Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Jacques Lemercier

Sculptor and engraver, b. at Pontoise, about 1585; d. at Paris, 1654

Click to enlarge

Lemercier, JACQUES, b. at Pontoise, about 1585; d. at Paris, 1654. Lemercier shares with Mansart and Le Muet the glory of representing French architecture most brilliantly under Louis XIII and Richelieu. He was likewise a sculptor and engraver. He imitated in a measure the strong but somewhat prosaic style of Salamon de Brosse. The French Renaissance had at that time already reached its last stage, but it still retained an important heritage from the days of Lescot. Lemercier was in Italy, presumably from 1607 to 1613, and, while in Rome, probably engraved a model of St. Peter’s. As early as 1618 he appears as royal architect with a salary of 1200 livres. In 1639 he became chief architect, in which capacity, having the supervision of all the royal building enterprises, he fell into a disagreeable dispute with the cultivated Poussin about the decorations in the Louvre. In general, he is considered a well-meaning, discreet character. Living entirely for his art, he thought very little of his profit, and, in spite of the great works which he executed, it was found necessary after his death to sell his entire large library to cover his debts. He was highly extolled as the exponent of the classic tendencies of Palladio. Richelieu, in particular, entrusted him with a series of important works. As yet Lescot’s plan for the Louvre had been scarcely half finished. The cardinal, an enthusiastic patron of architecture, placed Lemercier at the head of this undertaking in 1624. In carrying on the work begun by Lescot, Lemercier subordinated himself to the Tatter’s style and design, but he followed his own ideas in his more substantial plan and in quadrupling the building area, each of the four sides having a pavilion at its center. In this manner he built the northern half of the west side—the celebrated Pavilion de l’Horloge—and the western part of the north side. It is, however, an exaggerated opinion to regard the Pavilion de l’Horloge as the best example of French architecture.

After 1627, in Richelieu’s personal service, Lemercier built the Chateau de Richelieu in Poitou and the parish church of the same town, in which he displayed his talents to splendid advantage. The castle was worthy of a king. In addition, he began the Palais-Cardinal at Paris in 1629, which, after its donation to the king, was known as the Palais Royal. He was likewise entrusted with the subsequent extension of this building, of which there remains at present only an interior wing. It is wanting in lightness and proportion in the disposal of its masses. The master earned great and well-merited renown by his work on the Sorbonne which was begun at the same time. The college and the church are both his work. The latter is noteworthy for its domical shape in the style of the Italian Renaissance (like Val-de-Grace and the Invalides of the two Mansarts). In France, contrary to the Italian custom, the exterior dome was made of wood, which was less monumental, though about the same in appearance. Lemercier inaugurated this economical method in his claustral dome over the Pavilion de l’Horloge. The dome presents a harmonious effect. It is a complete hemisphere, with four small cupolas in the Greek cross above the two orders of columns on the facade. The interior also makes a better effect than Mansart’s dome of the Invalides, and was formerly intended to be beautifully decorated. The square intersection is surrounded by cylindrical vaults and a semicircular choir apse. The north side consists of a portico in classic style. The whole may be considered one of the finest buildings of that time.

Lemercier produced a similar result with his work on the abbey church of Val-de-Grace, which he took up as the successor of Father Mansart. The latter had refused to execute an order requiring a change in the design, whereupon the principal part as far as the entablature appears to have been carried on by Lemercier and finished by other masters. The foundation of the church and royal abbey was determined upon at the birth of Louis XIV, and Louis himself, when six years of age (1645), laid the cornerstone. Here too the different orders of columns harmonize beautifully with the principal dome and the four smaller domes and their tambour. The front view is truly magnificent. In the details of execution a noble taste, as well as great care, is evident. In 1635 Richelieu once again claimed the services of Lemercier for work on the Chateau de Rueil, near Paris, which he had acquired at that time. The artist’s great patron was buried in the church of the Sorbonne in 1642. Lemercier continued to enjoy the favor of the court and the public. In 1645 he received as first of the royal architects a salary of 3000 livres. His last work was the plan of the church of St. Roch in Paris. He completed only the choir and part of the nave. A few unimportant earlier works, which are not unanimously ascribed to Lemercier, may also be mentioned. In 1630 he built the choir of the church of the Oratorians in Paris after the design of Clement Metezeau, who had laid the cornerstone in 1621. The facade belongs to a later period. He also erected the Hotels de Liancourt and de La Rochefoucauld. Also ascribed to him are the Hotel de Longueville and the Chateau Silly, or Chilly, of Marshal d Effiat. A hunting seat of Louis XIII, with splendid pleasure grounds, was a remarkable Versailles in miniature, forecasting the celebrated pleasure palace of a later period. The statue of Henry IV with the sarcophagus in the Lateran is a fine piece of plastic work.

Jacques Lemercier had a younger brother Francois, who in 1636 represented him for a time in the capacity of architect. His two sons Jacques and Francois received a pension from the state to enable them to study architecture. The Lemerciers of Pontoise were indeed one of those gifted families in which several members had a vocation for the same branch of art. The two celebrated churches of St. Maclou at Pontoise and St. Eustache in Paris have been traced to one Pierre Lemercier, who at Pontoise was succeeded immediately by Nicholas Lemercier and more remotely by a connection by marriage, Charles David. But the glorious church of St. Eustache was a greater source of renown for the family. According to Geymuller, whose opinion is hardly to be disputed, Pierre Lemercier’s entire share in St. Maclou consisted in the somewhat unusual dome tower, and further inferences concerning St. Eustache would be without foundation. Everything else is uncertain.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!