by David Maskill (for Peter Sergel, in gratitude)

When, in 1763, René Louis de Girardin (1735-1808) began the transformation of his country estate garden based on the philosophies of his hero, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), he cannot have foreseen that it would become the great philosopher’s final (…well, almost final) resting place. Although Rousseau spent only the last six weeks of his life as Girardin’s guest, his death and subsequent entombment on the Island of Poplars in one of the artificial lakes created by Girardin, transformed Ermenonville from an aristocrat’s private retreat into a place of pilgrimage from individuals as diverse as Maximilien Robespierre and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France.

Girardin inherited the château and estate of Ermenonville, about forty-five kilometres northeast of Paris, together with the titles marquis de Vauvray and vicomte d’Ermenonville and a substantial fortune in 1762. He resigned his army commission and position at the court of the Duke of Lorraine and spent time travelling. In England, he visited several gardens including Stowe (which he found too overdone and too political) but at The Leasowes he was enchanted. The gardens had been laid out by the poet William Shenstone in the new picturesque, as opposed to the older formal, style. Shenstone’s The Leasowes accorded perfectly with Girardin’s own tastes which had been formed by the reading of Rousseau. In particular, it was Rousseau’s description of the garden of Elysium for his heroine, Julie in Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) that had initially inspired Girardin. At The Leasowes, Girardin saw Rousseau’s literary garden brought into being or at least he saw the possibility of it being so. On his return from England, Girardin set about transforming the gardens and park at Ermenonville. The uncultivated area to the northwest of the château was transformed into a wild Désert. It was here that Girardin had erected a rustic hut which he named appropriately, Maison de Jean-Jacques, (marked by a yellow circle on the plan in Fig.1). For Elysium, Rousseau imagined a place where the young Julie was at one with nature, nurtured and replenished in both body and soul, and immune to the corruption of the city and the court – an age-old notion that can be traced back at least to the bucolic verse of the Roman poet Virgil. But Rousseau’s Elysium contained a far more dangerous political message. His garden provided the young heroine with all she needed to sustain her moral and spiritual well-being without the need for Church or King! Despite his aristocratic lineage, Girardin was something of a political radical. He opposed hunting on his lands in defiance of noble edicts which claimed the right to do so. His opposition led to his having to go briefly into exile. At the Revolution, he joined the radical Jacobin Club alongside Robespierre and Danton. But that was well into the future when Girardin began the transformation of Ermenonville.

Fig. 1. Le Rouge, Les jardins d’Ermenonville, 1775, etching and engraving (Paris: Bibliothèque national de France, source: Gallica).

Girardin then turned his attention to the area south of the château. A sunken womb-like grotto marked the entrance to this part of the garden [Figs 2 and 3 and marked with a blue circle in the plan in Fig. 1]

Fig. 2.
Fig. 3.

Only on emerging from the grotto, reborn as it were, via a rough-hewn stone staircase does the full vista of the garden become apparent, but not before a sublime moment is conjured forth by the cascade that threatens to overwhelm [Fig. 4].

Fig. 4.

Turning away from the threatening cascade, the extent of the south garden spreads out over an artificial lake. On the far left, among the trees, is the Temple of Modern Philosophy [Figs. 5 and 6] marked with a green circle in the plan in Fig. 1.

Fig. 5.
Fig. 6.

The Temple to Modern Philosophy is not such much a ruin as an unfinished structure – deliberately so to indicate that the search for knowledge is likewise never-ending. The temple is dedicated to Newton, Descartes, Montesquieu, William Penn, Voltaire and Rousseau himself. Alongside Rousseau’s name appears the word ‘Natura’. The garden was largely completed by 1775 when Girardin published his influential treatise, De la Composition des Paysages, ou des moyens d’embellir la Nature autour des Habitations, en joignant l’agréable et l’utile.

Despite several attempts, Girardin had failed to lure his hero to Ermenonville, until, that is, 1778, when abandoned by many of his patrons, Rousseau and his mistress Thérèse Levasseur agreed to Girardin’s protection and came to live in a house on the estate. In May 1778, Maximilien Robespierre came to find the great man there. Rousseau’s stay was short-lived. He died on 2 July 1778 only six weeks after his arrival. He bequeathed his unpublished papers to Girardin. The marquis saw his opportunity. He called for the court sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon to make a death mask from which he produced a bust [Fig. 7]

Fig. 7.

But Girardin’s more lasting gesture of admiration was to build a tomb for Rousseau and to place it on its own island at the far end of the lake, providing, as it were, the natural conclusion to the garden [Fig. 8] and marked by a red circle on the plan in Fig. 1.

Fig. 8.

Girardin constructed a temporary and then a more permanent tomb on the small island which he then planted with poplars, the traditional attribute of grief – hence the name the Island of Poplars.

Rousseau’s resting place became an almost instant site of pilgrimage. Now that he was safely dead, his more radical ideas could be quietly put to one side by those who were drawn to his ‘getting back to nature’ ideology. In June 1780, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France paid a visit and sat for some time contemplating the tomb. She had tried herself to reform the etiquette-laden strictures of the court at Versailles with the installation of her own model farm and dairy at the Hameau in the gardens of the palace.

Despite Girardin’s politics, he was put under house arrest with his wife in 1792 and their children were imprisoned until the fall of Robespierre in 1794, ironically one feels given Robespierre’s earlier visit to Ermenonville. At the same time as Girardin was put under house arrest, Rousseau’s remains/ashes were dis-interred and transported to the Panthéon in Paris. The château and gardens were subject to Revolutionary vandalism and although Girardin did survive the Revolution, he did not return to Ermenonville. He died in 1808.

On the title page of Girardin’s De la Composition des paysages….1777

“A happy rural seat of various view”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Further reading:

Martin Calder, ‘Promenade in Ermenonville’, in Martin Calder (ed.), Experiencing the garden in the eighteenth century, Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2006, pp. 109-144.

Gérardin, R. L. de [sic], De la Composition des Paysages, ou des moyens d’embellir la Nature autour des Habitations, en joignant l’agréable et l’utile, Geneva and Paris: Delaguette, 1777 and the English edition, An Essay on Landscape; Or The Means of Improving and Embellishing the Country Round our Habitations, London: Dodsley, 1783.

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