or as death certificates for my years; they grow each day, as I shrink: they marry themselves to those of the Foundlings enclosure and the Boulevard d’Enfer which envelop me. I see not one house; I would be less divorced from the world six hundred miles from Paris. I hear the bleating of the goats that nourish the abandoned orphans.[9]

By combining gardens and prose, Chateaubriand gave his contemporaries and future scholars an opportunity to experience his travels physically and emotionally. Reading gardens as primary sources gives us new perspectives of the writer’s philosophy on nature.


Kyra Sanchez Clapper is an environmental and cultural independent scholar of France with an interest in Native American and garden & landscape history. She can be contacted at kksclapper@gmail.com.

Title Image: La Maison de Chateaubriand. Photo taken by Kyra Sanchez Clapper

Further Readings:

Bazin, Christian and Poniatowski, Michel. Chateaubriand en Amérique. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1969.  

Call, Michael J. Back to the garden: Chateaubriand, Senancour, and Constant. Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1988.

Crépu, Michel. Le souvenir du monde: Essai sur Chateaubriand. Paris: Grasset, 2011.

Finch-Race, Daniel A., and Stephanie Posthumus. French ecocriticism: from the early modern  period to the twenty-first century. Frankfurt: Frankfurt am Main, 2017.

Pacini, Giulia.”Arboreal Attachments: Interacting with Trees in Early Nineteenth-Century France.” Configurations 24, no. 2 (2016): 173-195.

Parsons, Christopher M. A not-so-new world: empire and environment in French colonial North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennyslvania Press, 2018.

Roulin Jean-Marie. “François-René de Chateaubriand: Migrations and Revolutions,” in The Oxford Handbook of European Romanticism, edited by Paul Hamilton.

Watelet, Claude-Henri, Samuel Danon, and Joseph Disponzio. Essay on Gardens: A Chapter in the French Picturesque. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Traditionally speaking, English gardens are the quintessential Romantic Garden due to its lack of structure and lack of exotic florae, though not always. French gardens until after the Revolution were meticulously structured, mimicking geometric shapes. German gardens during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries borrowed from both English and French styles.

[2] Also, the role of the Anthropocene and how environmental awareness and policy need to pay closer attention to not just numerical data on the environment, but also the intellectual and cultural sides as well.

[3] While conducting research at the Maison de Chateaubriand, I could not find much information on the acquisition of saplings. The only proof of Chateaubriand planting the existing specimens in the arboretum are on the park’s placards.

[4] See Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies (2016) edited by G. Garrard.

[5] While environmental historiography has its roots in the Annales School, and the study of geography is much more present in France comparison to the United States, the rubric of “green studies” in French is more focused on the material and economic perspectives of the environment, as opposed to the intellectual/cultural perspectives (which is more prominent in Anglo-American and German green studies). See William Cronon’s essay “Appendix: Doing Environmental History” (1988) addressing this issue.

[6] Reading the French Garden was initially published in French in 1987 and was translated in 1990.

[7] Chateaubriand, Mémoirs d’outre-tombe, Book XXXVI: Chapter 1: Section 1. “My house once bought, I have done my best to live in it; I have made it such as it is. From the drawing-room windows one’s first view is of what the English call a pleasure-ground, a proscenium formed by a lawn and banks of shrubs. Beyond this enclosure, over a retaining wall topped by white lattice fencing, is a field variously cultivated and dedicated to providing fodder for the Infirmary’s cattle.”

[8] Chateaubriand, Mémoirs d’outre-tombe, Book XXXVI: Chapter 1: Section 1.

[9] Chateaubriand, Mémoirs d’outre-tombe, Book XXXVI: Chapter 1: Section 1. He then goes on to add that “the sisters of charity in their robes of dark muslin and their white cotton caps, convalescent women, and aged ecclesiastics wander among the garden’s lilacs, azaleas, calycanthuses and rhododendrons, among the rose-bushes, redcurrants, raspberries and kitchen-garden vegetables. Some of my octogenarian priests were exiles when I was: after having shared my misery with them on the lawns of Kensington, I offer them the grassy tracts of my hospice; they drag their religious age behind them like the folds of the sanctuary veil.”

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