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Evening Museums

La Justice, 21 November 1894

In Le Journal, Geffroy[1] calls for the creation of a musée du soir, somewhere in the Saint Antoine suburbs or the Quartier du Temple, for the benefit of furniture-makers and craftsmen. Clearly, the operations of our museums are not at all responsive to the needs of the society in which we live.

The Louvre is an accumulation of things from all over: the crude stele of Tanit,[2] works of Michelangelo, Madame Thiers’s gravy-boat.[3] There’s no order to all this, no classification system, no catalogues—only fragments of catalogues with the item numbers wrong. For visitors with little time to spare, it’s impossible to come away with any benefit from a trot through all those galleries, stuffed as they are with masterpieces.

And then there’s the Luxembourg,[4] which is truly awful, with no space, no order, a haphazard gathering of acquisitions with no general concept. When one considers that of all the nations in the world, France can claim to be the most brilliant in the fine arts, we have to recognize that the Luxembourg Museum provides only a ridiculously feeble idea of the imagination and achievement that constitute our pride and joy.

While all other countries have given high priority to organizing their own collections, to sorting them out and completing them to exploit every opportunity for education, we have shown ourselves woefully incapable of bringing order and clarity to what we have.

In that respect, it’s worth noting the weakness, really the bankruptcy, of top-down administration. Keeping the individual under its thumb, centralized authority, accomplished by the usurpation of local prerogatives, is all-powerful. It rides herd; it watches; and day and night it controls every dimension of social life. Even so, when it comes to defending and assisting the individual, and to enriching his engagement with the arts, it is clueless and can do no good.

The Beaux Arts administration, so skillful in impeding progress, has proudly kept to its practice of doing nothing. No initiative there; not a flicker of responsible conduct. It has turned our national galleries into little fiefdoms whose overlords, benign and lazy, doze peacefully out of sight. The museums are their private property, and nothing seems crazier to them than disturbing their slumber for the common good. The idea of displaying competently the masterpieces under their care, of adducing from them some snippet of their capacity to enlighten the multitudes, strikes them as exquisitely absurd. And should some Minister ever dream of consulting the Director of the Louvre about the possibility of musées du soir, our Monsieur Kaempfen would reply, with astonishment, that Geffroy should be hauled off to a loony-bin.

Well, why doesn’t the Minister take matter in hand himself, since in our country, individual initiative comes down to demanding that the government do something? To make this happen, nothing extravagant need be done right away. In truth, this would run contrary to the culture of the institution, that instead of waiting for visitors to come in, the museum actually reaches out to people in their own districts. One or two big rooms with easy access, a handful of attendants, a decent security system, a few warehouse workers to set things up, a couple of policemen, some insurance, fire protection, a few electric lights—that’s all it would take.

What is stopping us from opening up, simultaneously, two or three sites of this kind in Paris? The effort would be minimal, requiring no significant capital outlays and no bureaucratic fuss. At Batignolles, at Montmartre, and out in the Antoine district, a small evening museum would draw in crowds of working people like moths to a flame, as wholesome recreation for the eye and the mind.

For my part, I would very much like this activity to be a pleasure; and it will prove so if we can just put some life into it. To me, it isn’t enough that the administration gather paintings, position statuary, and exhibit works of art. That’s only half the job. Paintings can resonate in the mind; statues can speak to us—but their language requires compassionate interpretation for people with only a scattered experience in the arts. This is why I’m putting out a call for good-hearted experts—critics, artists, artisans—who would impart this knowledge as teachers.

No lecterns with water-pitchers, no orations. Imagine an association of people familiar with the arts as practitioners or writers, sending one of them every evening to a small district museum. Our fellow shows up in his street clothes, and with his hands in his pockets he wanders around in front of the masterpieces. He inspires confidence; visitors are drawn to him. “What is this painting?” “Tell us about the painter.” “When did he live?” “In what period of the arts?” “What did he do?” “Why did he take on this subject?” “What was he trying to say?” “What connections are there between his time and ours?” “What about his technique? His skills? His thinking?” All of this comes at a rising tempo, because we want the whole crowd to be asking. This is essential for the success of a musée du soir. People are normally timid; official spokesmen scare them off. So, nothing stiff here. No official get-ups. If the questions don’t come—since nobody likes to show ignorance—let’s encourage them. And once the tongues loosen up, you’ll see the ice break.

