The Purchase of the Past. Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790–1890

Stammers, Tom
Cambridge, UK 2020: Cambridge University Press
Anzahl Seiten
374 S.
£ 90.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Christine Haynes, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Among the many interesting characters in this new history of collecting in post-revolutionary Paris is Frédéric Spitzer, dubbed “Napoleon of the knick-knack” (p. 244). A collector of Gothic and Renaissance objects, he excelled at the mise-en-scène of his “knick-knacks” in his hôtel in the rue Villejust, to which he welcomed a who’s who of European aristocrats and artists in the Belle Époque. Although it was ultimately revealed to have been built on dubious restoration and pastiche production methods, Spitzer’s collection, documented in a multivolume catalogue, yielded the “sale of the century” when it was auctioned off in pieces in 1893, 1895, and 1929. Although he was critiqued by the press in often anti-Semitic terms, Spitzer represented a new cultural figure of the collector of antiquities after 1789, a figure that was coopted as an auxiliary of state institutions such as the Louvre – who relied on them for sales and donations – during the Third Republic.

In The Purchase of the Past, Tom Stammers revives the stories of figures such as Spitzer to trace the development of art collecting as a cultural practice in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Emphasizing the relationship between this cultural practice and historical consciousness, he reads the rise of collecting in the nineteenth century as the “mirror” of the process of dispersal wrought by the Terror. As contemporaries recognized, “the whole nineteenth-century art market was built on a founding act of dispossession.” (p. 3) However, the effects of the Revolution on collecting have not really been addressed by historiography, which has focused on early modern collecting or taken a biographical approach. Like Susan Crane’s Collecting and Historical Consciousness in Early Nineteenth-Century Germany1, Stammers’ study examines a confraternity of amateurs, with their own organizations and periodicals, to reveal the public implications of private collections, for collective memory, national heritage, and the artistic canon. Elucidating the development of an increasingly organized art market, centralized in the hôtel Drouot, Stammers argues that “private collections were a critical site for salvaging and interpreting the past in a post-revolutionary society, accelerating but also complicating the development of a shared national heritage” (book jacket); in the wake of the Revolution, collectors became “apostles and ministers” of a secular cult of historical memory (p. 26).

To illuminate the role of collecting in the national heritage, Stammers chooses to focus on a small number of select individuals – chosen for the source base they left behind rather than for their representativeness of a social type – in the French capital, but with connections to the international market. Beginning in the revolutionary era, he uses Pierre Gault de Saint-Germain, a conservator and critic, to demonstrate a shift in terminology from amateur, building a private curiosity cabinet, to collectionneur, a neologism penned by Balzac in 1839, signifying a more public-oriented collector. In the same era, he examines (in Chapter 2) another case of the new sort of collector, Jean-Louis Soulavie, an anti-Jacobin who specialized in salvaging the documents and images of the French Revolution itself. Although some of his library was lost, confiscated, or dispersed over succeeding decades, it helped to preserve the historical memory of the Revolution. As Stammers emphasizes, Soulavie’s salvage efforts, particularly of revolutionary prints, “permit today’s cultural historians to still think, witness and feel this world-breaking event” (p. 115). Moving into the Restoration and July Monarchy, a heyday of antiquarian cataloguers, bibliographers, booksellers, and bouquinistes, often affiliated with the Société des bibliophiles français or the École des Chartes, Stammers next employs a book collector named Arthur-Marie-Henri Boulard, caricatured as “M. Nid-aux-rats” or “Mr. Rats’ Nest,” to show how bibliophilia surged as a means of “restoring” the pre-revolutionary world, as a “mode of counter-revolutionary restitution” (pp. 133 and 141). In the period of the Second Empire (1851–1870), Stammers shifts from the collecting of books to that of antiquités, including military arms, through the case of the network surrounding Charles Sauvageot, who constituted a transitional figure in the move toward more cooperation, but also tension, between private collectors and state institutions. Adopting as his motto Dispersa coegi, “I have gathered what was scattered,” Sauvageot accumulated a collection of Gothic objects in his house in the rue faubourg Poissonière, which under the patronage of the Empress Eugénie was moved – along with the collector himself – to the Louvre. Although this collection was later found to include a number of frauds, it exemplified the moral, even Christian, motivation of the post-revolutionary salvage “crusade” (p. 162). This “crusade” became all the more central to a royalist vision of the national heritage following the Commune, which many collectors interpreted as another example of revolutionary vandalism. This new wave of salvaging was epitomized by Jérôme Pichon, a bibliophile whose collection in the hôtel Lauzun he had restored on the île Saint-Louis became a symbol of anti-revolutionary resistance; by Baron Léopold Double, whose collection of artifacts associated with Marie-Antoinette, which was displayed at the World’s Fair of 1867, initiated a craze for period rooms; and also by the “Napoleon of the knick-knack,” Frédéric Spitzer, who described his collection in sensual terms as an “adored mistress” (p. 232). In collaboration with the government of the Third Republic, such collectors played a critical role in the reparation of the French patrimony, in societies, libraries (including the Carnavalet), and museums (especially the Louvre).

