François Mansart (1598-1666), one of the first French architects to embrace the ideals of classicism, was an eloquent spokesman for classical restraint, beauty of proportion, and clarity of form.
François Mansart was born in Paris on Jan. 13, 1598. A pupil of Salomon de Brosse, architect of the Luxembourg Palace, Mansart clearly derived his early style from this master. Together they worked on the château of Coulommiers, begun in 1618.
At 25, Mansart was well established and flooded with commissions, mostly from the wealthy officers of the Crown. Among his early works were the châteaux of Berny (1623) and Balleroy (begun 1626). From Gaston d'Orléans, brother of King Louis XIII, he received the important commission for rebuilding the château of Blois. The only part of the vast project executed was the principal corps de logis (1635-1638) with its high-pitched, broken roof of the type popularized by the architect and bearing his name (mansard roof). Of grand simplicity, the facade demonstrates Mansart's knowledgeable use of classical orders, restrained detail, and unusually harmonious proportions.
Mansart designed many town houses in Paris, among the most notable being the Hôtel de la Vrillière (1635) and the Hôtel Le Jars (1648). His best-known domestic structure is the château of Maisons (now Maisons-Lafitte; 1642-1646), built for Renéde Longueil. It reveals the architect's ability to deal with complex series of masses which are ingeniously related to one another so as to create a perfect visual harmony of the whole. The interior staircase, of unique design, mounts in four flights around a square chamber, and the whole space is covered by a dome. The crisp, restrained decoration of the interior is outstanding.
In 1645 Anne of Austria commissioned Mansart to design the church and convent of the Val-de-Grâce in Paris. Possibly inspired by Andrea Palladio's plan of II Redentore in Venice, Mansart's scheme was executed only through the entablatures of the nave and the first story of the facade; Mansart kept changing his original plan and hence was dismissed from the project, which was handed over to Jacques Lemercier. Mansart's obsession for modifying his designs lost him a number of commissions, not the least of which was that for the eastern wing of the Great Court of the Louvre, for which he was asked to submit plans in 1664.
The last decade of Mansart's life saw few significant undertakings. Arrogant and obstinate, he was unwilling to bow to the whims of his potential clients and therefore was virtually ignored by the time of his death in Paris on Sept. 3, 1666. His only solace was the certain realization that he had been instrumental in establishing a pure brand of classicism in France.
A detailed study of Mansart's life and works is provided by Anthony Blunt, François Mansart and the Origins of French Classical Architecture (1941). For a more general knowledge of the architect's work and contribution, Blunt's Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1954; 2d ed. 1970) is adequate.