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Freeing the Louvre

La Justice, 18 March 1894

Every change isn’t necessarily reform,[1] said old Grévy[2]—who presiding over his Republic, made himself at home there like Renan[3] at the Academy, and took a dim view of anything that disturbed his slumber.

If reform is out of fashion at the moment, I ask that we at least abstain from changing something sensible and good that the monarchy left behind.

All of our ranking Philistines are busy now with gathering public support for this grand reform, which amounts to charging entrance fees for our national museums. It’s been known for a long time that our collections of fine art have remained static, while those in other nations have continued to grow and improve. Our budget for this is miserly; and the use to which it has been put hasn’t always been heartening. The matter of a certain Italian bronze is still fresh in mind.[4]

It is sad, of course, to see how the museums of Berlin, of London, of Antwerp, are all improving with acquisitions of the highest quality, while the Louvre, short on cash, won’t even risk showing up at the major art auctions. In 1874, the Berlin Museum bought a part of the Suermondt collection for 1,250,000 francs, including the Van Eyck Man with the Pinks; in 1890 it was Dürer’s portrait of Holzuer, for which they paid 450,000 francs; in 1892, at the Dudley sale, they came away with the Virgin of Crivelli (186,000 francs), an exquisite Rembrandt (66,000 francs), and Botticelli’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy—1,500,000 francs.

During this entire period, our own most important purchase was a fresco falsely attributed to Raphaël, which cost Monsieur Thiers 600,000 francs and which isn’t worth a tenth of that sum. Cleverly concealed now in the entry to the Primitives Gallery, it is labeled “School of Raphaël,” out of consideration for those unspeakable petit bourgeois who, not content with murdering Parisians when they were alive, presume to entertain them forever, now that they are dead, with these displays of crockery, these chamber pots—a disgrace to the Louvre where masterpieces molder in obscurity.

This isn’t just a matter of fixing the cash-flow for our museums. We need to know how the money will be used. Our museums need funding? We have a budget of three million francs, encumbered by useless outlays and entitlements. Nothing would be easier than making the needed allocation, if we cancelled the newly-created job of Architect for the Saharan Monuments. In Tonkin[5] we have spent several hundred million francs to assure a thriving trade for Britain and Germany; it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the few hundred thousand needed to save our incomparable Louvre from degradation.

And so, as you’d expect, such a move is exactly what they don’t want to do. Earmarking certain revenues for specific purposes smacks of Byzantine bureaucracy. Our financial experts are unanimous in condemning this practice—which is why they insist on applying it to our Paris museums.

There are plenty of reasons for that: first among them is the difficulty of getting money out of our legislature. The Députés don’t like Paris. This city is envied by other districts. Our population comes here from all over France, however, with no questions asked about where anyone is from. Even so, things are done here, and written here, that are hard to grasp in the regional capitals. To some geniuses out there, Paris seems like a huge, haphazard stew of wonderful and awful ideas, sublime and crazy dreams, heroic and despicable action, messes and free-for-alls, a chaos. All of that provokes resistance, and even hatred, manifest in a hundred different ways.

Moreover, the Louvre is not a place where our representatives like to go for a day out. This assemblage of old canvases and broken stonework doesn’t speak to many of them. After toiling on commerce commissions or local interests, they seek gratifications that are simpler and less cerebral. It’s not that their minds are more closed to the world of art than most other people’s; rather, the grim sterility of their parliamentary travails often leaves them too worn out for any effort on their own, other than caring for themselves.

And so: stud farms, irrigation schemes, secondary roads, and countless other projects that are insufficiently funded and that I don’t want to disparage, are rightfully called for by people who will never come to the Louvre, or who go there and understand nothing they see. And giving in to such pressure, the poor Député again and again leaves the arts to stagnate, rather than risk any complaints, no matter how inane, from the crowd of small-time country squires whose backing he must have to be elected.

Our ministers therefore don’t like advocating for Paris. Though some of them might feel the urge, they know that no one would support them except a small elite. So they don’t even try.

This is why there are dreams of using, for the benefit of our museums, the proceeds to be had from selling off the Crown Jewels. Several million francs could be made available that way, and Benjamin Raspail has voiced the inspired idea of using some of them to create a fund for workmen’s compensation. The building-blocks are in place, ready for the legislative branch to resolve, as sooner or later it must, to go ahead and do something. Naturally, some of our younger reformers have called for us to make headway; but the allocations our museums would receive would still be inadequate. We need something more.

