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The Artist and the Museum

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 might be utterly dispersed.

Others before him had, of course, painted for a private clientele rather than for the great churches and palaces and public buildings that alone provided a guarantee of immortality; but that clientele, even in Holland and in France and Italy, must have appeared stable and solid, likely to hand its collections down from generation to generation. Did Claude Lorrain, one wonders, have some doubts about the ultimate destiny of his work and might these doubts have contributed to the production of his Liber Veritatis—that musée imaginaire on paper of all his pictures which itself could have stimulated his great admirer Turner to collect together, and present to the nation, as much as possible of his own work? Yet Claude, who painted for popes and their families and the great aristocratic dynasties of Europe, cannot seriously have contemplated the destruction of this society to whose taste he was so well attuned.

But consider the case of Fragonard: only half a dozen of his pictures at most were in public hands and the rest were painted for clients who (unlike Catherine the Great, or the Swedish noblemen who acquired pictures by Chardin and Greuze) were wholly uninterested in prolonging the existence of their art collections—collections which passed under the hammer of the auctioneer at a rate that had never been seen before and has scarcely been equaled since. And even when he received something approaching a public commission—the decorations for Madame du Barry—he was to witness the fickleness of taste when they were not accepted for her pavilion at Louveciennes and were replaced by the canvases of Vien.

This was in 1773. With the outbreak of the Revolution demand for his work largely came to an end, and there is a sad irony in the fact that although Fragonard was given the job of preserving for the nation those pictures that had been seized from the collections of émigrés it does not appear that any of his own works featured among these. When he died in 1806, still highly regarded in some circles, he can have had little idea of where most of his pictures were to be seen or whether they would be known at all to posterity other than through the medium of reproductive engravings. It is not at all clear whether Fragonard himself ever worried about this prospect, but, if he did, we who look back with hindsight can only feel that the solution to his problem came too late, in just the way that the cure for some once-fatal disease such as consumption was discovered too late to prevent what now seem to have been countless unnecessary deaths.

Yet if that cure was eventually to be the public museum for living artists, it was not to support the likes of Fragonard that it first came into being. When in 1819 Prince Ludwig—heir to the throne of Bavaria—summoned Peter von Cornelius from Rome to decorate the museum of antiquities that he had recently had built in Munich but that was, from the first, intended for the people of Bavaria, he demonstrated that the role of the painter in the museum was to be one of high intellectual seriousness (and, alas, of not very exciting aesthetic quality). But he also demonstrated how powerful from then on was to be the role of the museum as a patron of art.

Cornelius belonged to that group of German artists in Rome—the “Nazarenes”—who had rebelled against the classicism of the academies, and who had dreamed of bringing painting back to the spirit of medieval Christianity. His early career is rich in ironies. He wrote impassioned letters proclaiming his ambition to “paint in fresco a Cathedral or other public building in some German town,” but in Rome his principal commissions were for the decoration of the residence of a Prussian diplomat and the villa of a princely family. Attempts made on his behalf to obtain a monumental commission in the new Berlin cathedral led to nothing. Instead, he was given the opportunity to decorate a classicizing museum of Greek and Roman antiquities—everything he had been trying to get away from.

Precedents for paintings that decorated museum rooms existed in the Vatican, but they had been simple in conception. In Munich Cornelius devised an elaborately symbolic program that was intended to combine the creative myths of antiquity (such as that of Prometheus) with Christian spirituality, so that scenes from the Trojan War and the reunion of the gods were treated as analogies of the Fall of Man and his ultimate salvation. The decoration of the Glyptothek, the classical museum at Munich, was almost exactly contemporary with that of the new Musée Charles X in Paris, for which many of the leading painters of the day were given commissions. While the canvases of Ingres, Picot, Heim, and others were nothing like as ambitious intellectually as the frescoes Cornelius did for the Glyptothek, they represented the most important cycle of traditional allegorical painting of the time. And so, for a short period in Munich and Paris, the museum replaced the Church and the palace as the principal patron of high art.

Although this change is much more important than is usually acknowledged, it is not exactly what we mean when we consider the impact of the museum on the painter, partly because it would be difficult to claim that in any country the best artists—with the possible exception of Puvis de Chavannes—were actually employed on such decorations of museums, or (if they were) that they produced their best work in response to museum commissions. Much more significant from our point of view is the museum as a repository for the contemporary art of painters who were not primarily large-scale decorators; the museum, in fact, became a patron and collector alongside the nobleman or private citizen (rather than the king), but a collector whose collections would remain intact and not be dispersed at auction houses or through the fortunes of war.

To some extent there were precedents for such museums of contemporary art even before the French Revolution, but then they had taken the form of art academies. Such academies had spread throughout Europe in the eighteenth century. To be elected artists often had to submit a picture to open competition, and on being elected to membership artists were nearly always required to present a work to the academy. Quite frequently, with the passing of time, artists were then granted honorary membership in many academies; and so in these ways important examples of their work became available in a number of permanent collections.

Nowhere was this more common than in Italy, which, from the early years of the nineteenth century onward, has always combined a high degree of cultural unity with widespread decentralization of institutions. Take, for instance, the case of the Venetian painter Francesco Hayez, who lived in Milan and whom Stendhal in 1828 claimed to be the finest of all living artists. In 1812 he sent to the Milan Academy his Laocoon, where it won him a prize; a year later he sent his Rinaldo and Armida to the Academy in Venice in support of his application for a grant to continue his studies in Rome; in 1815 he sent his Triumphant Athlete to compete for a prize in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. Fifty years later, we find Hayez—by now a celebrity—presenting to the Academy in Milan his Marino Faliero, to the Academy in Venice his Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and to the Uffizi in Florence his Self-Portrait at the Age of Seventy.

Royal collecting continued, of course, to be very important, even where the private collections of prerevolutionary monarchs had been taken over by the state and become much more institutionalized, as was the case in France. The extraordinary uses to which it could be put became clear in 1819–1820 when, with the full agreement of Louis XVIII, it was decided to buy through an intermediary four huge and important paintings by David, who was then a political exile in Brussels. Two of these, the Intervention of the Sabine Women and the Leonidas, were sent to the Luxembourg museum, but two others, which were politically compromising—the Coronation of Napoleon and the Distribution of the Eagle Standards—were bought for the royal palace of the Louvre (where, however, they were stored in the basement and not exhibited to the public until in the 1830s they were taken to Louis-Philippe’s historical museum of Versailles).

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