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).

The creation in 1818 of the Luxembourg museum “for living French artists” marks a moment of great significance in the relationship between the painter and the museum, but I wonder if the correct conclusions have always been drawn. Attention was paid at the time, and has been paid since, to the museum’s role as a place of exemplars, in which “the noblest subjects” would be shown, but the real effect of the museum seems to me to have been quite different. Is it pure coincidence that the Museum of Living Artists in the Luxembourg opened on April 24, 1818, the very month Géricault apparently decided to paint on the huge canvas he had bought a few weeks earlier the tragic events that followed the sinking of the government frigate La Méduse—moreover, a picture that was to be exhibited at the Salon under the cautious title Scène de Naufrage? What home, other than a museum, can Géricault have hoped to find for a painting of this kind—for we know that he wanted the government to buy it? I am not talking of the picture’s political implications—though these are certainly relevant—but of its scale and the unprecedented depiction of a painful and unpleasant subject, unredeemed by religious, mythological, or historical justification. It is therefore doubly ironical that since the picture was not acquired by the state until after Géricault’s death in 1824 it went not to the Museum of Living Artists at the Luxembourg but directly to the Louvre—though when, two years earlier, the Comte de Forbin had tried to buy it for the government, he thought that it should be hung in “one of the great rooms of Versailles,” which at that date was in a sort of limbo, being neither a true royal residence nor a museum.

We could make a very similar point about the nature of Delacroix’s Scenes of the Massacre at Chios of six years later, which was indeed accepted for the Luxembourg. Both pictures were self-consciously programmatic and “important,” and their significance (however controversial) was universally acknowledged, but they were not suitable for the decoration of a palace. In fact, it seems to me that although many artists looked upon the Luxembourg as a sort of antechamber to the Louvre, we can also think of it as fulfilling some of the functions of a sort of “Musée des (pas trop) refusés.” And it continued to act in this capacity at least until the 1890s when (for instance) the Louvre refused to find room for Manet’s Olympia, despite the fact that it had already spent its statutory ten years in the Luxembourg, by which it had reluctantly been accepted in 1883. It is also possible that much earlier Courbet’s Funeral at Ornans may also have been painted with the Luxembourg in mind, even though it did not find a home there. We know that when in 1849 the state acquired L’aprèsdinée, the original intention had been to hang it in the Luxembourg, but that the authorities went back on their word and instead sent the picture to the museum at Lille. May it not have been the case that when, three months after this, Courbet came to paint his next picture of contemporary life, he decided to treat the subject (and some of the others that he painted at this time) on such a large scale that there would be no possibility of sending it to the provinces? It would have to be in the Luxembourg—or nowhere.

We know that the answer was to be nowhere—the picture remained unsold until after his death—but it seems to me that when considering the impact made by museums such as the Luxembourg on modern artists, we ought to consider not only what actually was to be seen in them, but also what was not, yet might have been.

Artists in the nineteenth century could benefit from the museum not only by its purchases of some of their works and its encouragement of others, but also by its role as an employer. Throughout Europe during the first half of the century, and often much later, some of the leading museum directors were also professional painters of genuine reputation—painters, however, whose canvases somehow evoke, through a combination of timidity and good taste, the Old Masters committed to their charge: one thinks, for instance, of the Comte de Forbin and Jeanron in Paris, of Sir Charles Eastlake in London, of Johann David Passavant in Frankfort. This tradition continued at least until the appointment of Alexandre Benois as curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum immediately following the Russian Revolution.

But not all the artists to be found in European museums were alive. In some cases it was the corpse that was important. In 1837, for instance, the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen, who was then sixty-nine and living in Rome, decided to leave all his own works still remaining in his possession to his native country and directed that a special museum should be built at his own expense to house them. In the following year he himself returned to Copenhagen—an event that was later to be recorded in a frieze on the side of the museum—and immediately agreed to the proposal that (like some Egyptian pharaoh) he should be buried in the museum, surrounded by his possessions.

