Book Reviews -- Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in 18th-Century Paris by Andrew McClellan / Charles Nicolas Cochin et L'art Des Lumieres by Christian Michel

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Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in 18th-Century Paris

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 289 pp.; 84 b/w ills. $65.00


Charles Nicolas Cochin et l'art des Lumieres

Rome: Ecole francaise de Rome, 1993. 727 pp.; 103 b/w ills.

In the course of the 18th century the European cultural sphere was radically reconfigured, and the two volumes under review considerably advance our understanding of the relevant Habermassian dynamics as they played themselves out in Enlightenment Paris. They are profitably read together, for both treat the heated debates over the nature and status of the aesthetic that developed in tandem with the emergence of the public sphere in 18th-century France, and the confusing dilemmas with which first the royal administrators, then the public functionaries responsible for prestige visual culture, were faced as a result. McClellan's book approaches the consequent vicissitudes through a study of the overlapping histories of several museums, while Michel's work screens all of its materials through the lens of a single man's life and experience; but the messy problematics of practice are given pride of place by both authors, with salutary results.

Inventing the Louvre, characterized by McClellan as an examination of "the dawn of the museum age in France," is a social history of the celebrated Parisian museum from the reign of Louis XVI to that of Napoleon, framed by an introductory study of its predecessor, the Luxembourg Museum (1750-79), and a concluding chapter on Alexandre Lenoir's Musee des Monuments Francais(1793-1816), that touchstone of the French Romantic sensibility which left such a lasting impression on Michelet and his generation. In key respects this is a companion volume to Thomas Crow's influential history of the 18th-century Salon,(1) and it follows his general approach throughout, assuming that fine-arts policy decisions are best understood as tactics in a struggle for control of what Bourdieu would call the symbolic capital of the French nation.(2) Given his focus on the culture of art museums, McClellan's primary concern is with the national patrimony, a concept that dates from this period,(3) but he is aware of the larger implications of his material and explores them where appropriate. His work, while inflected with recent revisionist scholarship (he writes quite comfortably about the "ideological work" performed by museums), is empirical in the best tradition of liberal historiography. He is a reliable, eminently reasonable guide through this museological landscape fraught with controversy and contention. I regretted his decision to stop short of giving a full account of the unabashedly triumphalist Musee Napoleon (1803-14),(4) for this moment in the Louvre's history is the natural culmination of the trajectory he discusses. His book would also have been richer if he had had more to say about the broader context of the developing museum phenomenon, both in Paris and the rest of Europe; he discusses neither the ambitious independent museum and Salon project sponsored in 1776-77 by the Vauxhall establishment known as the Colisee, suppressed by the authorities,(5) nor the Musee de la Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, opened in Paris in 1794 at the instigation of the abbe Groggier (not only the first European museum of science and industry but also the first "hands-on" museum).(6) The bearing on the nascent museum phenomenon of the democratic clubs suggestively known as musees, which began to appear in the French capital in the late 1770s, is not investigated.(7) Furthermore, although there is a succinct discussion of museums in Dusseldorf and Vienna, the parallel public institutions that sprang up all over the continent as well as in England in the second half of the century go largely unexplored, even for comparative purposes.(8) But the story McClellan does tell is important and topical, especially when considered in the light of the widespread view that the Louvre is the very model of the now much-maligned universal museum. …