The man who made the Louvre: Dominique-Vivant de Non and the exhibition in his honour

An exhibition devoted to the ultimate Enlightenment man who built the collections of the world’s first modern museum



As well as being the first director of the Louvre, Dominique-Vivant de Non (1747-1825), commonly known as Vivant Denon, was a multi-faceted personality with eclectic interests: a designer, engraver and writer as well as a diplomat and collector. The Louvre has organised an exhibition in his honour (until 17 January 2000), curated by Pierre Rosenberg, its current director; 600 exhibits are on display, including paintings, drawings, engravings, antiquities, sculpture, medals and manuscripts from Vivant Denon’s collection and from other private and public collections in France and elsewhere. The exhibition is arranged thematically and chronologically, and spans the three wings of the museum.

The first part is devoted to Denon as a writer, traveller and artist and follows his career through his writings, one of which, Point de lendemain, was written after his appointment as Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber. His diplomatic missions began after this royal recognition; he went first to St Petersburg in 1771, then to Stockholm and Geneva and, in 1777, to Italy. The drawings and engravings on display illustrate Denon’s travels: after his apprenticeship in the studio of the painter Hallé, he continued to produce works on paper for pure pleasure, and the high quality of his output gained him membership of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1787. Also on show here are some portraits and self-portraits, various drawings taken from Old Masters—such as Rembrandt’s “Archangel Gabriel leaving the family of Tobias”; there are also some classical scenes bearing allusions to the artist’s private life, like “Love to despair” which refers to his clandestine relationship with Contessa Isabella Albrizzi Marini.

Thanks to the patronage of Joséphine Beauharnais, Vivant enjoyed a brilliant career in the service of art, and the second part of the exhibition is about this chapter in his life. He participated in Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (there are several interesting drawings from the journey) and then became director of the Musée Napoléon. For the first time it will be possible to gain some idea of what the museum named after Napoleon was like: a selection of pieces, including the Kassel “Apollo”, the “Centocelle Eros” from Rome and the “Figure of a woman playing with knucklebones” from Berlin, represent the section devoted to classical art. A number of drawings from the Baldinucci Collection acquired by Denon in 1806 gives an indication of the quality of drawings he acquired. The section devoted to the primitives contains about fifteen paintings from the Louvre (Giotto’s “St Francis receiving the stigmata”), and from Pisa, Savona, Genoa and Vienna. After the abdication of Napoleon, the paintings were returned to their rightful owners and Denon himself resigned in 1815.

In his role as director of the museum he exerted a strong influence on the artistic production of the day—as can be seen in work by Prud’hon, Gros, Canova, Boilly—and he also supervised the erection of a large number of monuments in Paris, including the column in Place Vendôme and the Arc du Carrousel. The exhibition terminates with a series of drawings by Dürer, Rembrandt, Guercino and Fragonard, and some paintings, which include an “Annunciation” by Fra Angelico, and Watteau’s “Gilles”. Finally, a selection of pre-Columbian and Austral-Asian pieces demonstrates the huge range of Denon’s taste. The most extraordinary item on show is a reliquary into which Denon introduced fragments of the bones of El Cid, Abelard and Heloise, Molière and La Fontaine, some hairs from the moustache of Henri IV, one of Voltaire’s teeth and a lock of Napoleon’s hair!

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The man who made the Louvre'