Alexandre Lenoir, the great defender of heritage

Alexandre Lenoir, the great defender of heritage

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Portrait of Alexandre Lenoir

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: October 2003

Historical context

Trained in painting, Lenoir (1762-1839) was above all an art lover. Thus in 1791 he obtained from the Constituent Assembly the authorization to assemble the fragments of the churches and palaces destroyed in the Petits-Augustins convent in Paris, to which were added in 1792 the royal tombs ransacked in Saint -Denis. This backup collection took the name of the Musée des Monuments Français in 1795, and its founder became its curator. Very busy, this museum played an essential role in bringing medieval art up to date, but it was closed in 1816 for political reasons, and the monuments saved from the sacking of the Abbey of Saint-Denis were restored to square. The birth of the Musée des Monuments Français at a time when the first influences of Romanticism were felt in France also coincided with the emergence of an ethnographic awareness and the desire to bring together a national heritage.

Image Analysis

Lenoir is represented in front of the tomb of François I, dismantled from Saint-Denis and reconstituted at the Musée des Monuments Français, carefully clutching in his hands the urn containing the ashes of Molière. Skimpy in appearance, as if lost in a universe foreign to him, he seems to be meditating rather than looking at something specific. This dreamy air of the character agrees strangely enough with this type of full-length portrait, traditionally dedicated to the elites and which seems to formalize and endorse the exceptional functions of Lenoir, a true discoverer of these ancient arts that were then considered "Gothic". . We would rather have expected a bust portrait, such as the one painted by David in 1817 (Louvre Museum), where the character seems to have been crossed by an idea.


This portrait of a curious mind, far removed from the fashions of his time since Lenoir was also one of the founding members of the Celtic Academy which in 1814 became the Société des Antiquaires de France, is also the work of a not very productive artist, pupil of David. Everything contributes to setting this painting by Delafontaine apart in the pictorial production of the time, but at the same time to making Lenoir a kind of symbol since this canvas format was formerly reserved for rulers, great figures and generals. Through this portrait it seems that the Republic recognizes the talents of one of the main representatives of the artistic and museographic policy of the Revolution.

  • Museum
  • patrimony
  • Republic
  • vandalism
  • backup
  • French Revolution
  • looting
  • museums
  • museum of french monuments
  • Church property
  • revolutionary vandalism
  • museography
  • Lenoir (Alexandre)


Claire CONSTANSCatalogue of paintings from Versailles, tome IParis, RMN, 1995.Barbara C.MATILSKY “François-Auguste Biard: artist-naturalist-explorer”, in La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, February 1985. Jean LACAMBRE and Isabelle JULIALes Romantic Years. French painting from 1815 to 1850, catalog of the traveling exhibition Paris, RMN, 1995.

To cite this article

Jérémie BENOÎT, "Alexandre Lenoir, the great defender of heritage"

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