Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 3, 2017
Alexandra Stara The Museum of French Monuments 1795–1816: “Killing art to make history” The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700–1950. Burlington: Ashgate, 2013. 198 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Paper $54.95 (9781138245402)

When Alexandra Stara learned the Louvre was mounting an exhibition accompanied by a catalogue with twenty-seven contributors on the same subject as her recent Oxford doctoral thesis—the Museum of Monuments, as she refers to it—she must have anticipated being run over by a Gallic bus. It is fortunate, therefore, that the Louvre’s publication Un musée révolutionnaire: Le musée des Monuments français d’Alexandre Lenoir (Paris: Hazen, 2016) not only confirms the significance of this short-lived institution, but also does nothing to contest Stara’s core argument: the Museum of Monuments “heralded the modern understanding of artifact-based history” (90).

The Museum of Monuments was housed in the former convent of the monastic order of the Petits-Augustins, secularized in 1789 after the National Assembly directed all church property be put in service to a new entity, the nation. Its official existence began six years later, by which time Louis XVI and Maximilien Robespierre were both dead, and the French Republic had adopted a fresh constitution—her third—establishing an oligarchic government known as the Directory. As Stara recounts in chapter 1, “A History,” the Petits-Augustins was used as a depot to store pieces removed from Paris churches and reported to the Committee for the Alienation of National Assets. (From its origin until the day it closed its doors, the Museum of Monuments answered to bureaucrats under a succession of regimes.) Property confiscated from émigrés, as well as works saved (many heavily damaged) following officially sanctioned destruction during the popular celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the monarchy, also found their way to the site across the Seine from the Louvre.

The most notorious incident of revolutionary “vandalism” was the smashing of the royal crypt in the cathedral of St. Denis in August 1793. Stara presents an anonymous—and likely apocryphal—contemporary print depicting Alexandre Lenoir defending the massive tomb sculptures from an attack by sans-culottes wielding sledgehammers (17). An aspiring artist, Lenoir (1761–1839) began his career at the Petits-Augustins as a volunteer assisting his mentor, the established painter Gabriel François Doyen; when the latter accepted a position in Russia, he lobbied the mayor of Paris to promote his student as guardian of the depot. Stara notes, “It is indicative of the extent to which Lenoir’s regularisation was a favour rather than based on merit that his appointment was heavily criticized by the world of art connoisseurs, who felt that the position should have gone to one of them” (13).

Revolution provided Lenoir with a building, artifacts, and the opportunity to engage his curatorial imagination to create a revolutionary—and controversial—museum. In October 1795, the Committee of Public Instruction accepted his proposal to turn the Petits-Augustins into “a historical and chronological museum in which one will be able to find the ages and sculpture in special rooms, each with the exact character and appearance of the century it represents” (Bronisław Baczko, “Vandalism,” in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, ed. François Furet and Mona Ozouf, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989, 867).

One thing that stands out in chapter 2, “A Visit,” is the energy invested in this “developing project aiming to narrate the story of the French nation through its monuments” (28). From medieval carvings obtained at the market value of the raw stone to an elaborate facade of the sixteenth-century château of Gaillon purchased and then floated to Paris on barges, Lenoir bought and bartered like a man possessed. The church of the Petits-Augustins became an introductory hall with samples ranging from a Roman altar found under Notre Dame to eighteenth-century portrait busts; in the side chapel was the tomb of François I, one of several fabriques (some bold restorations, others cobbled fantasies) that characterized the institution and scandalized its enemies. Rooms surrounding the cloister were each devoted to artifacts created during a specific period, from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. A forest of pines, poplars, and cypresses was imported to transform the nuns’ garden into a picturesque elysée, where “more than forty pieces of sculpture were carefully staged among the trees” (75).

Stara is indebted to French scholarship (there are eighteen bibliographic citations for the work of Dominique Poulot alone) on the role museums played in the development of la notion de patrimoine, the collective sense of France’s past. She makes a significant point about the matter: although visitors to the Museum of Monuments saw some masterpieces, such as François Girardon’s tomb for Cardinal Richelieu that was rescued from the Sorbonne chapel during the Reign of Terror, “the vast majority of the artifacts . . . had no claim to independent aesthetic value. . . . In that sense, the transformation of Lenoir’s monuments to heritage was a more radical operation than the equivalent in the Louvre” (92).

