Database: The Art Collection of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture

Septimius Severus and Caracalla

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Septimius Severus and Caracalla (1769), oil on canvas, 124 cm x 160 cm, Louvre Museum (Image File from Wikimedia Commons)

The Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte Paris (DFK Paris) is pleased to present the database of the art collection of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture.  Over the century and a half of its existence (1648–1793), the Académie royale assembled a collection of more than 650 artworks (paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, casts, and medals).  Most of those were morceaux de réception – works that young artists presented to an academic jury to become members of the institution.  But the collection also included Prix-de-Rome-wining paintings and bas-reliefs, commissioned portraits of the Académie’s patrons, académie drawings of current and past professors, plaster casts of classical sculptures, miscellaneous donated works of art, and artistic marginalia (e.g., skeletons used in teaching human anatomy).

This was a one-of-a-kind corpus for multiple reasons.  As almost all the prominent artists of the old regime were members of the Académie royale, it united such iconic reception pieces as Antoine Watteau’s Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (1717), Jean Simeon Chardin’s The Ray (1728), and Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Septimius Severus and Caracalla (1769).  These and other examination works now offer invaluable insight into the aesthetic values of the institution.  Académies, plaster casts, and other objects used for teaching allow us to reconstruct the educational process, and commissioned portraits of the Académie’s patrons and donated works of art shed light on the personal networks behind it.  The hang of these artworks in the Louvre is an outstanding example of eighteenth-century curatorial work:  it was decided upon by academicians themselves and stands as an important “internal” counterpart to the Académie’s public display, the Salon.

After the French Revolution, this historically significant body of work was dispersed and today is shared by the Louvre, the Versailles, the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA), and many other museums in France and worldwide.  Thankfully, however, two detailed descriptions are still extant:  in 1715, when the collection was housed on the Louvre’s ground floor, it was documented by Nicolas Guérin, and in 1781, when it hung on the first floor, it was recorded by Antoine-Nicolas Dezallier d’Argenville.

Using these two inventories, the DFK Paris in collaboration with Sofya Dmitrieva, Anne Klammt (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies), Moritz Schepp (CEO, the Centre Dominique-Vivant Denon (Musée du Louvre), the ENSBA, and the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA) has created a database that establishes what artworks made up the collection in the eighteenth century and where they are preserved now.  The database provides useful links to the original texts of the inventories and to the Procès-verbaux.  It is available in English and in French and would be of great use to scholars of eighteenth-century French art.

This database is part of the DFK’s research project, led by Markus A. Castor, that explores the history and functions of the Académie’s art collection.

The Marquis d’Argens: A Philosophical Life

Marquis d'ArgensThe Marquis d’Argens (1704-1772) is mainly famous for a book he did not write, Thérèse Philosophe.  That is a great pity, as the books he did actually write are far more fascinating and entertaining than that unfortunate misattribution.  D’Argens was a sceptic, a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, whose books were denounced by the Inquisition; one of them, La Philosophie du Bon-Sens, was burnt in Paris.  He was also a close friend of Voltaire, and he belonged to the generation that is often overshadowed by that towering genius.  Voltaire greatly admired d’Argens’ Lettres Juives, an epistolary work in which he wrote from the point of view of learned Jews discussing and often mocking the beliefs and customs of the Christian world.  The book manages to combine the subtly intellectual with the entertaining in a remarkable manner.  As a novelist, philosopher, translator, classical scholar, and art critic, d’Argens’ works are so divers that he is difficult to categorize; he was notorious in his own time for his scandalous Memoirs, in which he recalled his youth and love affairs in Paris and Italy in the 1720s and 30s.  A wild elopement, a brief army career, and an ongoing battle with his father, who wanted him to study law, provided the main subject-matter.  Those who read these Memoirs sometimes formed the opinion that he was merely a libertine and a lightweight, but that is not borne out by a careful study of his work.  The mind that emerges from them is deeply reflective, and the philosopher is always apparent in the novels, just as the imagination of a novelist lurks in his works on philosophy.

It is really quite astonishing to me that novels as fascinating as Le Philosophe Amoureux, ou Le Comte de Mommejan, and Memoirs de M. De Meillcourt, ou Le Legislateur Moderne, are so entirely neglected.  The time I devoted to reading all of d’Argens’ novels, and his other works, was frankly huge fun; his philosophical works and translations are all highly idiosyncratic and full of his personal enthusiasms and insights.  D’Argens was an intellectual, but he was also a passionate man, who loved art and music and adored women.  After many love affairs, and one youthful marriage, he settled down with a wife who shared his intellectual pursuits and was happy for him to teach her Latin and Greek so that they could be as closely united in literary as in amatory respects.

