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Napoleon’s Eye

Dominique-Vivant Denon: L’oeil de Napoléon

an exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, October 20, 1999–January 17, 2000
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Pierre Rosenberg.
Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 539 pp., e68.60 (paper)

No Tomorrow

by Vivant Denon, translated from the French by Lydia Davis, and with an introduction by Peter Brooks
New York Review Books, 63 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Benjamin Zix: Allegorical Portrait of Vivant Denon, 1811. Denon, whom Napoleon appointed the first director of French museums, is depicted at the entrance to the Louvre’s Salle de Diane, surrounded by, among other objects, the Vendôme Column; an obelisk planned for the Pont Neuf; the elephant fountain planned for the Place de la Bastille (see page 32); and two statues of Napoleon, a bust and a seated figure (left).

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, pried off just under one half of the Parthenon frieze (some 247 feet) and added to it fifteen metopes and seventeen of the great sculptures from the east and west pediments, then shipped them to England, eventually to repose in the British Museum, where they remain as the clamor from the Greek government to return them to Athens grows ever more intense. Lord Elgin acquired a vast store of antiquities during his ambassadorship to the Sublime Porte—the Ottoman court in Constantinople—from 1799 to 1803, and after. He seems to have had some sort of a sales contract (now lost) with the Ottoman rulers of Greece (who had no interest in pagan monuments) that conferred some legitimacy on his removing sculptures from the world’s most famous temple (then a storehouse) and giving them refuge in London, where they were certainly better preserved.

But Elgin appears something of an amateur in the matter of the transshipment of artifacts from one country to another when you compare him to his French counterpart, Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon, who assumed the directorship of the Louvre—soon to be known as the Musée Napoléon—in 1802. The Louvre, as imagined by the French Revolution—it opened during the Reign of Terror—and then as realized by Denon under Napoleon, was the first encyclopedic public museum, dedicated to providing a new setting for art objects taken from their original location. They would be displayed in a way that would be instructive to a large public, as well as protective of the objects themselves.

The Louvre of this time was largely built on the systematic looting of Western Europe, and Egypt, of which Napoleon had made himself master. The acquisition of artworks was in fact stipulated in the various treaties Napoleon imposed on defeated regimes, and had all the subtlety of spoils of war. Teams of art experts dispatched from Paris followed closely in the wake of the victorious armies. The spoliation began before Denon’s directorship—the Belgian Campaign in 1794 brought in prized examples of Rubens; Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796 led to the Pope’s ceding some one hundred works to France, including eighty-three universally admired sculptures from the Vatican and Capitoline museums. Denon as director was himself often on location, in Germany, Austria, Spain, and Italy, to inspect the goods.

The loot continued to arrive, and it became Denon’s task to organize, preserve, and make sense of it all. As Pierre Rosenberg, longtime director of the modern Louvre, writes in the catalog of the exhibition the museum devoted to Denon in 1999–2000, he was “Napoleon’s Malraux”—referring to the part played by André Malraux as culture czar during Charles de Gaulle’s presidency. The comparison is apt, in that Denon clearly had a gift for making the power he served understand that there was symbolic capital to be gained from cultural acquisition and display. As the exhibition catalog’s subtitle puts it, he was the eye of a ruler who had little aesthetic knowledge but grand ambitions for the visual imposition of power.

When a hundred cases of antiquities “acquired” in Italy arrived at the Louvre on October 1, 1803—without a single instance of loss or breakage—Denon made a short speech to the savants of the Institut de France, introducing the highlights of the collection. Master courtier that he was, he opened with adept praise for his lord and master:

Taken up at one and the same time with all genres of glory, the hero of our century, during the torment of war, required of our enemies trophies of peace, and he has seen to their conservation.

And what a haul of trophies it was, including the Capitoline Venus and Venus de’ Medici—the latter of which the Italians had hidden in Palermo, in vain: the French got it anyway (it went back to Florence, to the Uffizi, after Napoleon’s fall). France had no one quite up to Keats, whose emotion in “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” could apply as well to Denon’s new possessions:

Such dim-conceivèd glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

That is not quite Denon’s style. He naturally—as author of one of the erotic masterpieces of French literature—chooses to describe the Venus de’ Medici (a Hellenistic and somewhat mannered piece considered the summa of beauty for his contemporaries):

Dressed in her modesty alone, her nakedness is pure. Her expression of happiness belongs to her perfection, to the plenitude of her being. The smile on her face is not yet that of voluptuousness, and yet happiness is already on her lips.

One can hardly blame Denon for his sycophancy toward Napoleon. Like a number of his contemporaries (he was born in 1747, and lived till 1825), he had had to learn how to survive through the most turbulent decades of French history. He evolved from being the Chevalier de Non (he came from minor nobility, of “the robe”—the magistrature—rather than “the sword”) to Citizen Denon to Baron Denon in the Napoleonic revival of titles. Under the Old Regime, his intelligence, good manners, and cultivation of useful connections earned him diplomatic missions to St. Petersburg (which, under Catherine the Great, was a kind of imitation of the French court) and Naples (seat of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies at the time).

