Dominique Poulot Abstract

 Empire and Museums: the case of Napoleon I

Dominique Poulot
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris

The history of the museums of the first Empire is linked to the broader context of the nation-building process, the political representations of Heritage, and the consumption and pleasures of Art. Our point of view will be one of a cultural history of the nationalization and consummation of high culture, of its icons and values.

Since the 18th century, the art world has established itself as a complex system with normative rules and structures (such as academies, art literature, criticism), and the museum, that is to say an institution devoted to the history of its objects and to their catalogue, was quickly a part of it. The relative importance of each continental museum of art during the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries was linked to the success or failure of each national academic system to emulate a common ideal of Beauty, mostly based on the most beautiful antique statues of the museums of Rome. An international and more or less immutable canon determined the quality of each national production and its consequent celebration in the national museums. In any case there was rapport between the fulfillment of each nation and the existence and qualities of its school. But the 1st Empire imagined the first example of a network of museums and of an ideal of distribution of works of art and of different artefacts provided by the Central Museums throughout the continent. The importance of the general curator or director in Paris cannot be underestimated, when Dominique-Vivant Denon was able to mould the heritage of the biggest part of Europe as that of a single nation.

These museums were founded to achieve political and social objectives – to influence the taste of the subjects or citizens, to mould their conduct and to provide assertions of the superiority and identity of some art. Art museums were ideal sites for the institutional politics of nationalism and museum-going was very soon a kind of civic ritual.

I will consider first the French imperial system of museums in the simple terms of ownership, related to the political issues of politics, policy and funding, and to the social context of private collecting and imperial philanthropy of Napoleon. After that, the collections will be studied according to their aesthetic and cultural contents, and especially the universally considered museum pieces. The architectural settings as well as the curatorial work of the catalogues and display will constitute the third part to explain the successive and sometimes conflictual interpretations of works of art during the process of their institutionalization and democratization. Finally, we will study the apprenticeship of the artists, teaching the persuasiveness of high art to visitors and celebrating the national spirit of their curatorship.