D’Argens’ life was extraordinary and well worth a biographer’s attention; after his wild youth he managed to obtain a post as chamberlain to King Frederick the Great, and he became a member of the Berlin Academy.  This meant that he encountered many of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment and was able to observe them even when they were behaving deplorably–which they quite often were.  When we appreciate the true erudition and range of his six-volume Histoire de l’Esprit Humain, we have to acknowledge that d’Argens is a major author.  I have had the satisfaction of putting together the first reliable catalogue of his genuine works.  He was at the nerve-centre of the Enlightenment, and rediscovering him will really enrich anybody’s understanding of this epoch and the development of its thought.  You can learn more in my biography The Marquis d’Argens: A Philosophical Life.

Agency and Anxiety: On Marie-Hélène Huet’s The Culture of Disaster

“Vue du Port de Marceille prise de l’Hotel de Ville Dessine du temps de la peste en 1720.”  National Library of Medicine.

“Vue du Port de Marceille prise de l’Hotel de Ville Dessine du temps de la peste en 1720.” National Library of Medicine.

Disasters permeate the daily news and saturate our consciousness.  Hurricane Odile bludgeons Mexico’s Baja peninsula.  An Ebola outbreak literally plagues Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.  Ukraine’s eastern regions are torn between Kiev and Moscow.  An earthquake rattles Japan’s still-shuttered nuclear plants—and its nervous population.  This, as Marie-Hélène Huet notes in The Culture of Disaster (University of Chicago Press, 2012), is the way of the modern world.  As she demonstrates in this new, relatively brief, and quick-paced work, what has changed is not the frequency nor the severity of disasters (even if certain kinds, such as nuclear meltdowns, were unimaginable in earlier ages).  Rather, what is decidedly modern is our reaction to such events, whether they be human-made or natural.  The Culture of Disaster traces not the earth-shattering occurrences themselves but, rather, their aftermaths.  The author’s primary concern is thus the experience, rather than the cause, of disaster.

A professor of French at Princeton University, Huet focuses on disasters that either occurred within France or, as in the case of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, reverberated within France’s most illustrious circles, primarily during the long eighteenth century.  The Lisbon earthquake is often taken as the first great “modern” disaster by historians and eighteenth-century scholars, in part because of the exchange it provoked between Voltaire and Rousseau on the nature of divine providence.  Huet argues, however, that we misunderstand why the Lisbon quake opened modernity.  It was not important because it inaugurated the rational discourse that would eventually replace fearful reactions governed by religious beliefs or superstition—that trend can be found in earlier periods.  Rather, the quake inaugurated the period in which we still live, what we might call the “Long Enlightenment.”  Then and now, humans embrace rationality and seek the mastery of the natural world.  However, “each natural disaster,” Huet writes, “challenges both the mastery that was our goal and the political system that was put in place to serve such a purpose” (7).  The modern world may be disenchanted, but it is still unpredictable and unsafe–as unresponsive to our administrative commands as it was to our prayers.

More frightening even than the Lisbon earthquake were the epidemics that decimated families and destroyed social order, such as the plague that struck Marseilles in 1720.  Because the science of disease (its prevention, communication, and treatment) was debated but poorly understood, officials fought over how to police diseased bodies and sick populations.  Huet outlines a particularly fascinating clash between those who believed the plague to be an epidemic, spread through the air and thus best avoided by fleeing the city and other susceptible areas, and those who believed it a contagion, requiring its victims to be confined and even condemned to their city block or home in order to limit the disease’s spread.  These positions took on liberal and conservative political valences, and Huet draws her reader’s attention to the parallel between this understanding of contagion and later conservatives’ treatment of revolutionary rhetoric as ideas “carried with the speed of winds, spread like thunder and lightning, invading countries, forcibly affecting the people exposed to them – almost subjecting them – to the uncontainable power of new thoughts” (59).  This politically informed rhetoric of plague would continue to play out through the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States.

Central to the culture of disaster that Huet outlines is the increasing interiorization of the catastrophic experience, whereby “the sense of living through disastrous circumstances became interiorized as a unique form of individual destiny” (10).  Yet this emphasis on the individual experience of disaster also blurs Huet’s focus, for we tend to believe that we live in world-historical times, and it is only by acknowledging the truth of this ‘fact’ retroactively that the “disastrous circumstances” come to the fore.  If the book has a weakness, it is that the disaster topos is occasionally overwhelmed as Huet recounts the details of, for instance, Rousseau’s treatment of negative freedom or Gilbert Romme’s attempts to revise the French calendar and clock.  The narratives themselves are so engaging that it can be difficult to see how they connect to Huet’s larger claims about a culture of disaster.  These particular cases, grouped with the story of Chateaubriand, sit uneasily in the book’s middle section.  Perhaps the argument that “the history of man’s freedom . . . is also one one of disastrous consequences” is simply too complex to be made in a mere fifty pages in which Huet volleys between Rousseau, Kant, Romme, Robespierre, and stoicism (112).  Fortunately, The Culture of Disaster quickly regains its focus.

