2.4 Activities 9 and 10
Watch the next segment of video. Once you’ve watched the video, jot down some notes on what you learnt about how the Grand Louvre meets the needs of today.
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Transcript: Clip 8
Before tackling this activity, you might like to review the notes you made in the preceding activities and, perhaps, view the video clips once again. When you’re ready, consider the following questions:
Do visitors ‘like’ the art in the Louvre in the same way that the people responsible for putting it there ‘liked’ it, and what were the motives of those who first collected the art?
The programme presents examples of four interlocking kinds of historical narrative:
- history of the building
- history of the royal collections
- royal and state patronage of art and architecture
- history of the museum.
Can you identify ways in which these narratives intersect?
It would be surprising if most visitors to the Louvre had in mind when looking at Raphael’s Saint Michael slaying the Dragon that Francis I was Grand Master of the Order of Saint Michael and that this was a reason not only for the papal gift to the French king, but also for the king to display it prominently in his palaces. Similarly, much of the work commissioned by Louis XIV had a specifically propagandist function. On the other hand, the reasons which might have motivated the Duke of Gonzaga, Charles I of England and Louis XIV of France to admire Correggio’s so-called Sleep of Antiope may not have been very different from those which set Zola’s fictional Boche and Bibi la Grillade into ‘paroxysms’.
Those in authority may have had special motives for commissioning or celebrating particular works of art, but from an early stage in the history of the French royal collections we find kings and their advisers operating as ‘connoisseurs’, trying to pick winners from the available talent. If the subsequent history of taste is to be trusted as a measure of value, some were better at this than others. Many of the best-known paintings in the Louvre were acquired in the reigns of Francis I and Louis XIV. Both kings were highly preoccupied with their image, and used artists and craftsmen to project their splendour in paintings and palaces.
From the directorship of Vivant-Denon in the First Empire, criteria for acquiring work became more specialised. As Pierre Rosenberg (Director 1994–2001) explained, Vivant-Denon’s guiding idea was that the art in the national collection should be organised on art-historical principles and presented to a mass public. The problem is that if you exclude the potential of military conquest, the very best art in Europe was simply not for sale. When Napoleon’s armies brought to the Louvre a selection from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands of the best antique and Renaissance art at the end of the eighteenth century, the Louvre was briefly the centre of the art world. Many foreigners who visited Paris during this period were persuaded that this fabulous collection should never be broken up. Only after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 were the victorious allies persuaded to return the art treasures to their owners. Nevertheless, over 100 ‘stolen’ works, in addition to the Borghese collection of antique sculptures which came to France by the marriage of Napoleon’s sister, remain in the Louvre today. Does the modern visitor pause when admiring Veronese’s huge Marriage at Cana or Cimabue’s Maestà or Mantegna’s Crucifixion predella to ask how these works got there? And yet, although military might made these acquisitions possible, the process of selection depended on professional critics and artists who accompanied Napoleon’s armies with lists of works to acquire.
Here are some examples of mine where the narratives intersect:
Although the Louvre and the Tuileries were royal palaces until the French Revolution, they were also partly public. The royal collection of paintings (the Cabinet du Roi) and the Galerie des Antiques could be visited on request. Furthermore, Louis XIV housed his academies of art and architecture in the Louvre, thus giving the collection new functions for teaching.
As the royal collection grew, it became a key source of inspiration for the artists employed by the Crown. When the Académie royale was founded in 1648, pupils were trained by copying works in the royal collection. In the 1660s the professors like Charles Le Brun developed their art theory through lecturing on works in the collection. Stylistic debates between more classical and more painterly artists were waged around the ‘cases’ of famous painters in the collection (for example, Poussin and Rubens).
The very authority of the Académie royale and the appeal to ‘good taste’ which stood the Crown in good stead when it could be seen that it was making ‘good’ choices could also turn against the Crown when its taste was questioned in the eighteenth century as decadent and frivolous. References to antiquity and to Renaissance prototypes were used by Jacques-Louis David to mock royalty and evoke republican virtue. The development of the tradition of biennial Salons in the Salon Carré in the Louvre was a tangible symbol of the art world escaping from the control of the monarchy. The public who attended these Salons engaged in fierce aesthetic and political debate.
Even in the heyday of royal patronage, it is a mistake to assume that royal whim was everything. Painters like Charles Le Brun or sculptors like the Coustou brothers might fit well into the royal propaganda machine, but the career of a maverick like Puget can only be explained if Louis XIV and his advisers are assumed to be genuinely anxious to discover and support good artists wherever they could be found.
By contrast with the Puritans after the execution of Charles I of England, the French revolutionaries decided that the significance of the discredited monarchy’s art collection was too important to be lost to the nation. So, although many of the best works in the royal collection were either overtly propagandistic for monarchy or explicitly religious, they were housed and prominently hung in the new museum as great works of art. Vivant-Denon’s policy of exhibiting the collection by ‘schools’ (Italian, Netherlandish, French) makes sense in this context. It was preferable to celebrate the collection as ‘Art’ than as a reminder of bygone days of tyranny and superstition.
One of the arguments for supporting a national museum from the start was that all the best modern French artists should be allowed to copy the great works of the past, as the king’s academicians had been allowed to do in earlier times. So, although most painters who came to copy in the Louvre were not ‘state artists’, and indeed often saw themselves as ‘avant-garde’, the relationship between the collection and the practice of art remained as a key feature throughout the nineteenth century. Many important ‘modern’ artists, such as Cézanne and Picasso, spent days in the Louvre copying.
The substantial investments which post-revolutionary heads of state (from Napoleon III to Mitterrand) have committed to the Louvre can be understood as shrewd investments in public respect.