Purchases from living artists under the IIIe Republic

Purchases from living artists under the III<sup>e</sup> Republic

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Title: Portrait of Léonce Bénédite.

Author : BEAURY-SAUREL Amélie (1848 - 1924)

Creation date : 1923

Date shown: 1923

Dimensions: Height 117 - Width 90

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 90-001251 / RF1977-33

Portrait of Léonce Bénédite.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: October 2005

Historical context

Splendors and miseries of an administration

When he took the reins of the Musée Parisien du Luxembourg in 1892, Léonce Bénédite (1859-1925) inherited an institution created in 1818 whose vocation was to acquire the most important works of contemporary artists. Bénédite will not stop calling (in vain) for worthy premises in the antechamber of the Louvre museum.
Until 1890, expensive acquisitions were made among the works exhibited at the Salon. A prestigious event, recognized by the vast majority of artists, it was natural to draw on it.
Apart from the first years of the regime when historical painting and religious painting were supported, the Republic, strengthened, will refrain, in the name of the freedom of art, from favoring such or such current. But the credits are so meager that she offers very low purchase prices: the quality suffers. The policy of the IIIe Republic in favor of modern art would have been clarified if part of its acquisition funds had not been diverted from its primary vocation to satisfy requests (artists in difficulty, parliamentary interventions in favor of such and such an artist, etc. ). Situation ridiculed by Degas proposing to bring together the budgets of Fine Arts and Public Assistance ...

Image Analysis

A voluntary directorate

The appointment of Bénédite in Luxembourg was legitimate. Informed about current events in art, he collaborated in artistic reviews, knew many artists and, since 1886, he had supported Etienne Arago, his predecessor. His action was as voluntary as it was possible. He strove to reflect the diversity of aesthetic trends. He made purchases outside the exhibition circuit: the museum acquired major works such as Young girls at the piano de Renoir or the famous portrait of his mother by Whistler, for which the artist agreed to a discount. He set up a collection of graphic works, bought Symbolist works (they were far from being popular with the general public at the time), and in 1896 he managed to create a substantial section of foreign painting (transferred in 1922 to the Jeu de Paume) . He soon realized that in addition to the discounts artists were often willing to give, one would have to reckon with the generosity of collectors. He negotiated with Caillebotte's heirs for the bequest of his large collection of Impressionist works (1894), obtained from Edmund Davis the gift of a fine collection of English works (1912) and negotiated the Frank Brangwyn donation (1913). He supported Rodin's proposal to give his collections to the state. In 1917, he was the first curator of the Rodin Museum.


A late taste

Bénédite - and the administration - has been criticized for having superbly ignored some of the most important painters of her time (Seurat, Rousseau, the Cubists). In fact, the official portrait of Amélie Beaury-Saurel shows a man in all the dignity of his office, decorated with the Legion of Honor, at the end of a long directorate, perhaps too old to adhere to innovative movements. . Everything in this work points to the conscientious public servant, but nothing indicates the art lover one would expect in this post. The very principle of an official portrait betrays a certain backwardness. In this case, the use of Amélie Beaury-Saurel, born in 1848 and following in the purest academic tradition, did not constitute an encouragement for modern artists. Benedite undoubtedly considered it more prudent to wait for history to confirm the importance of avant-garde works, at the risk of not being able to buy any more when prices had risen. But Bénédite was by no means the armed wing of a policy supposedly subjugated to the Academy of Fine Arts and closed to any novelty. The truth is simpler: by the 1880s, the state had given up directing artists, preferring to give them the freedom to create. It is in the ungrateful context of an administration unwilling to vigorously support art modern that he managed to impose some courageous choices. The very principle of State intervention in the arts was increasingly discussed: in 1928, Charles Pomaret wrote that "the French State can no longer, unfortunately, afford the luxury of being a patron", and he will appeal to private initiative. Louis Hautecœur would disagree with this attitude and reject the anthological vocation of his predecessors. The artists' museum living must be above all an art museum modern, a "test laboratory". It was not until 1937, under the Popular Front government, that a national museum of modern art worthy of the name was finally opened.

  • Museum
  • patrimony
  • official portrait
  • Third Republic


Pierre VAISSE, "Impressionism at the museum: the Caillebotte affair", in The story, n ° 158, 1992, p.6-14. Pierre VAISSE, The Third Republic and the painters, Paris, Flammarion, 1995.

To cite this article

Philippe SAUNIER, “Purchases from living artists under the IIIe Republic "

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