Three kinds of sources are available for any attempt to recreate the experience of walking through this musée disparu. First are illustrations from publications such as Souvenirs du Musée des Monuments Français (1821); chapter 2 includes twenty-nine of them. Second are the “historical and chronological description” catalogues, one of which runs to 240 pages, where Lenoir educated readers about the collection. Finally, there are accounts of people who visited the museum. Did they remember what they learned, or how they felt? Stara quotes a visitor from 1797 who praised “the artistry, the lugubrious magic that Lenoir has invested his museum with” (78). She concludes: “Even Poulot interprets the two attitudes, roughly summarized as rationalizing and romantic, as conflicting. In short, the hybrid nature of the project has continued to evade a unified interpretation” (113).

Chapter 3, “In Search of Order,” is rich in ideas, thick with theory, and difficult to digest. Stara, engaged in the process Randolph Starn described as “consigning material things to immaterial networks of interpretation” (“A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies,” The American Historical Review 110 ( 2005): 83), treats seven topics—The Invention of History, National Heritage, The Quest for Origin, Speaking Monuments, Beyond Great Men, Eternity in the Garden, and Mythopoesis—in only twenty-eight pages. Complex concepts from figures such as Reinhart Koselleck and Paul Ricoeur are introduced in a few sentences, while names like Leszek Kołakowski and Mircea Eliade flash by with brief references. Some will think she overreaches. Andrew McClellan, for example, takes the position that Lenoir’s “motley collection resisted complete aestheticization” (Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-Century Paris, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 195), whereas Stara envisions it as “all woven together in an open composition . . . that relied on the visitors’ participation in order to piece itself gradually, as an ongoing metaphor. [It was] . . . a poetic endeavour and a possibility of engagement with the mythical dimension rather than a simple narrative construction, transcending its historicist basis by allowing the quest for order to be transformed into a work on myth” (114).

Chapter 4, “Opposition,” and chapter 5, “The Inevitability of the Museum,” compare Lenoir’s ideas with those of the most persistent critic of the Museum of Monuments, Antoine Quatremère de Quincy, whose phrase “killing art to make history” is the book’s subtitle. As early as 1800, this pillar of the cultural establishment fumed in a government report: “I want to talk about this mock conservatory, where fragments of temples are hoarded daily, of the depot of the Petits-Augustins, veritable cemetery of the arts, where a throng of objects are made useless for study, meaningless outside their proper contexts, forming the most ludicrous, if it wasn’t the most indecent, of collections” (129). Sixteen years later, Stara tells us, he was “personally instrumental in its closure” (127). A good deal has been written about Quatremère. As Starn noted a decade ago, his stand against “wrenching works of art out of their original context . . . has dominated a modern lament over the complexity of the museum in the divorce between art and experience” (Starn, 81). Stara contributes to this literature by challenging readers to consider what the two men shared: “Quatremère articulated the inherent dangers in the museum with great erudition and eloquence, but it was Lenoir who came up with a working proposal for addressing them” (157). The former warned about what Stara calls a “museum of alienation, where works of art became mute, like signs of a lost language, and situated meaning gave way to labels” (ibid.). Yet at the Museum of Monuments, “rather than performing this musealisation . . . which went on to inform later institutions and attitudes, Lenoir’s project, owing as much to circumstances as to its author’s vision, managed to bypass them” (157).

“Ultimately,” Stara believes, “the difference between Lenoir and Quatremère was not their aim, but their vantage point” (154). Whether true or not, Napoleon fell, the Bourbons returned, and an ultra-royalist legislature closed the Museum of Monuments in 1816. The Petits-Augustins was repurposed as the École des Beaux-Arts, and Quatremère became its permanent secretary. Lenoir was put in charge of restoring the royal tombs at St. Denis, and his most popular fabrique, the fictitious “tomb of Héloïse and Abélard,” moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The best works were selected to establish the sculpture galleries of the Louvre, which now—two centuries later—has honored his improbable institution.

Robert Bezucha
George Daniel Olds Professor of Economics and Social Institutions (History), Amherst College, emeritus

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