François Racine de Monville

François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville (October 4, 1734, Paris – March 8, 1797) was a French aristocrat, musician, architect and landscape designer, best known for his French landscape garden, Le Désert de Retz, which influenced Thomas Jefferson and other later architects.

Childhood and life at the court of Louis XVEdit

Monville was a distant relative of the playwright Jean Racine. He was born on October 4, 1734, in the hôtel de Mesmes on rue Sainte-Avoie in Paris. He was the son of Jean Baptiste Racine du Jonquoy the Treasurer-General for Bridges and Highways and Receiver of Finances (General Tax Collector) of the town of Alençon. Jean Baptiste Racine du Jonquoy had been found guilty of fraud in 1742 and imprisoned in the fortress of Port-Louis, where he died in 1750.

Monville was raised by his maternal grandfather, Thomas Le Monnier, who gave him a good education.[1] He grew up in his grandfather's Paris house on the rue des Neuve-des-Petits-Champs. Monnier was the son of a provincial draper, who in 1724 had become a fermier général or tax-farmer; one of the Tax Collectors on contract to the Government to gather tax from the public while retaining a sizable commission for themselves.

In 1757 François Racine de Monville purchased the title of Grand Master of Waters and Forests for Normandy (where his family held land), a title which he resold in 1764. Monville's family was related by marriage to the powerful Duc de Choiseul, whose brother had married Monville's niece. Choiseul was a favorite of Madame de Pompadour and was for a period the virtual Prime Minister of France. Although Monville cut quite a figure at the court of Louis XV he was unsuccessful in being named host for visiting ambassadors for Louis XV, this is possibly related to the lessening power of Choiseul after Madame de Pompadour's death in 1764, and the eventual forced retirement of Choiseul in 1770.

In 1775 de Monville married his third cousin Aimable Charlotte Lucas de Boncourt, and during their marriage he used the titles Racine du Thuit, Seigneur de Monville, which he later stopped using. After five years his wife died, followed a few months later by Monville's grandfather, who left him a large income from land holdings in Normandy.

Monville was, by all accounts a good looking and charming man, Jean-Nicolas Dufort de Cheverny described him as "one of the most handsome gentlemen in Paris", " He was five feet eight inches tall, built like a model, he had a fine figure, superb legs, and a slightly small but agreeable head. He was a superior dancer and was forever receiving invitations to all the balls". He was successful socially because of his multiple talents; dancing, music and singing, and he excelled at fencing, handball, and archery. He was also known for his liaisons with the opera singer Sophie Arnould, actresses such as "the charming Rosalie Astraudy from the Comédie Italienne" and two favorites of the King: courtesan Madame du Barry and Louise Anne Thoynard de Jouy, Comtesse d’Esparbès. He appears to have remained friends with both Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette, who notoriously disliked each other, which may say something about his personal charm.

As well as composing music, he was an excellent musician, a virtuoso on the flute and harp, and adept at singing. There are descriptions of him performing with the writer Stephanie de Genlis, playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and composer Christoph Willibald Gluck.

He was also noted for originality as an architect, designing in conjunction with the architect Étienne-Louis Boullée in the 1760s two town houses in Paris: the Grand and Petit Hôtels de Monville, at the corner of the rue d'Anjou and rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. It is unlikely that Boullée was involved in Monville's famous country residence le Désert de Retz in the 1770s and 1780s, although Monville did, for a while, engage as assistant the architect François Barbier until 1780. At the Désert Monville's exceptional talents in architectural, interior and landscape design came to the fore. Monville apparently may also have undertaken design work for his friends, most notably the Duc d'Orléans and Madame du Barry for whom he may have designed landscape gardens and garden structures.

In 1790, Monville offered his two Paris residences to his longstanding friend, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, for 400,000 livres. Despite the fact that Beaumarchais was now wealthy as a shareholder in the Compagnie des eaux de Paris, he declined the offer, replying that "the price was too high and the interior too gaudy." The town houses on the rue d'Anjou near the Madeleine were demolished in 1855 during the creation of the Boulevard Malesherbes.

Désert de RetzEdit

In 1774, de Monville bought a country estate at Saint-Jacques-de-Retz, which had a working farm, pasture and woodlands, and a formal garden à la française attached to the main house. He resolved to create a French landscape garden, in a new style influenced by the English garden. He called the garden le Désert [2] de Retz, and planted it with four thousand trees from the royal greenhouses, and rerouted a river and created several ponds.

