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.

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. . . François Racine de Monville . . .

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.

. . . François Racine de Monville . . .

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. . . François Racine de Monville . . .

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