The Birth of Monographic Retrospective in France: a New Perception of the Artist’s Work
École du Louvre, Paris
In 1855, to demonstrate the artistic supremacy of France, the imperial government offered the most important French artists the possibility to gather their work in the exhibition of fine arts of the Universal Exhibition of Paris. Critics seized this exceptional opportunity to produce a new kind of analysis: a biographical study, based on concrete observation and comparison, considering the career of the artist in terms of development and progress – the work of art wasn’t isolated anymore, as in the traditional Salon. They did think at the time that such an occasion probably would not come again. Actually, two years later in France a new form of exhibition was inaugurated, which is still current and which definitively changed the way we understand the artist’s work: the monographic retrospective.
In 1856, the death of Paul Delaroche provoked a huge stir in the world of art. Adolphe Goupil, his art dealer and close friend, and Adolphe d’Eichthal, his executor, decided to organize a retrospective exhibition of his work in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The event gathered paintings from his whole career; many of them were unknown because the artist had ceased exhibiting in the Salon twenty years earlier. It also included some preliminary works, painted and drawn. There were few in the Delaroche retrospective, but there would be many more to come in the next ones, unveiling a hidden part of the artistic work. Focusing on this first posthumous retrospective and its reviews (not exclusively), we will try to answer the following questions:
In an era in which the “scenography” seems totally anachronistic and aesthetic hanging is favoured, did the organizers attempt to introduce any intention in the exhibition configuration in order to encourage a particular perception? What did the retrospective provide to the knowledge and the understanding of the artist? What role did the retrospective, as place of evaluation and reevaluation, play in the artist’s posterity?