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This book argues that aristocratic collectors were the main cause of the emergence of a French School of painting

Shopping for France?

When, in 1794, the powerful lawyer and patron Charles-Nicolas Duclos-Dufresnoy was guillotined, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, whose paintings he had championed and collected, was present in the crowd. So too was Duclos-Dufresnoy’s son. He observed with dismay that the elderly painter hurled obscenities and insults at the man who had shown him so much kindness and whom he had hitherto always flattered. Testimony to the fragile, often unorthodox and surprising alliances on which the art world in 18th-century Paris was built, this story is one of many told by Colin B. Bailey in Patriotic taste: collecting modern art in pre-Revolutionary Paris.

Dr Bailey seeks to give us a sense of the circumstances in which art came to be, the conditions on which artist and patron collaborated, and the contexts in which the products (usually painting here) were viewed.

Five case studies pan in on five individualistic collectors or patrons or clients—Dr Bailey does not commit himself to one of these names, given the ambiguities in this changing climate—and their collections. These successive studies are not merely a pretext to show many famous and beautiful paintings in an order which does not obey more usual thematic or biographical schemes, but are held together both by the common fact that these men assembled collections of contemporary French art and by the common contention that they, in their own ways, contributed to the development of a French School in painting. In short, each developed and promoted the “patriotic taste” the title proclaims.

While claims for the distinctive (and superlative) qualities of French theatre or French prose have been pushed from the Age of Louis XIV onwards, French painting had seldom been seen as particular or pre-eminent. Voltaire was probably not alone in maintaining that, because it was the artist’s job to paint nature and because nature was the same everywhere, it mattered little where particular painters came from (or went to).

Dr Bailey shows that a number of aristocratic collectors in the course of the 18th century did care, passionately, often discerningly, about the status of a French School and the fortunes of the French artists who composed it. While the Bourbons were busy with their beagles (in late-18th-century Versailles, the best paintings seem to have been displayed in the royal kennels), these collectors evolved the idea of the cabinet of French pictures. Hitherto merely decorative, French paintings came to be appreciated as fully autonomous works.

Few of these collectors seem to have made the protection of French artists a verifiably explicit purpose. Nor are the subjects these artists undertook obviously patriotic. The paintings collected run the entire gamut of 18th-century subjects. Often the range to be found within just one collection will leave those of us programmed to think that Rococo and neo-Classicism are mutually exclusive rather dizzy with a sense of incongruity. Dr Bailey emphasises that these paintings tended to be arranged and displayed first and foremost by size. He also reminds us that a number of celebrated, famous paintings were once conceived as pendants to now less familiar works. Fragonard’s “The bolt”, placed next to his Adoration of the Shepherds, and David’s “The death of Marat”, opposite the lesser known “Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau on his deathbed”, are among the famous works restored to their original context and displayed here in a novel light.

Dr Bailey brings to this study a degree of scholarly hesitancy which forbids him (quite reasonably, in the absence of evidence) from speculating much about wider public access to the paintings or the exact degree to which patrons told artists what to paint, but he moves with a sure touch around the complicated hierarchies of 18th-century Paris, is adept at climbing family trees, and also has an ear for ancien-régime gossip.

The biographies of the collectors are in themselves interesting: a falconer to the king (who did not like falcons) and an introducteur des ambassadeurs with a stammer are among the protagonists here. We get to see not only the considerable latitude for private enterprise and patronage they exemplify, but also the precariousness of their existences beneath the silky exteriors and interminable names. And while we may only be able to gaze at their resplendent portraits with the fascination and perhaps horror of those who belong to a very different age, we will, thanks to Dr Bailey, now surely be tempted to view these aristocratic collectors with some appreciation and gratitude, unlike Greuze.

o Colin B. Bailey, Patriotic taste: collecting modern art in pre-Revolutionary Paris (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002), 344 pp, 150 b/w ills, 60 col. ills, £40 (hb) ISBN 0300089864

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Shopping for France'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 131 December 2002