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At the Louvre

La Justice, 6 June 1894

To run our museums, our Republic has chosen an excellent fellow—one could almost say distinguished—who used to turn out clever little reviews that did no harm to anyone. A while back, when he was no longer fit for that kind of work, he was given the job of developing our national collections.[1] He became famous for showing a moderated taste—with immoderate zeal, as everyone knows—in all of his public duties.

So here he is now, installed in his Louvre, chiefly preoccupied with not overworking himself, and with continuing the nice routines of Monsieur van Nieuwerkerke.[2] At these two jobs he has done as well as one could possibly hope. For in his Louvre, everybody is in charge except him. It’s like the court of King Pétaud: His Majesty snoozes, and the courtiers do as they please.[3] The problem is that they do so at the expense of the paintings and the statues. The paintings seem to move around randomly, a crazy dance where no one knows what’s going on. It’s as if all the canvases come down off the walls at the stroke of midnight, joining in a rumpus; and when the cock crows they climb back up again, wherever chance or the night’s madness might have taken them.

When the art isn’t being moved around indiscriminately, it’s being “restored.” We haven’t forgotten what happened with The Pilgrims at Emmaus;[4] Van Dyck’s Duke of Richmond is also lost to us now. Thanks to complaint from the press, some paintings have been saved from this mischief. But as the objections continue to roll in, these same people, brandishing their trusty scrapers and paint-pots, are rubbing and sanding and re-lacquering other canvases, until they’re all polished up like pretty pieces of porcelain.

This obsession with preening is a hazard now in every museum in Europe, for these carpet-beaters have absolutely no interest in confining themselves to conservation. Instead, they fancy themselves the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Holbein. In Basel recently, they had a go at Holbein’s marvelous portrait of the humanist Amerbach.[5] Packed off to Munich, it came back “restored”—gleaming, garish, and dotted with little reddish spots, supposedly to repair what had previously been a subtle play of light.

Perhaps what we need here is an all-out reform, to fire these “experts” at the Louvre, and replace these brilliant bureaucrats with a few hacks to go hunting for spiders.

Is this the ominous prospect that now tumbles our Monsieur Kaempfen out of his hammock? Hard to say: in any case, it has dawned on this supposedly-intelligent person that paintings in these galleries might possibly be arranged in accordance with an actual idea. This is what he has said—has he lost his mind? One way or another, as a delectable novelty, a foggy effort of this sort is underway. They have decided it give it a try.

They started with the German paintings. They are all together now, replacing those Le Sueurs[6] to which we bid a fond farewell. The lighting in this room is lamentable, and the Holbein masterworks are not displayed to best advantage. The pictures are haphazardly positioned: a Denner portrait that requires strong light is parked in shadow; the loveliest of the Cranachs is now up by the ceiling.

After these exploits, they fooled around with the pre-Renaissance works; “experimentation” is their excuse for putting things up and taking them down as the spirit moves them.

Meanwhile, bright ideas from somebody else have turned up: rearrangements in the hall displaying the ancient bronzes. That gallery was like all the other ones—a mess beyond description. The Roman platter, the gladiatorial helmet, and the Corinthian mirror were all sitting there peacefully next to each other, beneath the puzzled gaze of the Didymaean Apollo.[7] So someone decided to sort all this out, to make improvements; and so the public was excluded from this hallowed site for two months. Walking past the barricades, I could see the walls bare and the display-cases empty. There were paint crews in there doing touch-ups, and carpenters scraping away with planes. The grand reorganization was underway. A few weeks ago, the portals were finally opened; and oh, have there been changes. With a quick look-in we can savor the “improvements.”

Apollo of Piombino
Apollo of Piombino, ancient Greek bronze.

What strikes one right away is that the most important work here, the Greek Apollo discovered at Piombino, has been shifted out of position. One used to see it in profile, bathed in soft light, upon entering the room; and the god seemed radiant with youth and charm. Right in front of a window is where you’ll find him now, a placement oblivious to the harsh daylight that emphasizes the imperfections in the metal and wrecks the surface texture of this wonderful object. The powerful stance of the torso is roughly thwarted by the sheer impossibility of stepping back far enough to appreciate it, and the back of the statue can no longer be seen at all. When you come in, you observe it only as a formless black hulk blocking the window. It’s a fact that this work can be rotated on its base; I even found an accommodating guard who as a favor agreed to reposition the statue. But that accomplished nothing, as the modulated light was no longer there. Instead, a pattern of bright squares and black holes made for a shocking effect. Nonetheless, I did finally hit upon a vantage point: to see the work now you have to look at it from the other side of the window to its right. There, through an interstice among all the statuettes and mirrors, the marvel of this Apollo comes clear again. The two windows together reduce the harshness of the illumination, and the god rises for us as a vision of youth, power, and beauty. How odd—that two months of labor should have succeeded in forcing visitors to shift around in search of this single bizarre spot, to appreciate one of the consummate works in the Louvre.

Apollo of Piombino
Closer view of the head of Apollo of Piombino.