The idea for this probably came from the Dulwich art gallery just outside London, within which in 1811 the architect John Soane had built a mausoleum for Sir Francis Bourgeois, the creator of the collection, and the dealer Noel Desenfand and his wife. And Thorwaldsen probably also knew that in the same year (1837) that he decided to leave his works to Copenhagen, the death occurred in London of Soane himself, who, three years earlier, had left his residence-museum to his country. But the Thorwaldsen museum was the most conspicuous example yet seen of self-glorification, and it was to be widely followed on a smaller scale.

The great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova died in 1822, well before his rival and successor Thorwaldsen, and he left the contents of his studio to his half-brother, Monsignor Giambattista Sartori-Canova. Monsignor Sartori sold the finished works and arranged for many of the unfinished ones to be completed, but he kept most (though not all) the clay models, drawings, and so on together. In 1825 the studio was sold, and between 1826 and 1835, Monsignor Sartori organized the construction of a small museum to be attached to Canova’s birthplace in the little hill town of Possagno, near Bassano, in order to house all his half-brother’s models and so on. Drawings, letters, and other papers he sent to the museum in Bassano itself, which was founded in 1828. The Gipsoteca at Possagno is, I think, the most attractive “personal museum” in the world, and on Sartori’s death in 1853 it became a public shrine.

Monsignor Sartori’s initiative—to which he had dedicated the last thirty years of his life—was obviously known to Thorwaldsen when he arranged for the building of his own, much grander, museum in Copenhagen; and in death also he triumphed, for Canova was buried not in his museum but in the little church nearby that he himself had commissioned some years earlier. And it can surely not be a coincidence either that in 1839, almost immediately following the construction of Canova’s museum in Possagno and the planning of Thorwaldsen’s museum in Copenhagen, the Musée d’Angers inaugurated a special gallery to house the sculptures of its own local master, Pierre-Jean David, known as David d’Angers. David d’Angers himself had a major part in the creation of this gallery, though he spoke of it with becoming modesty: “It is certainly an immense honor for me. It is an honor which might not become due until after the death of a man. My compatriots have wanted to pay me in advance.” But despite these words, David had, ever since 1811, been sending plasters of his statues to the museum, which had come into being barely ten years earlier, and he was probably the first artist anywhere to make such determined efforts to ensure his immortality by taking advantage of that relatively new institution, the public museum.

It is not surprising that museums of contemporary sculpture were to be especially popular—and many more could be mentioned—for the widespread use of plaster casts from the late eighteenth century onward meant that sculptors were in the unique position of being able to see in their studios an almost complete range of their life’s output; moreover, it was only very rarely that their sketch models appealed sufficiently to contemporary taste to make sale worthwhile, as was likely to happen with the contents of painters’ studios.

But some painters also were keen that posterity should have the chance to see their work in bulk, and for them too the museum provided an incomparable means of ensuring that this would be possible. In 1831 Turner, then fifty-six, drew up a will in which he made an extraordinary bequest. He left to the National Gallery in London, which had been founded only a few years earlier, two pictures painted by him, Dido Building Carthage and The Sun Rising in a Mist (which he had specially bought back at the sale of one of his former patrons), on condition that they would always be hung between two pictures by Claude Lorrain, The Seaport and The Mill, which were already in the collection.

Two years later Turner added a codicil to his will. In this he declared repeatedly that it was his special wish “to keep my pictures together,” and in order to make this possible he left money for the upkeep of his studio where he hoped that they would remain accessible to the public. The wording is very unclear, but it seems that Turner was not intending to turn his studio into a permanent museum; rather he wanted it to be used for keeping his pictures in one place until a proper gallery could be built to house them. Certainly, when he came to alter his will yet again, in 1849, two years before his death, he made it clear that his studio was to be thought of only as a temporary resting place, but by this time he had changed his mind about the ultimate destination of his pictures. He now wanted all the “finished” pictures to end up in the National Gallery, “provided that a room or rooms are added to the present National Gallery to be called Turner’s Gallery in which [my] pictures are to be constantly kept deposited and preserved,” though exceptions were made for the Dido and The Sun Rising in a Mist, which, as I have mentioned, were to hang next to the Claudes in the main galleries.

