Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

11

USING ART HISTORY

The Louvre and its public persona, 1848-52

Gabriel P. Weisberg

Administrators of the French public museums, those who ascended to their positions at the time of the 1848 Revolution, were determined to reexamine earlier artists who might further their contention that art could be used for didactic purposes - to teach, to educate, to motivate the masses. These earlier artists, the ancestors of the realist tradition, were accordingly reinstated for many reasons.

Among those who had a very specific program to follow, based on his own radical inclinations, was Philippe-Auguste Jeanron (1809-77; Figure 11.1). 1 He became Director of the French National Museums in 1848 and set forth a program of change that had far reaching implications, not only for his own immediate period, but for the future of French museums. Coming to power during a moment of intense democratization of many political institutions, Jeanron made it his policy to study selected painters from the past so that their works could be placed on public display in the Louvre. 2 Among them were Chardin and the Le Nains, whose plebian themes were in clear opposition to the more aristocratic imagery of a Hyacinthe Rigaud or Vigée-Lebrun, for example. The former often used themes that were linked to the commonplace, to the nature of work, and would have been more easily grasped by the lower classes and the expanding middle class.

Recognizing the Louvre as the national palace for art, Jeanron was motivated by a keen awareness of art history, and by the need to reappreciate painters from the extensive tradition of French creativity who could compete with other European masters while firmly establishing the basis of a French national school. 3 Jeanron's philosophy, partially outlined in his writings published in the radical press of the late 1840s, must be carefully probed since these texts set forth an ideology that was decidedly populist. They reflect issues, also espoused by others at the time, revealing that Jeanron was one of many who were involved in expanding the role artworks could play in society and, in addition, in rethinking the function of museums in educating the public about the art of their own nation and even that of other schools. In identifying specific artists for new appreciation, and in rescuing others from the “dustbin” of the past, Jeanron, and his Republican colleagues, used their knowledge of art history and

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