French architect François Mansart is best remembered as the one to introduce classicism to Baroque architecture of France. Incredibly forward thinking, Mansart was the most successful and accomplished of the 17th century with his approach to architecture – brash and confident, he remains to many art historians as a builder of some of the most refined and elegant structures of his day.
Mansart was born in Paris to a father who was a master carpenter. As a child, he learned from watching his father work, and was trained by his family more as a stonemason and sculptor – not as an architect. As he got older, Mansart chose to apprentice under the architect Salomon de Brosse, the most popular architect during King Henry IV's reign.
By the 1620’s, Mansart’s career as an architect was flourishing, and his reputation preceeded him as a perfectionist, as well as a difficult and stubborn self-critic. He often demolished his own building in order to revise and build them over, whenever he was not satisfied. This made hiring him incredibly costly, and only the richest dared to work with him.
Even more interesting was that Marsart believed in ‘true architecture’, rejecting the notion of needing to draw out detailed plans before buildings. He believed in spontaneity during construction, and making new choices as the building was slowly erected. This soon affected his reputation negatively, as flaws that could have been worked out beforehand were often not caught, and his refusal to submit detailed plans cost him many commissions.
Though he was popular during Henry’s reign, Mansart’s popularity (and subsequently his commissions) diminished after Louis XIV's ascended to the throne. Many of his designs, including a renovation of the Louvre and plans for the royal mausoleum at Saint-Denis were scrapped. His architect grandnephew, Jules Hardouin Mansart, ended up recycling some of Mansart’s designs because there were so many left over.
One common misconception is that Mansart invented a steep, double sloped roof – known today as a Mansard roof. It’s a common design in French architecture that squeezed out as much living space as possible on the top floor. Mansard used it so often in his designs that it became synonymous with his work.
Visiting his work is still possible - the best surviving examples of Mansart's work are the château of Maisons-Lafitte (it still retains the original interior design) and, in Paris, the alterations of the Hôtel Carnavalet, which is now a museum devoted to the history of Paris.