Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825), a member of the minor French nobility, was born in Burgundy and sent to Paris to study law—a field he soon abandoned in order to pursue literature and art. After writing a play that enjoyed a small succcess, Denon became a favorite of Louis XV, who in 1769 put him in charge of Madame de Pompadour’s gemstone collection. Dispatched on various diplomatic missions to Russia and Sweden, Denon eventually joined the French embassy in Naples, where he spent seven years studying, etching, and collecting antiquities. The 1789 revolution put Denon’s life at serious risk, but he was protected by his friendship with the painter David, who employed him as a designer of costumes for revolutionary pageants. Denon allied himself to Napoleon and took part in the Egyptian campaign, making sketches of monuments that were later published in his Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1802), a book that helped to inspire the Egyptian Revival in the decorative arts. In 1804 Napoleon made Denon the director-general of museums and the head of the Musée Napoleon, and it was Denon who oversaw the assembly of the extraordinary collection, drawn by the Emperor’s armies from all over Europe, that remains central to today’s Louvre. Forced into retirement after Napoleon’s downfall, Denon turned to assembling an illustrated history of art, left unfinished at the time of his death but published posthumously.
“I was desperately in love with the comtesse de —. I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old.” So begins this seductive tale of seduction and the endless ambiguities of desire.