There is no need to discuss the complexities of Turner’s will—the word “finished” when applied to some of his later works presents great difficulties—and in fact his intentions have only recently been put, approximately, into effect (to the accompaniment of a good deal of controversy), more than a hundred and thirty years after his death. It is possible that the idea of bringing together all his pictures came to him from a memory of the first retrospective exhibition of an Old Master ever held—that devoted to Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1813 by the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. At the time Turner had objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would be “invidious towards the Artists of the present day.” But as he grew older he may have looked back with some envy at the impact made on connoisseurs by the unprecedented opportunity to observe the full growth and development of a painter’s genius.

Certainly Turner became the first painter to look to a public museum as the ultimate guardian of his works. So much, in fact, was this the case that at auctions he actually bought back his own paintings from private collectors in order to be able to have them kept permanently in his proposed “Turner Gallery.” Turner, in other words, stands at the furthest extreme possible from Fragonard, who died only forty-five years before Turner.

Other artists were to follow (whether consciously or not) the precedent set by Turner, but the next significant development known to me in the new relationship between the painter and the museum took place in Brussels, where on his death in 1865 at the age of fifty-nine, Antoine Wiertz bequeathed to the Belgian nation his studio and all its contents as a permanent museum of himself. Much of his working life as an artist who dreamed of rivaling Raphael and Rubens had been a preparation for this moment. At the age of thirty-four he had proposed to the minister of the interior that the state should pay for the building of a studio “aux formes monumentales,” whose design was to be based on that of one of the temples at Paestum. In return he suggested that this studio “should become, at the end of my career, the property of the State” and that “my pictures should, during my life and after my death, remain permanently attached to the walls of the studio.” The government, awestruck by his megalomaniac ambitions, agreed to these terms, and even (some years later) to an enlargement of the studio, which was no longer big enough for Wiertz. The artist, in turn, stuck—more or less—to his part of the bargain, and refused to sell his major pictures, so that he was forced to earn his livelihood through the production of profitable portraits.

From these extraordinary proceedings in Brussels we must turn to Paris for the most peculiar instance of an artist handing over his art, and almost his life, to a museum. When Gustave Moreau died in 1898 he had acquired the reputation of a recluse, a man who had almost completely cut himself off from the world. This was greatly exaggerated, but it is true that Moreau shunned publicity of any kind and had for many years refrained from exhibiting in the Salons (though he had shown his work elsewhere and had won many honors). It is therefore something of a surprise to read his will, in which he bequeathed to the state

my house, no. 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, with everything it contains: paintings, drawings, cartoons, etc., etc., the work of fifty years, and also the contents, within the afore-said house, of the rooms formerly lived in by my mother and my father…on the one condition of always retaining this collection—this would be my dearest wish—or at least keeping it as long as possible in such a way as to preserve that character of a whole which always allows one to gauge the sum of an artist’s working life.

Even now, some ninety years later, the visitor may feel a certain sense of embarrassment at intruding on the small, dark, cramped, and heavy rooms that were once lived in by Moreau and his mother*—but in fact his plans had been conceived with such deliberation that Moreau himself became virtually the first director of his own posthumous museum: he modified its architecture, enlarged some of his pictures so as to adapt them to the scale of the walls, classified them methodically, and on many of his works that had not been completed he inscribed the words “en voie d’exécution.”

The biographers of both Turner and Moreau have fallen over themselves in their (not very convincing) attempts to demonstrate that the great bequests made by them were not motivated by vanity. Perhaps—but what, surely, is of more interest is that both men, though honored in their lifetimes, were sure that their art had never been correctly understood: two years before dying Moreau wrote to a collector that “I have suffered too much in my life from the unjust and absurd opinion that I am too literary for a painter.” Both men felt that only by giving posterity the chance to see all their works kept together—the wording of their wills is at times remarkably similar—could their true stature be fully recognized. It is curious that these two anti-conformist masters should have put such unqualified faith in that quintessential creation of the art establishment: the museum.