Huet’s treatment of Chateaubriand and the cult of the dead that developed in the wake of the revolution is one of the book’s finest chapters.  Though the Victoriansobsession with death and mourning has been well documented, the post-revolutionary period had its own morbid tendencies.  Huet notes in particular the obsession with overflowing graveyards and the burial and reburial of charismatic leaders (133).  Chateaubriand, a minor aristocrat who paid his living expenses by selling the rights to his memoirs so that they would be published immediately upon his death, was just the melancholy soul to dwell upon the many tombs to populate his adopted city of Rome.  Indeed, he titled his life story Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb. For the conservative loyalist, the execution of Louis XVI meant he would live “through a dead history as a long and fully interiorized disaster” in which the dead continued to speak (145).  Chateaubriand’s own disaster was to be more valuable dead than alive and to serve as a voice for a dead political cause for the duration of his life.

The post-mortem life of the dead also characterized one of the most gruesome disasters of the early nineteenth century, the sinking of the Medusa under the command of an incompetent captain.  The sinking itself was tragic (and likely avoidable), but what followed was ghoulish:  150 survivors spent two weeks on a rudimentary raft, many dying of dehydration, starvation, or by being crushed under other bodies.  Those who did survive to be rescued—a mere fifteen souls—chose to throw the weak overboard and resorted to cannibalism.  Five died shortly after their rescue.  Using a survivor’s written account, Romantic painter Théodore Géricault produced one of the most powerful and noxious works in the history of art, The Raft of Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse).  For Huet, the tragedy of the Medusa demonstrates the consequences of the human’s encounter with the inhospitable extremes of the natural world, as do Jules Verne’s novels of polar exploration.

Verne was prompted by Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but perhaps even more so by Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.  (One of Franklin’s two ships was recently discovered on September 7, 2014).  Of the 128-man crew, none survived—search parties for Franklin served as the basis for Verne’s own arctic tales.  For Huet, Verne’s stories revel in the precarious world of extremes.  His emphasis on optical illusions serve to underscore what she perceives as the “fragmenting” effect of disasters, where the senses are unreliable guides to events beyond ordinary comprehension.  Yet though we have imperfect tools to do so, Huet persuades us nonetheless that “our culture thinks through disasters” (2).  The work of The Culture of Disaster to illuminate “changing conceptual structures” of our disaster-saturated culture suggests both that accounts of modernity’s disenchantment are overstated and that enchantment is perhaps more ominous than generally believed (13).

Who Is a Terrorist? “Terrorism” in the Long 18th Century

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.  [Source]

Who is a terrorist?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston marathon bomber, will be tried as a civilian and not as an enemy combatant.  Tsarnaev is an American citizen, but he’s also a suspected terrorist – hence debate over the mode of trial, and a related controversy over his Miranda rights. We tend to reflexively identify terrorists as international operatives, despite instances of (and increasing anxiety over) “homegrown” terrorists.  But what we call homegrown terrorism – plotting within a target nation – is in fact somewhat closer to the original English use of the word, which dates from the eighteenth century, and which was coined to describe the (potentially violent) thwarting of political participation.

“Terrorist” first entered the English language in Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, written and published throughout 1795 and 1796 –the politician and philosopher’s extended argument against England ending its war with France, and his last reaction to the French Revolution. It came directly from the French “terroriste” and “terrorisme,” both of which came into use in 1794, during the most violent phase of the Revolution. The French Constitution of 1795 had been widely opposed; riots were put down by a young Napoleon Bonaparte.  “Twenty thousand regular Troops garrison Paris,” wrote Burke. “Thus a complete Military Government is formed…To secure them further, they have a strong corps of irregulars, ready armed. Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists…are let loose on the people.” He concluded: “The whole of their Government, in its origination, in its continuance, in all its actions, and in all its resources, is force; and nothing but force.”

Terrorism here is associated with government coercion, with wielding illegitimate power – illegitimate because it had no consent from the people: “This year’s Constitution…is the only one which in its very formation has been generally resisted… It never had a popular choice even in show.”

Burke’s usage was echoed by Jeremy Bentham some twenty years later in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform. Bentham listed “the Terrorist” as a figure “by whom freedom of suffrage is destroyed…The terrorist is he who obtains his seat by the motive of fear…he who repels, quells, subdues, or excludes any competitor.” For Bentham, too, terrorism represented a perversion of the political process.

In this emphasis on the nature of unsanctioned power, however, we can see that the emotional resonance of the word was the same then as now: unpredictability, violence, and fear.