Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

5

VIOLLET-LE-DUC AND TAINE AT THE ÉCOLE DES BEAUX-ARTS

On the first professorship of art history in France

Philip Hotchkiss Walsh

In Memoriam D. R. W., 1927-1994

On the afternoon of Friday 29 January 1864, in the grand hemicycle of the École des Beaux-Arts, a standing-room-only audience of more than four hundred students assembled. Seated in the front rows of the auditorium, admitted by special advance tickets, were members of the artistic and cultural elite of the Second Empire: Le Comte de Nieuwerkerke, Surintendant des Beaux-Arts of the Maison de l'Empereur, was prominent among them. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, architect, courtier, restorer, and scholar of medieval monuments, theorist, polemicist, and since 18 November 1863, the holder of the first chair in art history and aesthetics created in a French institution of higher learning, approached the podium, laid out his notes, and began to lecture on “De l'influence des idées religieuses dans les arts chez les indiens et les grecs.” Instead of the docile silence accorded a professor in the exercise of his duties, Viollet-le-Duc's voice was drowned out by a surge of noisemaking by his students, later described in student slang by Maxime du Camp as a “chahut babylonien.” 1 Shouts and howls were soon followed by a shower of apples, wads of paper, small coins, and eggs. The uproar intensified. Ultimately the professor abandoned his platform and exited the hall, retinue of notables in tow. The students, not satisfied with merely shouting down the lecture, chased Nieuwerkerke back across the Seine to the secure precincts of the Louvre. In part because of du Camp's witty account of the event, it has become a favorite anecdote in histories of nineteenth-century French cultural politics. The fact that this represented the first lecture in the discipline of the history of art taught by the first professor of art history in France has drawn relatively little attention. 2

The reaction, as Viollet-le-Duc well knew, was not to the newly introduced discipline per se but to himself as professor. The students had ample reason to be hostile to him. The rioters may have been unaware of the ideological

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