So it’s fearless conversation among equals, with explanations asked for and provided as they all stroll around the pedestals, moving from painting to painting, showcase to showcase: edification in the company of experts—a wonderful sharing in the sublime joy of the beautiful. What artist, no matter how great, wouldn’t be pleased by such a fate? Though I prefer not to name names, I know many people who think themselves incapable of speaking formally, and who would be completely surprised to find themselves talking at length in such amiable company. Everyone comes away happy, with the public hungry for new experience, and the artist obliged to sharpen his own thinking as he gives it voice. And all of that achieved through conversation, roving instruction; without the affectations of academe, the boredom of didactic monologue.

It is this sense of life that must spring from the contemplation, the lively interpretation, of great masters who have bequeathed to us, across the ages, the timeless experiences of living. The musée du soir has to be a delightful adventure, where every visitor feels like an active participant in the great drama of being alive, inspired by these evocative portrayals of human emotion.

How can we be sure that some ordinary worker, with no arcane expertise, won’t ask the artist an awkward question? In that case, what a delight for the latter, obliged thereby to deepen his own perceptions, to see from new viewpoints; and when he comes home, to go back to the drawing-board, perhaps. People learning from encounters with one another—this is the best way of all. At night, in the homes of the workers, reflections will circulate naturally. After their first visit to the museum, they will want to come back. In the shop they will encourage their colleagues, their friends, to go for the fun of it. After an encounter with Bracquemond,[5] they will want to know what Degas or Rodin can say to them as well. If the fine art on view can be rotated now and then, to maintain the interest of visitors who not only look but also actively engage, this can be an endless pleasure.

To say it in full: this isn’t really about creating “artists” in the strict sense, people who design and model and paint and chisel and sculpt; but more about creating an audience, “artists” in their own way, who pay attention, who understand, acquiring a blessed feeling, a contagious delight. Artists make themselves; all they need is the usual kit. What we must do is create men and women as complete human beings. People are truly deprived when they go through life oblivious to the truth that such powerful emotional experience can bestow, like a princely tribute laid before us all. We have created a France that reads, and writes, and counts, and knows, and yearns to know even more.[6] Now we must lift our nation up to a new and higher plane, fostering a populace that can feel. We must create a constituency for our artists, just as we try to sustain one for our intellectuals. And in doing this, we shall cause more artists to rise up from obscurity, from the multitudes, much as we have seen with men of science.[7]

When we recognize that the genius of our race has emerged without any deliberate effort to promote intellectual life among the lower orders, we can justly expect so much more, a flourishing even more beautiful, when we cultivate minds that are now lying fallow. Schools are places where one merely learns how to learn. We have rebuilt their walls, but not their mentality, that dogged dedication to abstract, stultifying pedagogy. The real culture, the culture that can prepare souls for a life of creative engagement, comes from within the self, assisted by schooling and encouraged by daily experience. This is why we must offer every opportunity to learn, on every street-corner, so to speak; every inducement to venture further into the mysteries of the universe.

I will add that by elevating the public in this way, we will improve the artist as well, that his own schooling will become more complete. Responding to Geffroy, Monsieur Arthur Maillet[8] has justly observed that a problem for many artists is that “they cannot keep faith with themselves because everything truly original that they do, when they try selling it to our well-heeled industrialists, has been roundly refused.” Who is to blame for that, if not the general public? Let us transform that public, raising it up from the bourgeois “art” that disgraces so many of our Paris homes, and our artists won’t find themselves rejected when they plunge into uncharted territory.

For we should not assume that only working people will benefit from the musée du soir. Middle-class folk will turn up there first; and when they go home, they will reconsider that wall-clock they bought on the Boulevard Saint-Denis. The moneyed bourgeois—yes, even he—will also want to learn. Contrary to the predictions of Monsieur Arthur Maillet, the musée du soir, as a museum that speaks to us all, a museum that changes, will actually create, little by little, the artist, either by helping him in direct ways or by fostering a populace that responds with enthusiasm. And when our multitudes have finally tasted the fruit of the sacred tree, when everyone has understood that every encounter with art heightens our condition as human beings, their powerful thirst for aesthetic experience will in turn call for more.

