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Unit 1.3 – Le French Art

REMEMBER: Calculators are no longer permitted on the exam!

Difficulty: Medium / Hard

Time:   7 minutes 30 seconds


The passage below has been adapted from “But is it Art?” by Cynthia Freeland


A modern-day tourist to France can make short train trips from Paris to visit medieval Chartres on one day and Versailles the next. Having done this tour, I would be hard-pressed to say which place had greater impact. Chartres is fascinating. You catch picturesque glimpses of the cathedral’s mismatched towers from the city’s narrow medieval streets. By comparison, Versailles dazzles by sheer scale and spectacle. The palace is extraordinary, as is its setting amid parks, fountains waterways and gardens. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gardens were recognised as high artistic achievements. In 1770 Horace Walpole listed gardening along with poetry and painting as the ‘three sisters or graces’. Designers or ‘gardenists’ like Capability Brown in England earned fame and fortune. Andre Le Notre was from a family of gardeners called upon by Louis XIV to design a garden grand enough to fit his image as ‘The Sun King’. Le Notre spent 50 years of his life (beginning in the 1660s) upon the magnificent gardens of Versailles. Designed around the theme of Apollo the sun god (to honour Louis), Versailles’ gardens drew upon Greek mythology: its fountains and statues depicted Apollo’s mother Latona, his sister Diana, etc. The scale was enormous, both in years expended and in hard labour spent transforming the landscape, which started out as a swampy hunting lodge. The Versailles official Web site says that the garden covers 2,000 acres, with 200,000 trees, 210,000 flowers, 50 fountains, 620 fountain nozzles, and 3,600 cubic metres per hour consumed during the annual ‘Full Play of the Fountains’. Water was as much a part of the original design as trees and plants; fountains and waterways had their own designs, with adjustable nozzles to create splashing sculptural effects. Sometimes gondoliers and sailors in costume were hired to ply the waters of the Grand Canal while musicians played on shore. The classical allusions everywhere at work in Versailles would require an educated audience to appreciate them. Like the chateau, the garden served a social, political, and cultural function during the period of absolute monarchy. The garden signified the king’s dominance. But there is also an aesthetic sensibility at work in the garden’s complex geometrically ordered plan, which included broad alleys, low gardens or parterres with embroidery designs, the huge mile-long Grand Canal, and small enclosed wooded alcoves or bosquets, each with its own theme, enhanced by fountains. Gardens did not count as the highest form of art for Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), but he took them seriously. Kant’s great work in aesthetics, his Critique of Judgement was published a century after Le Notre began his work. Kant never visited Versailles, though he probably saw engravings of it and knew of gardens emulating it. We remember that Kant emphasised formal features and the idea of ‘purposiveness without a purpose’. Versailles, as a garden aiming at Beauty, did not serve the lowly purpose of growing fruits and vegetables.

Chartres was a centre of worship and part of the new Marian cult which was just starting to inject a powerful feminine element into Christianity. The cathedral houses a sacred relic, a bit of fabric allegedly from Mary’s tunic. Throughout its construction, local lords and trade guilds made great donations of riches to ornament the cathedral, most notably, its unrivalled stained-glass windows. The cathedral was the scene of trials and festivals, as well as worship. Within its walls people might sleep overnight, bring their dogs, hold guild meetings, and operate small booths selling their wares, like religious souvenirs and memorabilia – even wine (to avoid taxes). While social and cultural details help us understand some aspects of the cathedral’s function, it also exemplifies medieval ideals of art. Gothic architecture has a particular look: the pointed or ogival arch, ribbed vaults, rose windows, towers, and tremendous height in the nave, supported by flying buttresses. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres is an early and fine example of Gothic style, largely the same as it was 800 years ago, with many of its original 1,800 sculptures and 182 original stained-glass windows. Chartres’ architect was clearly on top of the newer developments of medieval aesthetics. A remarkable fact is that the main entry portal has statues of pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Pythagoras, amid hundreds of saints and apostles.


1.         Which of the two great works of art, discussed in the passage above, was constructed first?

  • A          Chartres Cathedral
  • B          The gardens of Versailles
  • C          They were both built around the same time
  • D          It is impossible to estimate based on the information provided


2.         Roughly how many litres of water would be consumed in 24 hours by the fountains at Versailles?

  • A          86,400
  • B          8,640,000
  • C          86,400,000
  • D          It is impossible to estimate based on the information provided


3.         The design of the gardens of Versailles seems to symbolise:

  • A          Ownership of nature
  • B          Harmony with nature
  • C          Destruction of nature
  • D          Amelioration of nature


4.         “Versailles, as a garden aiming at Beauty, did not serve the lowly purpose of growing fruits and vegetables.” … What does this line suggest about the nature of farming?

  • A          It is wasteful
  • B          It is a more purposeful undertaking than art
  • C          It is purely functional and not aesthetically pleasing
  • D          It is less important than art culturally.


5.         Compared to Versailles, Chartres is depicted as:

  • A          More religious
  • B          More functional
  • C          More profitable  
  • D          More open to pagan beliefs


  • Q1:A.
    Work on Versailles began in the 1660’s, whereas Chartres Cathedral was built in medieval times. The fifth last line also gives us an approximation of the date in “largely the same as it was 800 years ago”. Chartres was probably built in the 1200’s.

    We are only told how much water is used during the play, which only happens once a year. Not enough information to estimate how much water would be used on every other day of the year.

    They took a swamp and built it into a huge garden, erecting statues and fountains everywhere. This is more creative than destructive, so B is out. Most would think that this garden is an improvement over the swamp, but this is still subjective – some naturalists may prefer the swamp the way nature made it. Therefore D, amelioration, is incorrect. Harmony with nature would have been cultivating a garden in the swamp, or leaving it the way it was. A certain amount of destruction would have been necessary to built this garden, and so what is described is more likely to be a display of ownership than harmony.

    It is important here to not let other information from the passage effect your analysis of this single line.
    This line, presented from the point of view of upper-class French society suggests that cultivating beauty is a much higher purpose than cultivating fruits and vegetables. This implies that fruits and vegetables are not beautiful (i.e not aesthetically pleasing). Culture is often associated with beauty, but they are not the same things. Culturally, farming can be very important to a nation without being considered inherently beautiful.

    The simplest answer is the correct one. The cathedral with the statues of saints, and the fabric allegedly from Mary’s tunic is more religious than the garden of Versailles. The cathedral has a statue of Aristotle, but the gardens contain statues of Greek Gods – so if anything the gardens are more pagan than the church. Both are functional, just in different ways, and there’s no way to tell which is more profitable.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    May 17, 2012

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