For this statue that you have before you is an archaic bronze by one of the old masters of the Peloponnese, a copy or replica of the famous Didymaean Apollo, a colossal statue from the temple at Miletus where the god delivered his oracles. Monsieur Collignon[8] sees it as a free sort of replica, because the hair, instead of falling in curls upon the shoulders—as we see on the coinage—is gathered in a ponytail. If I can risk an opinion: I prefer to think that it’s the coins that are at fault—not a remote possibility, considering the range of variations we see on those coins, beginning with the ones showing the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Moreover, the Apollo of Ptoös,[9] which is a reproduction of the Didymaean, has no cascading curls at all. Moreover, my best reason is that this Sicyon[10] bronze of ours is simply too beautiful not to be the work of a very great artist, and a direct result of his most intense inspiration.

I know of no more perfect example of the deified human figure as imagined and realized in the Hellenic world. The body is lithe, vital, powerful, harmonious, endowed with infinite grace. The broad chest and the strong neck bespeak a capacity for superhuman action; and devoid of any bathos, the whole figure shows exquisite delicacy. The head is incredibly youthful. The flicker of a smile, lifting the corners of the sensuous mouth, the eyes alive still, despite the loss of their crystal inserts, the noble purity of the profile which, though thoroughly idealized, remains human nonetheless—together, they carry us away, beyond the enigmas of the Classical conception of beauty.

“Votive to Athena,” says an inscription edged in silver on the statue’s base. Never was a goddess honored with a more marvelous offering. So why do they persist in commending to us, as faithful replicas of the work of Kharnakos,[11] that bad Payne Knight bronze in the British Museum,[12] and that vulgar statuette now in our coin room, the one discovered near Miletus,[13] when we have before our eyes a work that cannot be inferior to the original masterpiece? We know its extraordinary history. When Darius seized Miletus and burned the temple of the Branchidae,[14] he transported the god to Ecbatana,[15] from which, two centuries later, Seleucus Nicator returned it to the Milesians.[16] How then did this Sicyon bronze now in the Louvre find its way to Piombino? That odyssey would have no historian to tell the tale.

Is it absolutely necessary to organize works of art according to what they are made of? That’s open to debate. Wouldn’t it be better to position the Didymaean Apollo in the gallery where we see the magnificent fragments from its own temple, brought back from Asia Minor by Monsieur Rayet?[17] If Rayet had found it in his own excavations, the statue today would be next to those marbles from the necropolis. Because a Greek bronze turns up in Italy, is that a good reason to exhibit it with Roman lamps and scales, on the excuse that they are all made from the same metal? So now I come back to the subject from which the Didymaean Apollo caused me to stray so egregiously.

But one more word about that. On the base you see an item number, 3012. Open the catalog: it contains 1022 numbers, and the Didymaean Apollo is there as number 69. From this one fact, concerning the most important piece in the gallery, you can see the whole problem. Greek and Roman divinities all mixed up, thrown together haphazardly, and catalogued only under general headings—Venus, Mars, etc.—this is what passes for a major reorganization. Fully a third of the pieces, including some of the most important ones, aren’t numbered at all. Others are assigned the wrong numbers, as with the Didymaean Apollo. This is true for most of the collection. For the armaments there is nothing about provenance. Numbers from 6000 to 7000 abound: one mirror has the number 7182, and the catalog still won’t go above 1022. I could fill two pages with a list of works devoid of any description.

As for the mixing-up of everything, judge for yourself. In the main showcase: Etruscan cistae[18] bronzes from Dodona, “antique” keys (from which country? What era?), surgical instruments (provenance?), Byzantine bronzes, and two Greek mirrors, separated here from the others for no evident reason. In a display window, an inscription, a fragment from the Narbonese forum. Below that, two strips of decoration from the temple of Apollo at Epidauros Limera. In the other embrasure, two slingshot balls (origin?) some Greek weights (what period?), some Byzantine weights, and some tubular fragments with this enlightening label: “lead pipes with inscriptions”(?). Farther along, a big display case marked this way: “animals.” I look up, and I see a couple of helmets.

I’ll stop here to avoid being wearisome; but I could go on and on. About art, nothing. Wait, there’s one notice: catalogue number 75 has this comment, “This figure is one of the final monuments of polytheistic art.” From that moment on I’ve been wandering around asking everyone I meet, “What is polytheistic art?”

Would somebody out there bring me news about the catalog for antique sculpture? My colleague and friend Guinaudeau,[19] surprised by the absence of any catalogue in the galleries, took the matter to Monsieur Kaempfen himself, who responded via one of secretaries, the “Accountant for the National Museums,” in a letter as confused as it was polite, the gist of which came to this: “For Greek and foreign sculpture there is no catalogue.”

A supremely beautiful collection of fine art finds itself in such shameful disarray; and this is after a program of reorganization. Monsieur Nieuwerkerke had started a catalogue; the index cards are asleep in piles up in the attic. And the Minister had the nerve, after a visit, to congratulate Kaempfen and his acolytes on their marvelous work. Who shall now congratulate this Minister?

Do you remember, Spuller,[20] when you were Minister for the Louvre a few months ago? I wrote to you then: “This is a real job for you. Don’t screw it up!”

