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Art & History

At Vaux-le-Vicomte, history is a family affair

The largest privately owned château in France is a monument to the family that built it, and another that has saved it from ruins.

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Two families define the story of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte: one that created this groundbreaking masterwork of architecture, art, and landscape design that eventually inspired the construction of the Versailles palace, and one that rescued the château from disappearing from history.

“We try to honor the family of Nicolas Fouquet, who had the audacity to commission three brilliant men to create this masterpiece,” said Jean-Charles de Vogüé, who along with his two brothers are now managing the largest privately owned château in France. “And we are the descendants of the Sommier family, that bought the château in 1875 to preserve it.”

The stories of both families are central to the appeal of the estate. In some ways it’s a miracle the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte still exists at all. 

Built between 1656 and 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, who was the keeper of finances for King Louis XIV, it was a unique creation at the time. Fouquet commissioned a top architect, Louis Le Vau; an artist, Charles Le Brun; and a landscape architect, André Le Notre, to work together on the project. The combination created a harmonious whole that was unsurpassed at the time and that became a model for the French formal gardens and châteaus that followed.

Unfortunately for Fouquet, the magnificent château and some scheming rivals were his downfall. After a lavish celebration in 1661 (including the debut of a new Molière play with the author in attendance), Fouquet was arrested. Some of the king's advisors had implied that Fouquet had been skimming the royal treasury. Fouquet ended up in prison for the rest of his life, never again able to experience the château he commissioned.

The second tragedy of Vaux-le-Vicomte was a more gradual one, as over the decades the château and its gardens fell into disrepair. The maintenance of the estate was taxing even for the wealthiest of its inhabitants. It consists of 500 hectares (or about 1,200 acres) of French formal gardens and forest enclosed by a wall that is 13 kilometers long, more than 5 acres of rooftops, more than 100 rooms, and nearly 500 windows. And that’s not to mention the canals, the thousands of trimmed boxwood trees, and the artworks in the château.

In 1875, the sugar tycoon Alfred Sommier bought the now decaying château and set about restoring the buildings and the gardens. Sommier was the great-great grandfather of Jean-Charles and his brothers.  In 1968, Jean-Charles’ father, Patrice de Vogüé, opened the château to visitors for the first time. Since then, the château has been run as a non-profit enterprise, with philanthropic donations and proceeds from entrance tickets paying for the ongoing cost of maintaining and improving the château, along with the salaries of a large staff needed to operate it. “When we started opening it to visitors 50 years ago, we wanted to show it the way Fouquet left it,” Jean-Charles said. “That if he came back, he would recognize it.” 

Having grown up in the Vaux-le-Vicomte, Jean-Charles said that he appreciates it more as an adult; when he was a child it just seemed normal. Now he realizes what a rare privilege it is, and that he hopes that his children and grandchildren will someday continue the tradition.

 “We are a small part of a long history,” he said. “The Sommier family saved it from ruins and we are still here taking care of it. It would be a shame to stop the story now.”

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