Learning to Love French Art

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Noël-Nicolas Coypel: The Abduction of Europa, 1726–1727

In the latter part of the 1820s, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper was in Paris, observing French society and meditating on the lessons to be learned from it by the United States. In one surprising segue from his book Gleanings in Europe: France (1837), he recommends the expenditure of thirty or forty million dollars on a navy to secure “our national rights” and, in the same sentence,

to appropriate, at once, a million to the formation of a National Gallery, in which copies of the antique, antiques themselves, pictures, bronzes, arabesques, and other models of true taste, might be collected, before which the young aspirants for fame might study, and with which become imbued, as the preliminary step to an infusion of their merits into society.

He was quick off the mark, in one sense, for Britain had opened its own National Gallery only a couple of years before. Otherwise, though, he was well ahead of his time, for the kind of comprehensive museum he described, with its mission to improve taste in the fine arts as a way of promoting better manufacturing, closely resembled what was launched in London in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, becoming eventually the much-imitated Victoria and Albert Museum. Cooper had looked at French manufacturing and seen a profound influence of the arts of design on everything from bronzes to ribbons and chintz. America needed to cultivate the fine arts:

Of what avails our beautiful glass, unless we know how to cut it; or of what great advantage, in the strife of industry, will be even the skilful glass-cutter, should he not also be the tasteful glass-cutter…. We beat all nations in the fabrication of common unstamped cottons…. But the moment we attempt to print, or to meddle with that part of the business which requires taste, we find ourselves inferior to the Europeans, whose forms we are compelled to imitate, and of course to receive when no longer novel, and whose hues defy our art.

It is easy to forget that this desire to improve the nation’s taste, and to apply lessons learned from the arts of the ancien régime directly to modern manufacturing, provided the motivation for the American interest in French painting. Cooper would have been gratified, had he been able to visit the Metropolitan Museum around 1910, to see precisely the kind of objects he had in mind (French eighteenth-century window bolts, keyhole escutcheons, faucets and furniture mounts in gilded bronze) on display with furniture and paneling and other forms of architectural salvage. “The rediscovery of the art of the different ‘Louis,’” wrote the art historian Bruno Pons, “occurred in the USA in a comprehensive manner, painting at the same time as sculpture, architecture at the same time as furniture and objets d’art.”

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