We have, during the last twenty or thirty years, spent so much time discussing what we think of the artists of the nineteenth century (Were the Impressionists as good as we once believed and were the pompiers as bad? Was Paris as important as used to be claimed and Düsseldorf and St. Petersburg as marginal?) that we have not often bothered to ask ourselves what the artists of the nineteenth century might have thought of us had they been given the chance. Would Pissarro, the anarchist, and Van Gogh, the lay preacher, have been pleased or dismayed to find their works moving among Japanese insurance companies, Swiss bank vaults, and Fifth Avenue apartments? Would Mary Cassatt have welcomed her sudden apotheosis as a “great woman artist”? Would the pre-Raphaelites have relished our investigations into the complexities of their private lives? And how would Whistler or Segantini have reacted to hefty catalogues raisonnés of their etchings or to students’ theses on their developing styles? But, above all, what would the artists of the nineteenth century have thought of their permanent incarceration in a state museum—those painters and sculptors so much more familiar to us by their frequentation of the café, the bar, the brothel, and through their ringing declarations of independence?
The opening last December of the astonishing new museum in the former Gare d’Orsay cannot but make us ponder the strange destiny of artists who grew up in social conditions that bore so little resemblance to conditions described in the biographies of painters and in the history books they read at school and in the studio, and who could never fully understand the role that they were required to play in this new world. The new Musée d’Orsay in Paris is not, of course, the first museum to be largely devoted to nineteenth-century art, but it is the most ambitious, the most comprehensive, and also the most circumscribed in period. Our attitude to nineteenth-century artists will be changed as a result of it, just as attitudes to antique art and the arts of the South Seas were changed once museums were designed to house them. It seems therefore a good moment to return to my original question and to delve into the probable reactions of those painters and sculptors, engravers, draftsmen, and photographers whom we try to honor in the only satisfactory way our century has devised for honoring the artist—the construction of a museum.
The question is, in some ways, central to our understanding of the entire century—for the specter of the museum haunts its art, like a ghost that is at times welcoming and benevolent, at others hostile and threatening. And yet, by a paradox that may sound absurd, I propose to inaugurate a discussion of the crisis facing nineteenth-century artists with a reference to that quintessential painter of the ancien régime, Fragonard—for I believe that this immensely successful and popular artist was the first to face in his own lifetime the prospect that all his work…
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