The garden of the Désert de Retz, completed in 1785, contained twenty-one fabriques, or architectural constructions, representing different periods of history and parts of the world; they included an artificial rock entrance, a temple of rest, an outdoor theatre, a Chinese house, a ruined Gothic church, a ruined altar, a classical tomb, an obelisque, a temple to the god Pan, a Tatar tent, and an ice-house in the form of a pyramid. The best-known feature was the ruined classical column, large enough to contain enough rooms to be a working residence, although, as it happened, Monville apparently preferred to reside in the much smaller Chinese House while at the Desert.[3]

A guide produced during de Monville's time shows many of these items, in some cases being the only evidence of them. There are theories that the landscape was designed to allude to intellectual concepts and mysticism, specifically Free Masonry, although the evidence is inconclusive. The guide's vagueness creates more questions than supplying answers; for example it includes a picture of satyrs with flaming torches greeting visitors at the Rock Entrance; there is no explanation as to whether they are costumed staff, statues or merely some sort of allegorical illustration.

The new garden was visited by members of the Court of Louis XVI, including Jacques Delille, Marie-Joseph de Chénier, Hubert Robert, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun; and visitors from abroad, possibly including Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson was so impressed by the round interior rooms of the column that he created similar rooms in his own Paris residence, the hotel de Langeac, as well as his house at Monticello, and the library of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

King Gustav III of Sweden reproduced the ruined column (on a much smaller scale) in his own gardens at Haga in Stockholm as well as several versions of the metal Tartar tent. Marie Antoinette's dairy and the parterres for her garden at the Petit Trianon at Versailles are derived from examples at the Desert de Retz as are items at the Chateau de Rambouillet.[4] The Desert de Retz also influenced other new and existing gardens such as the Chateau de Ermenonville. In addition to the Desert de Retz, De Monville designed a French landscape garden for Jeanne du Barry at Louveciennes, and created several fabriques for the Parc Monceau in Paris for the Duc d'Orleans, none of which seem to have survived.

The French Revolution and the death of de MonvilleEdit

After the French Revolution began, there is a story that he avoided arrest at the Desert by pretending to be his own gardener.

In 1790 Monville tried to raise money to emigrate by selling his town houses and the Désert de Retz. In 1790 he offered both the Desert and his town house to Beaumarchais for £400,000 who instead decided to build a new residence near the demolished Bastille using material from that structure. In July 1792, Monville sold the Désert and his two townhouses in Paris to the Englishman Lewis Disney Ffytche for £108,000 (although as the property of an English subject these were seized and sold in 1793 on the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition).

Monville did not, however, leave; it is possible that the swiftly changing political landscape during the Revolution may have influenced him to remain. Despite the seizure of Ffytche's property he apparently still had funds; he had made sure Ffytche paid him in convertible currency. He also may still have had income from the land holdings in Normandy and a house in Neuilly. For what ever reason he became a simple citizen of Paris, known as "François Racine dit Monville". He met frequently with Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans and with the duke's advisor, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and was dining with the duke when the Convention ordered the duke's arrest on April 6, 1793.

In May 1793 a residency permit was issued to "Citizen Nicolas Henry Racine Monville" at Neuilly-sur-Seine. The entry describes him as "5 feet 6 inches tall, with chestnut hair and eyebrows, blue eyes, a sharp nose, a small mouth, a round chin, a bare forehead and an oval face.". Living with him at Neuilly was a young actress "le petite Sarah", a fact noted in his trial notes .

Monville was arrested on May 17, 1794, imprisoned in the Conciergerie, and found guilty by a Revolutionary Tribunal. Accounts of his captivity vary, one stating he was held at "maison d'arrêt" on the Rue de la Loi, another at the "maison Talaru". He was released on August 5, 1794, eight days after Robespierre's execution, which marked the end of the Terror. In compromised health, he died on March 8, 1797, while residing at 64, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in Paris. Cause of death was an abscessed gum. Death occurred four days after dental surgery. Monville died a wealthy man, leaving a considerable estate that required almost two months to inventory, from March 14 to May 6, 1797; this Inventaire après le Décès de Racine de Monville, of more than 100 pages, can be consulted in the French National Archives a Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.. The noteworthy items Monville possessed at his death included a vicuña jacket, a harp, two violins, a quinte, 180 lots of books and a wine cellar stocked with more than 750 bottles and half-bottles.

Since Monsieur de Monville had no known progeny, the proceeds of his estate were bequeathed to his three great-grandnieces and his great-grandnephew, all of whom were minors and represented by guardians. Jacqueline Stéphanie de Choiseul-Stainville (February 24, 1782 – March 13, 1861), Antoine Clériadus de Choiseul-Stainville (September 18, 1783 – September 3, 1809), Princess Honorine Camille Grimaldi (April 22, 1784 – May 8, 1879) and Princess Athénaïse Euphrasie Grimaldi (June 2, 1786 – September 11, 1860), each inherited an equal portion of the estate.

