Atget made many of his most moving and meditative photographs in the last decade of his life at the parks and gardens in and around Paris. He had worked at most of them—Versailles, Saint-Cloud, and the Luxembourg Garden—since early in his career, but these late photographs have a qualitatively different sensibility: formally bold and synthetic, they are also atmospheric, mysterious, and resonant. Their significance for Atget is suggested by the separate subseries that he set up for each near the end of his life: "Versailles," "Saint-Cloud," "Sceaux," and "Parisian Parks."
Atget made photographs of trees throughout his career, from before 1898 until a month before he died in 1927. He often revisited the same thickets—sometimes photographing the identical trees—in different years and seasons. The park at Saint-Cloud became one of Atget's favorite haunts after the First World War. He recorded the reflecting pools and formally landscaped areas dozens of times (see, for instance, Saint-Cloud), but he also visited the surrounding forest, which he had first photographed in 1906.
Trees had been a motif of French photographers since the earliest days of photography. Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884), for instance, made a photograph in around 1856 of a lone Beech Tree, as Atget has done here. But especially later in his career, Atget's approach became distinctly personal, emphasizing the tree's role as a life force. Atget photographed the tree close-up, suggesting its age by focusing on its gnarled trunk and leafless lower branches. Perched against a manicured section of the park, the beech tree also marks a transition point between nature controlled by man and the forest proper.
Luxembourg Garden, Paris' largest park, has been a mainstay of the city's social life since it was opened to the public in the mid-17th century. Early in his career, from about 1898 to 1903, Atget frequently made photographs of people at leisure in the park —images that would have been useful for illustrators and painters. He then did not return to Luxembourg Garden until after World War I.
Unlike his earlier images of the park, Atget's late photographs have a distinctly poetic sensibility. This image illustrates what early Atget booster Julien Levy admiringly referred to as the "monumental effect [of] nothingness" in Atget's work. Absent of human figures, the garden appears utterly removed from the contemporary realm. The 19th-century sculpture by Jean Debay (1802–1862) of French queen Anne of Brittany is nominally the subject of this image, but Atget's unusual composition—especially the centrality of the towering tree between the sculpture and the palace in the background—also suggests an investigation of the relationship among nature, the man-made, and the passage of time.
Versailles was one of Atget's most important proving grounds. He worked there nearly every year for a quarter of a century, making his first photographs in the summer of 1901 and his last in 1926. Perhaps inspired by a spatial reality that seemed to echo an orderly ideal borne within the photographer himself, Atget here learned, practiced, and refined the techniques that would become his hallmark.
Even as he reveled in Versailles' beauty, Atget mostly avoided making views that exalted its renowned authoritarian grandeur. Rather than aiming his camera at the palace or directly down the main lines of sight, he presented Versailles on a human scale by focusing on its outdoor sculpture and more intimate buildings.
Atget had made photographs of the Pavillon Français, a small, elegant garden building erected in 1749–1750, at least twice before his 1923 or 1924 session, but this image alone conveys the implacable serenity that would distinguish much of Atget's last work. The trees, nearly silhouetted against the white sky, frame the pavilion and echo the inward-leaning sculpted figures atop the balustrade, seamlessly uniting the natural and the man-made. Atget's evident skill at massing tones is further heightened by the gentle reflection in the water.
Atget made a remarkable series of 66 photographs at the Parc de Sceaux between March and June 1925. Like the other grandiose estates near Paris to which Atget was drawn, Sceaux was saturated with history. Built in the 17th century for Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), finance minister to Louis XIV (1638–1715), the Versailles-like property was badly damaged in the French Revolution and then partly reconstructed and renovated in the mid-19th century. The regional government acquired the estate, which had fallen into disrepair, in 1923, and Sceaux's buildings and outdoor sculptures were classified as historic monuments in 1925, the year in which Atget made his photographs.
Atget worked at Sceaux just before renovations were undertaken to transform it into a public park. The images that Atget made in the overgrown and partly ruined grounds are suffused with melancholy. Here, an age-worn statue, partly in shadow, stands forlornly amid a grand but now untended tree-lined alley. While starkly beautiful, the image suggests how time and nature have eroded human achievement.
This image from 1925 is the last picture Atget made at the Parc de Sceaux. It shows the staircase of the Pavillon de l'Aurore, an independent garden house used for entertaining that is one of the few buildings still standing from the 17th century.
Atget had made a nearly identical view a month earlier, when the stairs were almost completely covered by vines, moss, and lichen. In the interim, the stairs had been cleared in preparation for the domain's conversion to a public park. Having documented the change, Atget left for good. Drawn to signs of age and aging, Atget likely had little interest in making pictures of a renovation process aimed at effacing the effects of time.
Perched above the Seine in Paris' western suburbs, the stunning Parc de Saint-Cloud was one of Atget's favorite haunts throughout his career. He made his first photographs at the park in 1904 and his last the year before he died. The famed château had been destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but its spectacular gardens, designed in the 17th century by André Le Nôtre (1613–1700), who also laid out the geometrically ordered gardens at Versailles and Sceaux, remained in pristine condition.
Atget's original reference albums indicate that he photographed these two statues on the periphery of the half-moon basin surrounding the park's famed "24 jets" fountain on the same morning in March 1926. Both images juxtapose full-length statues of Greek gods seen from behind with single trees, all cast in relief. But their different framing demonstrates Atget's ceaseless experimentation within a given motif. In the horizontal image, Neptune (recognizable by his trident) appears to gaze serenely over his watery domain, which occupies more than half of the spacious composition. In the vertical photograph, by contrast, Atget set up his camera much closer to the statue and tree; they now loom larger than life, nearly intertwined, and frame the basin seen between them.
This elegiac image is among Atget's most abstract. Rather than providing specific information, Atget here concentrated on using light and space to describe the subject. By shooting into the sun, Atget has rendered the robust, columnar tree and its canopy in silhouette in the foreground. The circular basin between the near tree and those in the distance has been flattened to a narrow band, the whiteness of its wall and surrounding path echoing that of the sky. Imposing but controlled juxtapositions—of light and dark, vertical and horizontal—make this an exceptionally powerful photograph.