18th-Century Art Appropriation in France – Exploring the Louvre’s Loot
By Cynthia Prieur
PhD Candidate in Art History
The Louvre Museum opened its doors on August 10, 1793 as the Muséum Français, allowing the French public unfettered access to the new national art collection. Paintings, bronze sculptures, marble tables and statues, porcelain, and other “curiosities” had been organized, labelled, and displayed in the galleries for visitors to enjoy. The exhibition opened to critical acclaim, but by today’s standards, the methods used by the French government to assemble the Muséum Français’ collection in Paris would be considered unethical.
At the end of the 18th century works of art that represented the social status, politics, and excess wealth of the ancien régime (the political system in France before the Revolution of 1789) became highly contentious objects. They were considered by many to be painful reminders of the class inequalities in France during the reign of the monarchy. For centuries, the power structure in France had favored the upper classes by furnishing them with authority and property rights, which the lower classes were prevented from holding. The monarchy placed limits on the type of property a person could own according to their social status, enforcing a rigid social hierarchy. In setting out to build a modern French state, the leaders of the Revolution attempted to implement social, political, and legal reforms to make all citizens equal under the law. They sought an end to property and fiscal inequality. The ambitious leaders of the Revolution made property reform a cornerstone of their political platform by attempting to separate the ability to own property from class, essentially upending the social order.
I will sometimes use the term French government, but it is important to note that during the Revolution the French government underwent drastic changes and was renamed a few times. First, the National Assembly was formed and installed in 1789, functioning as part of a constitutional monarchy. The National Assembly was the legislative body, while the king and royal ministers were the executive and judiciary branches. It was dissolved on September 30, 1791, and the Legislative Assembly took over until the National Convention was convened on September 21, 1792. They declared France a Republic and abolished the monarchy.
After the revolution, one of the ways the French government tried to end the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and nobility (known as the first and second estates) was to seize their assets, property, and art collections. The fate of their land titles and monetary assets is far too complex to explore in this essay, but a portion of it was used to finance government expenses. However, the confiscated art collections were an entirely different matter. Some of the members of state agencies such as the Committee of Public Safety felt that these objects should be rejected and destroyed in order to make way for works of art that better represented the ideals of the Republic. This was at odds with other committees that wanted to preserve national monuments and works of art produced for the ancien régime, arguing that some of these objects were inextricably linked to the identity of France and were of national cultural importance. Out of this, the idea of national cultural patrimony developed and confiscated works of art that were once emblems of the clergy, nobility, and monarchy were reclassified as communal property and repurposed for the aims of the Revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité). This was justified in the eyes of government officials because it returned the objects to their “rightful” owners: the free French people.
Art Collections of Religious Orders
The first step was taken in August 1789, when a decree was passed by the National Assembly suppressing religious orders (including churches, monasteries, and abbeys). This meant that these religious institutions—which had considerable wealth and power—were essentially dissolved, and their property became state property. The clergy had been heavily criticized for their close ties with the monarchy, and more significantly, the enormous power and influence that they wielded. Religious institutions collected tithes (a religious offering or tax given to a religious institution), were exempt from taxes, and maintained considerable landholdings, while the lower classes struggled to survive. Anticlerical rhetoric grew and the Assembly announced that they would dissolve communally owned ecclesiastical property—ending the privileges held by the church. By 1790, the state actively began to seize church revenue and property, including works of art, some of which were sold while others were kept due to their cultural and artistic value.
While the state-sanctioned art confiscations were ideologically and financially motivated, they also posed a problem. The National Assembly (the first Revolutionary government) was now faced with the burden of protecting the newly claimed French cultural patrimony since looting and vandalism had become commonplace. Works of art, monuments, and buildings commissioned by the ancien régime were attacked, effaced, and sometimes destroyed by the public in order to “obliterate the past in pursuit of a regenerated society.”
It became clear that the leaders of the Revolution needed to organize a committee to sort, assemble, and protect the recently nationalized art collections. Appointed in 1790, the Commission des monuments (sometimes called the College des Quatre-Nations) was a committee of learned antiquarians, artists, and scientists, who were tasked with determining which objects should be sold, kept, or destroyed. They developed guidelines for determining the value and significance of each work of art—making a distinction between objects that were worthy of being kept for their aesthetic and historical importance and those that were deemed unworthy and could be destroyed (such as commemorative monuments, sculptures, and royal tombs). Objects of artistic and historical importance were kept and placed in temporary storage depots, including the Petits-Augustins and the Hôtel de Nesle, awaiting the establishment of museums in Paris and the regional cities.
Art Collections of the émigrés
As the momentum of the Revolution continued to build, many aristocrats, clerics, commoners (bourgeoisie and wage-laborers), and deportees emigrated to other European countries. Some émigrés were counterrevolutionaries who sought foreign help in attempting to quell the Revolution and to reinstate the Bourbon monarchy. Others simply fled in search of safety, expecting their exile to be temporary. Seeking to punish the émigrés, particularly the counterrevolutionaries, who had taken action against the Revolution, their property was seized and transferred to the state in November 1791.