Jacqueline married Gabriel de Marnier (1783–1845). Honorine married René-Louis-Victor de La Tour du Pin de La Charce (1779–1832). Athénaïse married Auguste-Michel le Tellier de Souvré (1783–1844). Numerous descendants of Jacqueline and Honorine are living today. Antoine Clériadus died childless in Vienna, Austria; Athénaïse also died childless.


During his lifetime Monville commissioned a number of plays and operas, and frequently gave recitals and concerts at all three of his residences which probably included his own works. There does survive one songbook and some pieces of music composed by him and published in 1770 and 1771. It is probable these are only a small portion of his own work; his extensive library was largely dispersed before his death, but it is possible music composed by him and furniture designed by him may yet turn up in the possession of his family's descendants. Oddly there are no paintings or other images of him, although he mixed with a number of artists and Madame Vigée-Lebrun's journal appears to indicate that she painted Monville's portrait at least once.

Monville's two town houses have vanished and their contents are dispersed and now unidentifiable. There are surviving images but at this distance the individual contributions of Monville and Boullée are rather difficult to separate. It is at Le Desert de Retz that Monville's legacy is most prominent. His architectural, interior and landscape design work have periodically resurfaced as influences in the cultural landscape. In particular his great Column house has gained an almost iconic status outranking the built and unbuilt work of his contemporaries Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, Antoine Laurent Thomas Vaudoyer and Jean-Jacques Lequeu who were actually professional architects. It is strongly reminiscent of the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

His garden designs were closer to the English models than the other French examples at the time, which tended to be rather fussy and crowded with detail. Monville's gardens struck out along visionary lines which even the most intellectual English examples did not approach, being more in line with similar and later German examples such as the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm. His particular taste for including mysterious and incongruous architectural items (such as the column) were exceptional at the time, and even today are striking and remarkable.

The Désert de Retz holds a special place in the history of landscape design and was rediscovered by Surrealist artists in the 1950s when the then overgrown garden was used for fetes by Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau and others. It also inspired Colette's Paradis terrestre. In the 20th century many famous persons became interested in the Désert and visited the garden: artists Salvador Dali, Louis Aragon and Hans Arp in 1927, author André Pieyre de Mandiargues in 1946, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1950, André Breton and 23 other surrealists in 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1979, former US President Jimmy Carter in 1983, French President Mitterrand in 1990, and the architect I. M. Pei in 1994.

At least two films include scenes shot at the Désert de Retz. In 1923 French director Abel Gance used the Désert de Retz as a decor for his film Au Secours!, starring Max Linder and Harry Houdini. In June 1994 the director James Ivory used it for scenes in his film Jefferson in Paris, starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi and Jean Pierre Aumont.

Since the mid-1980s the Désert de Retz has undergone a concerted restoration, returning portions of the landscape to an approximation of the condition they were in during Monville's time. The Column House in particular has been carefully renovated.


  • Allain, Yves-Marie and Christiany, Janine, L'art des jardins en Europe, Paris, Citadelles, 2006.
  • Choppin de Janvry, Olivier, Le Désert de Retz : Réponses à 101 questions sur le Désert de Retz, Croissy-sur-Seine, Société Civile du Désert de Retz, 1998.
  • ---, "Le Désert de Retz," in Le Vieux Marly Tome III, No. 3, 1968–1969.
  • Dufort de Cheverny, Jean-Nicolas,Mémoires sur les règnes de Louis XV et Louis XVI et sur la Révolution. Paris, Ed. Plon, Nourrit et Cie., 1886.
  • Kenyon, Ronald W., Monville: Forgotten Luminary of the French Enlightenment, CreateSpace, 2013, Revised and updated in 2016.
  • ---, Monville : l'inconnu des Lumières, CreateSpace, 2015.
  • Prévôt, Philippe, Histoire des jardins, Editions Sud Ouest, 2006.
  • Wenzler, Claude, Architecture du Jardin, Rennes, Editions Ouest-France, 2003.
  • Article on De Monville by Julien Cendres in Créateurs de Jardins et de paysages en France de la Renaissance au début du XIX siècle, directed by Michel Racine, Paris, Actes Sud, École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage, 2001.
  • Jardins en France : 1760–1820, Paris, Caisse nationale des monuments historiques et des sites, 1978.

Sources and citationsEdit

  1. ^ Article by Julien Cendres in Créateurs de Jardins et de paysages en France, pg. 166 (see bibliography)
  2. ^ The term 'desert' was defined at the time in the original French Encyclopedia as "a place propitious for cultivating dreams and nostalgia."
  3. ^ Article by Julien Cendres in Créateurs de Jardins et de paysages en France, pg. 167 (see bibliography)
  4. ^ Cendres, pg. 168