When the Revolution broke out in 1789, he managed to be in Venice, where he had apparently planned to settle, to create his own engraving studio, and to marry his beloved mistress, Isabella Teotochi, herself the center of a literary and artistic salon. But he was expelled from Venice for suspected sympathies with revolutionary exiles, and set out for Florence. Then he discovered his name on the list of émigrés whose property could be expropriated, so he made a risky return to France during the Reign of Terror, and managed to put himself under the protection of the painter Jacques-Louis David, who enjoyed excellent standing with the Jacobins.

With the fall of the Jacobin Republic, Denon once again managed a graceful metamorphosis: he became friends with Joséphine de Beauharnais, then wife of the young General Napoleon Bonaparte. When Bonaparte undertook the conquest of Egypt in 1798—from personal ambition, and because those then governing France wanted to get him out of the country (he would return to stage his coup d’état the following year)—Denon was offered a place as chronicler, one of a number of “savants” sent to explore and create a record of this great if implausible and somewhat disastrous expedition. (This would be the occasion of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone—but it took another two decades to decipher it.) Though past the age of fifty, Denon accepted, embarked on the frigate Juno on May 1, 1798, and arrived in Alexandria on July 2, in time to take part in the Battle of the Pyramids. With characteristic concision and wit, he commented on the pyramids themselves:

One doesn’t know what ought to astonish the most: the tyrannical madness that dared to order their construction, or the stupid obedience of the people willing to lend their labor to such edifices.

During the campaign, under the command of General Desaix, Denon was often on the front line, stopping to sketch monuments and buildings and cities, as well as the occasional battle, working on a pad held on a drawing board supported across his saddle, dodging enemy musket balls. His energy and his cool under fire made him popular among the troops. He claims they held his drawing board on their knees and provided him with a sunshade when the army came upon the grandiose ruins of the city of Thebes, “a phantom so gigantic…that the army, coming in view of its scattered ruins, stopped of its own accord and, by a spontaneous movement, applauded….” French culture everywhere, even in conquest.

The result of Denon’s participation in the Egyptian Campaign was Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte pendant les campagnes du général Bonaparte (Travels in Lower and Upper Egypt During the Campaigns of General Bonaparte), a splendid account of his travels, illustrated by his engravings, that conveys the experience of conquest as cultural tourism. 1 Conquest and curiosity led him all the way up the Nile to Aswan and the first cataract. Denon is no militarist, though: after the pillage of one village—the women raped, the men robbed and dishonored—he notes: “War, how brilliant you shine in history! But seen close up, how hideous you become, when history no longer hides the horror of your details.”

What interests Denon most is the power of historical evocation; as he puts it when meditating in Alexandria on the Ptolomies, on Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony, on the moment “the empire of glory gave way to the empire of voluptuousness,” he enjoys “the happiness of dreaming before great historical objects.” A contemporary described Denon as devoted to “two ardent but inoffensive passions, the love of women and enthusiasm for the arts.” To which one must add: the passion for intelligent travel and the eloquent recording, in word and image, of what he saw.

The result of the Egyptian Campaign and the Voyage he published in 1802 (there was earlier travel writing on Sicily) was his appointment by Napoleon as first director of French museums. Still today, when you enter the courtyard of the Louvre where I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid dominates the scene and look up toward the façade to your right, you can see “Pavillon Denon” inscribed above the majestic arcade. And in fact, the Louvre as we know it is in large measure Denon’s product. He conceived of the “Musée Napoléon” as the European capital of cultural artifacts, inevitably situated within the city that Walter Benjamin later called the “capital of the nineteenth century.” He saw no problem: the French were the masters of civilization, as of much of the Western world. It was far better for the spoils of Napoleon’s campaigns to be displayed in one place, available to enlightened and knowing connoisseurs, to young artists wishing to learn their trade, and to the general public.

This is where the Louvre—first the Muséum Français, then the Musée Central des Arts, then from 1803 to 1814 the Musée Napoléon—was something new in the world. There had long been talk of a gallery in Paris to display to a wider audience the royal collections of paintings and sculpture. The older private “cabinet” of the collector would be superseded by something more public. The Palais du Luxembourg had served as a first place of display for the royal collections, from 1750 to 1785, and its success among art lovers led to the project of using the vast Palais du Louvre, largely abandoned when Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles late in the seventeenth century.

  1. 1

    Denon’s Voyage, annotated by Hélène Guichard, Adrien Goetz, and Martine Reid, was reprinted by Gallimard in 1998. For a wealth of documents by and about Denon, see the anthology edited by Patrick Mauriès, Vies remarquables de Vivant Denon (Paris: Gallimard, 1998).

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