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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon

By Alexandra A Jopp



Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon is best remembered as the director of fine arts under Napoleon and a central figure in the establishment of the Louvre.


Born in 1747 to a family of landed gentry, Denon pursued artistic training as an engraver. Following early attempts at literature and printmaking, Denon accompanied Napoleon’s army during the Egyptian campaign of 1798, and shortly thereafter, was appointed the first director of the Louvre, known in the early 19th century as the Musée Napoléon. Denon’s goal was to make Louvre “the world’s most beautiful institution,” and many people would argue that he achieved this ambition.

Some of Europe’s most glorious works of art arrived in Paris during Denon’s tenure, and they went straight to the Louvre. Napoleon, despite having very little appreciation for art, considered the museum to be “an important symbol of national glory that would bring attention and splendor to his reign.” (p. 90.) The objects acquired by Denon included exotica of the Orient, antiquities, paintings, tapestries and carpets, ceramics and porcelains, medals and drawings. During Napoleon’s Egypt campaign, Denon was one of the first European museum officials to recognize the beauty of Egyptian art. He discovered artifacts that preceded and inspired Greek, hence Roman, hence European culture, and many of these works found their way back to Paris. Denon also wrote and illustrated a best-seller about his journey, Voyage dans la Haute la Basse Egypte, which was published in Paris in 1802. This monumental book, the most important of all his writings, established Denon’s reputation as an art historian and led to his appointment as Napoleon’s director of fine arts. The book was also influential “in forwarding an Egyptian style in the architecture and decorative arts of the day” (p. 86.), thus helping to bring Orientalism into Romantic French art.

Denon’s contributions to the establishment of what is widely considered to be the world’s greatest art museum are profound and far-reaching. The works of art that he brought to Paris two centuries ago continue to serve the public as well as artists and students, keeping the museum alive and active in the twenty-first century.