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The Restoration has probably received less attention than any other period in nineteenth-century French art history. Long identified with a repressive political regime, it has long been ignored as a discrete period, although many artists, such as Ingres and Delacroix, produced their most memorable work at this time. Marie-Claude Chaudonneret, one of the most eminent French art historians, has now filled this gap with a thorough history of the period. Her previous work on the Troubadour painters was notable for its solid research and she has now brought the same approach to this period.
As the title implies, L’Etat et les artistes focuses on the relations between the French state and its artists. This is a significant issue, for this period predates the world of art galleries and dealers typical of the modern era; during the Restoration the state was the principal art patron, for sculptors often the only patron. Chaudonneret begins her study in 1815 after the battle of Waterloo had ended the Revolutionary period and restored the Bourbon Monarchy to the throne. The Bourbons (Louis XVIII and then Charles X) remained in control until July 1830, when the revolution known as “the three glorious days” toppled their regime, replacing it with that of Louis-Philippe from the more liberal Orléanist branch of the family. One of the original aspects of this book is that Chaudonneret refuses to be strictly bound by political chronology and so continues each chapter to its logical point of conclusion beyond 1830; she concludes each section by showing how the innovations of the Restoration influenced those of the subsequent decades.
The book is structured in seven chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the period. There are no illustrations, but since the focus is more on institutional structures than on individual works of art, that is less of a problem than it might seem, although illustrations would have been welcome for the lesser-known works discussed in the text.
The book begins (chapter 1) with a discussion of the new arts administration which followed Waterloo and the return of the art which Napoleon had looted from the conquered nations and displayed in his Musée Napoleon in the Louvre. It is unlikely that non-French readers will accept Chaudonneret’s defense of Napoleonic looting; the title of her first section “The Museum Looted” [Le Musée spolié] is inadvertently ironic in that, far from the Louvre’s being looted, it was Napoleon’s loot that was removed from the Louvre after Waterloo and returned to its country of origin; nonetheless, Chaudonneret makes the important point here that the loss of the revered art treasures served as impetus for a new focus on national art. Over the next decades the state took an unprecedented role in commissioning major projects in all media, both in Paris and in the provinces, to fill the gaps in the national collections. As a result, contemporary art assumed an importance it had not previously enjoyed.
The reorganization of museums and the establishment of the Luxembourg Gallery are the subjects of chapter two. Her intention here is to restore the reputation of the Comte de Forbin, whose reputation has always suffered because he presided over the dissolution of the national collections of stolen treasures which Vivant Denon (recently honored by the Louvre with a major exhibition) had amassed. Forbin, however, also presided over the establishment of the Direction des musées, the first museum administration, initiated the collections of Egyptian, medieval and Renaissance objects, and, under his leadership, the Louvre became the first “universal survey museum,” the prototype of the modern museum. It was also under his leadership that the Luxembourg Gallery, inaugurated in 1818, became the first gallery of contemporary art in Europe.
Her subsequent discussion of the Salon, its organization, its public, and the resultant institutionalization of art criticism (chapter three) is invaluable, as the salon had an immensely complicated history right through the century. Chaudonneret clarifies numerous issues concerning the ever-changing jury and awards systems that art historians of all persuasions need to (but rarely do) understand. Especially interesting is her discussion of the Salon of 1819, the last where Davidians reigned. She illuminates the character of the Restoration Salons, singling out the major works and issues in each. From the Salon exhibitions, she moves naturally into the role of private exhibitions, galleries and art dealers (chapter four), seamlessly integrating her own research into the published literature. Often citing hard-to-find periodicals or primary sources, she discusses the various unofficial shows of the period, as well as providing detailed descriptions and discussions of art dealers and art associations.
The state system of medals, prizes, decorations and encouragements is the subject of chapter five. Especially interesting here is her comparison of the Salon of 1808, the most brilliant of the Empire with that of 1824 where the Classic and Romantic battle was initiated and where Delacroix, Ingres and Constable all showed major paintings. A leitmotif of the book is the constant wrangling over history painting in the context of prizes, medals, and appointments to the Légion d’honneur. For each Salon she discusses the winners of the major prizes and awards and the State purchases. And finally she provides valuable biographical sketches of the various types of patrons, art-lovers, and speculators [Mécènes, amateurs, spéculateurs], running the gamut from the highest levels of the aristocracy to the new class of bankers.
The longest section of the book is devoted to the commissioned projects of the Restoration (chapter six) which provides an encyclopedic compilation of all the various projects and restorations, in palaces, churches, and public buildings, in Paris, and in the provinces. She explains how fees were set, and details the constant problems which arose—such as getting artists to complete work already paid for—or Forbin’s decision to stop buying sculpture because of storage problems. History painters and engravers, on the other hand, were recipients of numerous government commissions, largely because the State wanted to encourage these categories, neglected by a public which preferred genre painting and lithography. The establishment of the cults of Henri IV and Jeanne d’Arc make interesting narratives, as does the establishment of the Madeleine as the church of expiation for the “crimes” of the Revolution. Finally, she discusses the Musée historique de Versailles, seeing it not simply as the creation of Louis-Philippe, but as the culmination of the work of the Restoration.
Even from this brief survey it can be seen that this is a book which should be read by every nineteenth-century art historian. It is an impressive work of synthesis which provides a clear and concisely structured narrative. Unlike many French studies, this book has reliable footnotes, a bibliography, and even an index, although the latter is of limited value since it includes only proper names. If it were merely a reference tool, it would already merit a place on scholars’ bookshelves, but it is much more than that. Chaudonneret brings to life an entire epoch which has too often been seen retrospectively through modernist eyes. Its major artists are already known to us, but she shows them in a new light, interacting with their contemporaries, subject to the limitations and possibilities of their epoch. She provides pithy biographies of collectors, dealers, art critics, administrators, as well as many lesser-known artists, and she surveys the development of professional art criticism. By refusing to keep to the straight and narrow of canonical modernism, she traces out even the dead-ends of history, such as the many projects begun and later abandoned through shifts in regime or politics. As a result, she gives us an unfamiliar view of the period in all its contradictory richness. Horace Vernet was its truly popular artist, but even Delacroix was more warmly praised than during the subsequent, more politically liberal period.
One of Chaudonneret’s intentions throughout is to critique the “bad press” the Restoration has received in art history. She traces the inception of this negative attitude to the Second Republic (1848-52) which ended monarchical rule in France. During these years the Restoration, identified so closely with the restored Bourbon monarchy, became a symbol of reaction and its real accomplishments were glossed over. Chaudonneret vehemently rejects the readings common among “Anglo-Saxon” (i.e. English-language) revisionist art historians who emphasize the confluence of aesthetic movements and political regimes, insisting that during this period the State supported artists across the aesthetic spectrum, enabling them to create freely. While that point may be overstated, her major thesis—that the national trauma over the return of the art loot after 1815 forced the French state to support contemporary art and artists and led to the later glories of nineteenth-century art—is brilliantly and convincingly argued throughout the book.
Professor of Art History, Doctoral Program in Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
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