In this search, proposals have been worked up to install turnstiles at the portals of the Louvre. In the push for this plan we are being told that this is going on in other countries. That doesn’t make it any better; and considering how we forbid ourselves to copy anything good that goes on elsewhere, why should we choose to import something that does harm? Besides, the revenues collected would be minimal,[6] for we certainly wouldn’t dare to close the Louvre to poor people every day of the week.

It is said that some poor wretches come in simply to warm themselves in the royal palace. This is a fact—I have often seen such unfortunates huddled quietly in front of a heat outlet. Humiliated and timid, they do no harm; and in a sad stupor they gaze at whatever canvases happen to be in front of them. Drowsily calmed by the warm air that hits their faces, they dream of Heaven knows what; they forget. That is the least we can do for them. Moreover, if it’s agreed that in our Christian society we cannot provide necessities to such victims of misfortune, we can get drunk on our luxuries: these people will always be with us. Since we have still not resolved to assure the basic necessities of human life, we can at least not refuse an hour of refuge to anyone who comes in.

I am glad that people down on their luck find welcome in this palace, that we treat them honorably there, and that before their eyes, these masterworks of human artistic achievement speak to them of something other than the harsh life beyond those doors, to which they will so soon return. The lucky folk of the world, caught up in their business—and alas, what business!—have no time to spare for imaginative life. Let the poor among us do some dreaming.

But then it’s not just the poor. On Sundays the Louvre is so jammed that one can hardly turn around; people of every social class can be found there, especially from newer ranks that have risen up with such great fanfare. Everybody. Children in wide-eyed astonishment; they will come back again for another look. Who knows what might blossom in these young minds, giddy with impressions, who having taken in so much, might want someday to give back something of themselves, when their chance arises?

On weekdays, working people in their coveralls often gather in the Salon Carré, or in the Grande Galerie. Young people arrive in small groups, alert, laughing, a bit overawed nonetheless, but glad to be out on their own, to see what has been accomplished by their forebears. Their cheeky Parisian skepticism crumbles as they encounter the legacy of all these masters; right there in front of them, these works tell the story of what they believed, what they wanted, what they did. Is there any better lesson for anyone—and would you shut the portals to people who come in search of this education? Besides, in the history of mankind the true geniuses have labored for the good of us all. Anyone who presumes to sort us out, no matter who they are, is the real barbarian.

But alas, there’s no shortage of barbarians in the halls of the Louvre. You can see them parading by in herds: green tartans, gilded lorgnettes, dispensing thoughts like this in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait: “If I had a big nose like that, I wouldn’t paint my own picture so often!” “Look at that lovely floor!” says another voice. Baedekers in hand, the caravan passes by. This is what the Louvre will be left to, when we’ve emptied it of everyone who thinks or feels.

Instead of planning to close the portals, let’s open them wider if we can. Within these ancient walls there will be barbarism enough either way, if only because it’s the home of that brilliant Curator, who piles up our works of art so chaotically that the only comparable mess is the mishmash of politics.

Even Monsieur Richtenberger,[7] who zealously defends the administration of the Louvre, is obliged to concede that “our own installations are no match for those in museums abroad.” In other words, the layout plans are to blame for the horrendous crowding of the Flemish paintings, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Italian—to put it bluntly, it is not the placement that matters; it is the lack of understanding about art.

  1. Clemenceau’s essay is not only about a plan to charge admission at the Louvre, but also about freeing the museum from tight budgets and complacent leadership.
  2. Jules Grévy (1807–1891), President of France from 1879 to the end of 1887, is remembered as an exemplar of stability, moderation, and bourgeois values. His administration was ultimately forced out by a scandal about taking secret payments for the conferring of high honors.
  3. Ernest Renan, who had died in 1892, had received numerous honors in his later years for his volumes of history and philosophy; he had been elected to a chair in the Académie Française in 1878.
  4. “It will be remembered that in 1892 the Louvre bought a fine Venetian statuette of a male nude figure. The work had been refused by the British Museum, and was bought by the Louvre for £1,600. When it was declared to be forgery, the State took action and forced the seller to refund the money.” M.H. Spielmann, “Art Forgeries and Counterfeits: A General Survey (Continued),” The Magazine of Art, Volume I, ed. Marion Harry Spielmann (London: Cassell, Peter, and Gilpin, 1903), p.50.
  5. The northern territory of modern Vietnam, brought under French colonial control in 1885.
  6. [Clemenceau’s note] In London, 26,000 francs per year; in Madrid, 5,000 francs; in Florence, 80,000 francs.
  7. Eugène Richtenberger (1856–1920), who with Georges Lafenestre, the Louvre’s Curator of Paintings, co-edited La Peinture du Musée du Louvre, the first volume of which appeared in 1893.


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