Thus throughout Europe—in Paris and London, Possagno and Copenhagen, Munich and Brussels—the artist, whether dead or alive, came to terms with the museum during the course of the nineteenth century. And yet it is hard to find anyone who was entirely happy about the situation. Courbet, after all, had “wanted to cover huge railway stations—those new churches for painting—with a thousand suitable subjects”; and Manet had proposed to decorate, on an even more grandiose scale, the new Hôtel de Ville, which was rebuilt after the Commune. In the light of such ambitions—and these had, after all, been the kind of ambitions that had inspired all great figure painters for centuries—the possibility of having a couple of pictures hanging in the Luxembourg must have seemed tame enough.

But there runs throughout the nineteenth century a deep hostility to the very concept of the museum in relation to the living artist. Museums corrupt taste, claimed Maurice Quai, the rebellious pupil of David, by offering the painter examples of earlier art, rather than of nature, as an object of study; museums ruin the prospects of younger artists, wrote John Constable, because henceforward their works will be judged only by the standards of the Old Masters; museums encourage the creation of paintings that serve no purpose, fulfill no function, wrote the critic Delécluze (echoing many thinkers). And here it may be worth pointing out how paradoxical was the attitude of such men. The one type of art that really did serve a purpose in the nineteenth century and that was in constant demand was the portrait, and, partly for this very reason, portraiture is largely lacking from the museums. As late as 1888, for instance, there were no more than six portraits out of some 280 pictures in the Musée du Luxembourg. That is a proportion of some 2 percent, and it reveals how wholly unrepresentative of current painting the museum was, for in the Salon of that same year there were 577 portraits out of 2,086 pictures—a proportion of about 22 percent, or more than ten times greater than what was to be seen in the Museum of Living Artists. And just about all the critics who deplored the lack of purpose inherent in modern art agreed that the production of portraits was a degrading occupation.

Above all, the museum was held to be characteristic only of dead epochs: “There have never been museums during those ages when art has been in good health and filled with creative vitality,” claimed the great critic and art historian Théophile Thoré, whose views on the subject were shared by many other very influential writers:

Museums are only the cemeteries of art, catacombs in which are arranged, in sepulchral promiscuity, the remains of what was once alive: a voluptuous Venus next to a mystical Virgin, a satyr next to a saint, Luther facing the Pope, a picture for the boudoir matching an altarpiece. What was made for a church, a palace, a town hall, the law-courts—for some specific building and with some moral or historical meaning, to be placed in a certain light and in pre-determined surroundings—all that is hung pell mell on the walls of an indifferent bazaar, of a sort of posthumous asylum—a city of the dead—where generations which no longer create anything themselves go to admire these illustrious remains.

And yet all these sensitive observers of the contemporary scene were wrong. It was by studying in the museums (or their equivalents) that great painters such as Constable or Degas learned to create not the pastiches that had been predicted but masterpieces of fresh naturalism. It was also in the museum that Cézanne truly was able to achieve his ambition of “making of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” And it was Cézanne who confessed, “I wanted to burn down the Louvre, pauvre couillon! One must go to the Louvre through nature and to nature through the Louvre.”

It was, as I have suggested, the very existence of museums that led indirectly to the production of such masterpieces as Courbet’s L’Atelier—masterpieces which, it has to be admitted, sometimes found their way to the museums very slowly (after sixty-five years in this case), but which would never have found a place in the “temples…churches, town halls, lawcourts” and so on that Thoré, and many others like him, believed to be the only worthy progenitors of great art. And to those who believe that the nineteenth century—the century of museums—was also the century of “those who no longer created anything themselves,” one can only reply that the new Musée d’Orsay demonstrates more convincingly than ever before that such theories are no longer valid and that, on the contrary, the founding of a museum can be one of the most creative acts of modern civilization.

This essay is based on a lecture first given in French as one of the functions related to the inauguration of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I am very grateful to Lady Berlin for much help and advice and to Hugh Honour and Nicholas Penny for some extremely valuable suggestions.


This Issue

December 3, 1987