One of the most important art collectors in history was King Louis XVI. He was the last French king before the revolution and he had a passion for art. His collection, now on display at the Louvre museum, is one of the finest in history. In fact, it has been said that this collection was one of the things that saved fine art from vanishing forever after the French Revolution.
As you will soon see, King Louis XVI was a very generous collector. However, he made some mistakes that would have a lasting effect on the direction of the art industry. His mistakes were not about what kind of art to buy or collect. Instead, they were about how he acquired his art and who he bought from.
His mistakes show us what can happen when collectors are too focused on getting good deals and not focused enough on quality. If you want to become a great collector, then you need to know what these mistakes are and how to avoid them.
Art was a major passion for the French monarchy, with Louis XVI amassing one of the largest art collections in the world. As revolutions go, the French Revolution was a rather bloodless affair. In fact the destruction of art came more at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte and his looting army than it did at those of the revolutionaries.
Despite this, today it is hard to find a rosy picture of the revolution as anything but an unmitigated disaster for France’s fine art enthusiasts. However, recent research has shown that fascinatingly enough, there was also an upside to all this destruction that has been largely overlooked.
The Revolution caused significant upheaval within France; however, it caused major upheaval across Europe too. With many countries now out of reach for the nobility and wealthy collectors due to war, uprisings and unrest, there was now a sudden demand for paintings from elsewhere. In particular there was a growing taste for works from Italy that had previously been considered second-rate by local tastes. Add to this a new appreciation for ancient Greek and Roman works and suddenly painters were in hot demand – with many finding themselves being commissioned by foreign buyers who had previously been out of reach due to high tariffs as well as importation costs.
This sudden shift in demand
Art history textbooks teach that the French Revolution was a disaster for European art, because it led to the theft and destruction of many beautiful artworks. But was it?
The most important contribution of the revolution to art was that it saved the fine arts. Before 1789, fine art had become an industry in France and Italy, but its products were not very popular with ordinary people. It was largely funded by rich patrons, who also bought much of its output. And both patron and artist had little incentive to make things people might actually want to look at. Art was a proprietary good, like a luxury car or couture gown: something owned by the rich and displayed in their homes.
But then the French Revolution came along and started chopping off heads… no more heads meant no more aristocratic patrons, which meant that artists had to find new ways to make a living. And so they did: they concentrated on making art for sale to ordinary people. That is why art became democratized in France around 1800, but remained an elitist pursuit in Germany until the end of World War I.
In the seventeenth century, the artistic activity in France was concentrated in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was created in 1648 by King Louis XIV. After the death of its first director Charles Le Brun (who had also been one of his chief art advisors) in 1690, King Louis decided to create a Gallery of paintings and sculptures, situated in the Louvre Palace, where students could study and copy pieces from antiquity and other masters. The collection was completed with his purchase of the Château de Versailles, which he extended and modified extensively to suit his needs as a Savant-King.
The French Revolution would have a tremendous impact on the fine arts industry, which would be completely transformed by it.
The kings of the 18th century commissioned paintings, sculptures and tapestries to be made for them as a sign of their power. Although the artists were well known at the time, they did not have the fame that we see in our modern days. The art would be sent to royal or noble houses to decorate walls and rooms. The artists would receive payment upon delivery of the piece.
After the French Revolution all of that changed.
The French Revolution is considered by some to be the political revolution which ended the “Ancien Régime” in France. It began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, and continued for a decade until Napoleon Bonaparte staged his coup d’état on the 18 Brumaire (November 9) 1799, to put an end to it and its reign of terror.
The collection of the King of France was called the Garde Meuble, or furnishings. It was not a museum for public display but a warehouse for the King’s possessions.
The Louvre was built to house the Garde Meuble in 1752. But in 1789 it took on a new role when Louis XVI and his family were forced to flee Paris at the start of the French Revolution. The Louvre was transformed into a depository for all the royal treasures.
The amazing thing about the Louvre is that it is actually a storehouse for more than just art. It is also a repository for history, including the history of France’s monarchs and their relations to the rest of Europe. The museum houses an impressive collection of art work, much of it created by French artists. In fact, some of these paintings are among the finest works ever created by their respective artists and some are even priceless – they are listed as national treasures. The museum houses both paintings and sculptures, many of them dating back centuries ago. It was created in 1793 under the reign of King Louis XVI but was not named as such until after his death in 1793 when his successor, King Louis XVIII renamed it as the Musée du Louvre.
One of the most famous artworks contained in this museum is the pentimento painting “Vue générale d’Egypte” by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury which was acquired in 1824 and has been described as one of the greatest masterpieces produced during Louis XVI’s reign (1774 – 1793).
The story behind this painting is one that epitomizes how lucky this particular artwork was to survive intact all these years; it wasn’t always so. There