Yesterday, in the Salon Carré, looking for some trace of your time here, I stopped before that marvelous self-portrait of Rembrandt in old age, where this great poet of light itself has enshrouded his joys, his dreams, his mad and stubborn pursuit of the ideal, with all the disappointments, all the despair, all the ravages of his life. No gilded chains on him now, no velvet beret. Nothing but a knotted cloth around his head.

Compare this powerful visage, already beginning to fade away, to the young, eager face of the man at the start of his career. Your staff has hauled that luminous portrait far away, hanging it with others in a dimly-lit room. For my part, I’d prefer, for the sake of comparison, and also for the story of this great soul, to bring together these moments from one incomparable inner journey.

In these two studies we have the whole human being. And between the two an entire life unfolds. Look at the steady eyes, the firmness of the lips, the tempest upon the brow, the resolve of the mind. Everything here cries out to you: “I’ve struggled, I’ve lived, I’ve been unshakeable, I’m still here.” And what kind of life has he lived? To die penniless, abandoned, overcome with misery—and yet, in spite of all that, the gaze always fixed on the unchanging goal.

We see mankind here, in his glory. As a fighter he lived and died. Look at him, punched in the face by life. The firm line of the mouth is always there; the will has not weakened. We see less audacity perhaps, and more resolution. The look is more tranquil, certainly, but the hand is gripped on the palette like a last resort. It doesn’t tremble, this brave hand that shall paint the Syndics of the Draper’s Guild. It seems to clutch at action itself, at life. What strength could we find in ourselves if we could grasp it! Does this mean nothing to you, Spuller? Do you reminisce about our own gilded neck-chains, our velvet berets? That was back in our youth. As Durranc[21] once said, “How lovely the Republic used to be—when it was under the Empire.”

Spuller, let’s get a grip on that palette; and since no one will say of us that we brought order to the Republic, let them say at least that we made a proper catalogue for the Louvre. We will not have lived in vain.

  1. Albert Kaempfen (1826–1907) had been appointed Director of the Louvre in 1887.
  2. Émilien O’Hara van Nieuwerkerke (1811–1892) had become Superintendent of the Imperial Museums under Napoleon III.
  3. According to an old French fable, a deluded farmer turned his lands into an anarchic kingdom where everybody was equal and no one listened to anyone else. Daumier did a cartoon of the story; it is also mentioned in Finnegans Wake.
  4. On May 31, 1894, La Justice had published a heated editorial about a recent botched restoration of Rembrandt’s painting, undertaken by Claude Chapuis under the direction of Kaempfen, who was complaining about being victimized in the press for this effort.
  5. Holbein’s portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach, in the Kunstmuseum Basel, dates from 1519.
  6. Eustache Le Sueur (1617–1655), a prolific artist, was one of the founders of the French Academy of Painting.
  7. Clemenceau is referring here to the Apollo of Piombino, a bronze figure discovered in 1832 and believed for a while to be one of the few surviving bronzes from Classical Greece; more recent evaluations classify it as a Roman-era copy of a famous statue from the sanctuary at Didyma.
  8. By 1894, Maxime Collignon (1849–1917), a Classical archaeologist, was already famous for several monographs on Greek ceramics, mythology, and sculpture.
  9. An archaic image discovered in 1886 by a French-led expedition at a temple site in Boeotia.
  10. An ancient city near Corinth.
  11. The modern English name for this Archaic period sculptor is Canachus, active in Sicyon in the sixth century BCE.
  12. Richard Payne Knight (1750–1824) donated a large number of bronze works from the Classical period to the British Museum in 1824. Clemenceau is referring here to a statuette of a young man, identified by historians at the end of the nineteenth century as a small replica of a Canachus Apollo. See Ernest Arthur Gardner, A Handbook to Greek Sculpture (London: Macmillan, 1896), vol. I, p.194.
  13. Clemenceau may be referring here to a funerary statuette of a woman, discovered at Miletus and brought to the Louvre by Olivier Rayet (see note 17) in 1873.
  14. The Branchidae were priests of Apollo, supposedly descended from the god. In the campaign to suppress the Ionian Revolt, the armies of Darius I besieged and destroyed Miletus and the temple in 494 BCE.
  15. Described by Herodotus as a Persian fortress and capital city.
  16. An infantry general with Alexander the Great, Seleucus founded a dynasty that ruled over most of the Asian territories of the former Persian Empire.
  17. In a brief and productive career, Olivier Rayet (1847–1887) had done excavations at Miletus and Didyma in1873.
  18. Funerary boxes, often elaborately decorated.
  19. Bernard Guinaudeau wrote about arts and letters for both La Justice and L’Aurore.
  20. Eugène Spuller, Minister of Education and Fine Arts in 1893–94.
  21. Édouard Durranc was a contributing writer for La Justice. Actually, the line Clemenceau quotes here may belong to the historian Alphonse Aulard, who said this to Durrac in the summer of 1885.


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Claude Monet: The Water-Lilies and other writings on art Copyright © 2017 by Bruce F. Michelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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