Through such case studies, this book serves to underscore the importance of private collectors versus state institutions for the preservation of material culture, the birth of public heritage (lieux de mémoires), the institution of the museum and library, and the very field of art history. Among its strengths, this study serves as a reminder to scholars that many of our subjects and sources were produced by the collectionneurs of the post-revolutionary period. For instance, the Renaissance was first theorized during the French Revolution, in part as a means of legitimizing the Bourbon monarchy descendant from François I, Henri II, and especially Henri IV (pp. 163–164), and in literature the “Grand Siècle” of Louis XIV was really reinvented by the bibliophiles of the Restoration and July Monarchy (p. 151). With its numerous illustrations of particular collectors and collections, the book also provides a vivid sense of the material consequences of the French Revolution, which unleashed a flood of household goods and artworks onto the market, for sale by auction houses or speculators, including from abroad, and sometimes even in the streets, along the quais of the Seine. Moreover, it shows us that, even after they were purchased by new collectors, these artifacts were threatened repeatedly, by subsequent revolutions. Finally, by attending to the international context of the burgeoning market for art and antiquities, the study emphasizes that such threats to the national patrimony came not just from revolutionary masses, but also from foreign buyers.

Like its subject matter, the amateur-collectionneur, this book does at times verge on esotericism, even mania. Amidst all of the detail on particular characters and objects, it is sometimes hard to trace the overall argument about the growing role of the private collector in public heritage. The distinction between the early modern curiosity cabinet and the nineteenth-century collection was not entirely convincing. To bear this out, it might have been nice to trace the fate of a select few artifacts – as well as collectors – from the Old Regime, across the Revolution, through the nineteenth century. There were a few other intriguing points worth developing, such as the way in which collectors elevated Diane de Poitiers and even Marie-Antoinette as icons of what Frederic Jameson has called “libidinal historicism” (p. 181).

Overall, however, this study offers a vital lesson in the origins (and limitations) of our own sources for reconstructing “history,” whether of the French Revolution or the Old Regime, for whose unmooring and reconstruction the revolution was responsible. Over the course of the nineteenth century, many of these sources were dispersed to private and public collections not just in France (e.g., in the Carnavalet or Louvre or Bibliothèque Nationale), but around the world, including the United States. Saved from the vandals of the Commune, a room in the hôtel Lauzun was shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled in the Metropolitan Museum. The Met also ended up with much of the armour acquired by Frédéric Spitzer, “Napoleon of the knick-knack,” whose other collections were often purchased by buyers abroad, as far afield as New Zealand.

1 Susan Crane, Collecting and Historical Consciousness in Early Nineteenth-Century Germany, Ithaca 2000.

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