Oh, the squandered potential out there! That other half-baked minds should busy themselves with blocking those who would support the full development of mankind! To become, isn’t it our duty to try everything we can? “What I propose,” says Geffroy in his essay in Le Journal, “is to bring the fine arts and the world of ideas into daily life, awakening this great, instinctive yearning among the multitudes to become fully alive, a yearning that never slackens, that constantly renews.” Truly, that is the goal.

As for the result, it would quickly surpass our hopes. Read what Ledrain[9] says about two of his students, one of them a baker, the other a gilder: “… two fresh minds where everything germinates with incredible force. Today they are two distinguished experts who are going to publish a volume on Assyrian—” Such are the untapped resources of French genius, while our luckless bourgeois youth collapse from exhaustion and boredom, under the burden of study-guides and exams.

Alas! Here, as everywhere else, we need a revolution. Not some raucous upheaval with gunfire and proclamations, but a revolution with regard to intellect and purpose—the only kind that our fair land has never experienced. Who will take the first step to make things better?

Musées du soir have been proposed; let’s give them a try. Every foray against the lethargy of the Old Disorder is a step towards a New Order. Certainly we need to keep our efforts within bounds, lest we wear ourselves out with grandiose plans and impossible dreams.

Rather than try to budge the Winged Victory of Samothrace, what could be easier than to copy what’s going on in England, where they are moving works from their museums not just from one neighborhood of London to another, but also from city to city? Doesn’t our great artistic heritage belong to the entire nation? Why can’t it venture out to those who cannot come to Paris? In England, private collectors take pleasure in displaying, at big public shows, some of the loveliest works they own. What a fine practice to adopt here, among those who keep masterpieces perpetually hidden from the eyes of others!

Wouldn’t these fine folks like to connect with the people? What a lovely way for them to build a rapport with the masses they so stupidly fear, and who ask nothing more, after all, than to participate in life, in the wholeness of human existence.

Come on, aristocrats, come on, democrats! Let’s all meet up at the first musée du soir.

  1. The prolific and influential art critic Gustave Geffroy, who later wrote Clemenceau (1916) and also Claude Monet (1920), was inspired by the late visiting hours being offered at the museum complex in South Kensington; in 1895 he published a manifesto pamphlet, Musée du Soir aux Quartiers Ouvriers (Paris: Marty, 1895), and campaigned for the project beyond the turn of the century, against allegations that the proposal was a subterfuge to corrupt the tastes of the nation. After a few early experiments, the idea has gained traction in recent decades, with musées nocturnes, museums open late in cities and towns across France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
  2. A small ancient votive to Baal, discovered in Algeria in 1877.
  3. Élise Thiers, wife of Adolph Thiers, President of France in the tumultuous years after the collapse of the Second Empire. Because Thiers had led the nation during the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, Clemenceau regarded him as an embodiment of reactionary middle-class values.
  4. The smaller museum in the Palais de Luxembourg, to which Manet’s Olympia was consigned before Clemenceau, as Prime Minister, ordered its transfer to the Louvre.
  5. Félix Bracquemond (1833–1914), prolific engraver and influential public figure in the arts of his time, was a close friend of Geffroy, Rodin, Degas, and the Goncourts. His wife Marie Bracquemond (1840–1916), a gifted Impressionist painter, eventually abandoned her art after years of discouragement and indifference from her husband. It’s likely, therefore, that Clemenceau is referring here to Félix, as a conspicuous presence in the salons and a recent winner of the Legion of Honor.
  6. Clemenceau may be alluding here to the école républicaine laws of 1881–1882, passed during the administration of Jules Ferry, establishing free, compulsory, secular education everywhere in France.
  7. Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), for example, was from a poor family in a small country town.
  8. Arthur Maillet had recently published L’Art Décoratif Moderne. Réponse à Deux Lettres de M. Georges Berger. Président de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs (Paris: Librarie des Arts du Métal, 1894).
  9. Eugène Ledrain (1844–1910), prolific Egyptologist and Bible scholar, was for a time Curator of Oriental Antiquities at the Louvre.


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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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