The confiscation of their property was deemed necessary for the government to finance the French army’s wages to defend against counterrevolutionary armies. The punitive measures taken against the émigrés were enshrined in law. Citizenship was essential in any claim regarding property ownership, but required residence in France. Thus, the state was not legally obliged to honor the ownership claims of émigrés, since they no longer lived on French soil. More significantly, property ownership had played a definitive role in determining the division of the social classes during the ancien régime, allowing the clergy and nobility to dominate the working classes in the third estate. The confiscation of the property of the clergy and the émigrés was intended to shift the power of land and property ownership to the new Republican government, who would then, theoretically, redistribute it more equitably among French citizens.
The confiscations were also intended to inflict personal pain on the émigrés, particularly those who were members of the aristocracy. Many of them had left behind family homes, heirlooms, and significant art collections. In some cases, their property had been in their families for centuries and its value was not just financial—it was part of their personal identity and it indicated their social status. Their inheritances were casualties of war, and not unlike the property of the clergy, their art collections fell under the purview of the Commission temporaire des arts (1793), which had taken over from the Commission des monuments in dealing with the confiscated works of art.
Art Collections of the Monarchy and the Royal Academies
The appropriation of the royal collection, which had been built over the centuries through tactical acquisitions made by French monarchs and important political figures, such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert (a statesman) and religious figures like Cardinal Mazarin, was far more straightforward. Shortly after the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792, the royal art collection became public domain, and its fate was tied to the new national museum. It would account for three-quarters of the Muséum Français’ collection. The following year, the royal art academies were suppressed (these were institutions which supported and controlled French cultural production—including painting, sculpture, and architecture. To the revolutionaries, the members of the academies had taken part in discriminatory admission policies based on class—promoting the interests of a privileged few at the expense of others. Furthermore, the outdated methods of teaching required that students rely heavily on their instructor for guidance and inspiration. Opponents of the royal art academies pointed out that it was better for students to have access to a national art collection containing a variety of works. Students could then copy and draw inspiration from a wide range of objects. The administration hoped that this would revitalize the French style of art.
A National Museum for All
In the early years of the National Convention’s administration, it was determined that the confiscated works of art, under the purview of the Commission temporaire des arts, would be sent to museums across the country. The finest pieces would be kept and exhibited in Paris in a dedicated national museum, which was expected to eclipse all other European museum collections in terms of quality and breadth.
A plan to create a national museum in Paris that would house the royal library and the art collection had already been established by the monarchy in the 1780s. Under the direction of the king’s director general of royal buildings, Charles-Claude de Flahaut (the comte d’Angiviller), the Louvre Palace, a former royal residence, was chosen for the project. Over several years, a team of architects, artists, and art connoisseurs drew up plans to refurbish and convert the palace into a museum. They also worked to enhance the Crown’s art collection through new acquisitions. Unfortunately, the project experienced many delays due to a shortage of financing from the king, as well as disagreements about the necessary gallery renovations.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution, d’Angiviller joined the émigrés in 1791, and the project was abandoned. It would not be resumed until August 1792, when the monarchy was abolished, and the National Convention announced plans to appropriate and complete the museum. A commission was appointed to oversee the preparations for the opening of the new museum. The group assumed responsibility for all national property and was tasked with the selection of objects for the collection. They began by sending orders for the transfer of works of art from the royal residences and the depots, which contained works of art from the suppressed ecclesiastical institutions. The museum administration faced the herculean tasks of making arrangements for the works of art to be exhibited in the galleries and organizing minor repairs in time for the grand opening. Nevertheless, they successfully opened the doors to the public in 1793.
The museum project became a political symbol of the state, illustrating to the French public the stability and power of the new regime. Known today as the Louvre, it was given the name Muséum Français, highlighting its new function as the museum of the people, accessible to all citizens. Moreover, the museum galleries were intended to be a space where the public could be educated about history, culture, and the arts. The collection also provided source material for French artists to copy, which the government administration hoped would encourage the production of high-quality works of art.
The works of art in the collection had been pried away from their private and privileged settings, and reinvented as the nation’s cultural patrimony. The gallery displays stripped away the original context and function of religious and royal objects, allowing them to be studied and admired solely for their artistic and historical merit. As objects of curiosity devoid of their associated rituals, the works of art appropriated from the clergy, nobility, monarchy, and the royal art academies became symbols of the repudiated past.
Building the Muséum Français’ collection through art confiscations irrevocably changed the purpose of the institution. What began merely as a repository for the royal art collection was transformed into a political institution, whose administration actively participated in looting works of art from the first and second estates, appropriating them for a new purpose. The local art confiscations in France would eventually lead to the development of retention policies in the 19th century, which ensured that many of these objects were never returned to their former owners. Many still reside in the Louvre Museum today, an everlasting legacy of the French Revolution.  Andrew McClellan, “Alexandre Lenoir and The Museum of French Monuments,” Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1994), p. 155.
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Originally published by Smarthistory, 09.08.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.