Travel, Collecting, and Museums of Asian Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris

I am very happy to say that my latest book is now out, published by Ashgate. The title is Travel, Collecting, and Museums of Asian Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris, which is deliberately simple and self explanatory. It has most of the keywords and I hope that it will pop up on the screen easily.

Now that it is out, I think back to how it started and why I wrote it. I remember going to the Musée Cernuschi in Paris and wondering how all those porcelains and bronzes, a gigantic statue of Buddha, and many other objects got there. By what routes had they travelled, with whom, and why? Like everybody, my research began with a series of questions. I looked into the founder of the museum, Enrico Cernuschi (1821-1896), an Italian who built a mansion for himself on the edge of a public garden, the Parc Monceau, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.

Musée Cernuschi, Paris.

Musée Cernuschi, Paris.

Buddha Amida (Amitâbha), bronze, 18th-century, Japanese, Musée Cernuschi. Photo: dalbera.

Buddha Amida (Amitâbha), bronze, 18th-century, Japanese, Musée Cernuschi. Photo: dalbera.

In 1871, Cernuschi travelled to Japan, China, India and Indonesia with his friend Théodure Duret. Cernuschi himself wrote almost nothing about his first and only trip to East Asia, from which he returned with 5,000 objects in 1873. But fortunately, Duret, a businessman, art writer and supporter of Impressionist paintings, published a book, Voyage en Asie, in 1874. This was thrilling to me as I read it in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Further research led me to Cernuschi’s will and testament, dated 23 January 1896, in the Archives Nationales de France. “I leave to the City of Paris my property at 7 Avenue Vélasquez, with all its contents of Asian provenance,” Cernuschi wrote. “These objects must not be removed from the house except as a donation to the Louvre. In that case the City of Paris can sell the property that I bequeath to it on the condition that it give 50,000 francs to the Louvre for the cost of installing the Asian objects that it will receive from the City…”

Musée Cernuschi entrance foyer with bust of Enrico Cernuschi

And so I was on the trail of Cernuschi, little known outside specialist circles.

There is a bigger and more famous museum of Asian art in Paris, the Musée Guimet. It was founded by Emile Guimet (1836-1918), who knew Cernuschi, travelled to East Asia after him and built a vast collection. Guimet and his fellow traveller, the artist Félix Régamey (1844-1907), published an illustrated travel account, Promenades japonaises, in two volumes, in 1878 and 1880. Guimet’s travel account is longer and more thoughtfully written than Duret’s.

Promenade Japonaise, 1880

Promenade Japonaise, 1880

In my reading I found Guimet’s descriptions of how he got from one place to another in Japan in 1876 much more compelling than his discussions of history, mythologies and customs. Régamey also depicted the Japanese men and vehicles that conveyed Guimet across the country more than any other single topic. The detail below of Régamey’s painting on the cover of my book is one example. I realised that the messy details of travel and transport, the mundane labour of moving bodies and objects across space, never appear in official histories of museums, although they are a standard element of travel writing.

Félix Régamey, Bridge Nikko (detail), 1878

Félix Régamey, The Sacred and Profane Bridges of Nikko (detail), oil on canvas, 1878

Why that should be the case, and the foreign labours and social relations of travel and collecting became a topic of my research.

Cernuschi, Duret, Guimet and Régamey were among the few to have actually gone to East Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most European collectors stayed home, buying locally from dealers and auctions. How did they do this, exactly, and what was it like? These questions led me to Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896), the French novelist, playwright and art writer. He was the opposite of Cernuschi and Guimet. Without leaving Paris he built a respected collection of both European and Asian arts; rather than donate it to the city or the state, he sold everything at auction. And instead of writing a travel account he wrote La Maison d’un artiste, a book about interiority and immobility.

D. Freuler, Edmond de Goncourt in his dining room, 1890, photograph

D. Freuler, Edmond de Goncourt in his dining room, 1890, photograph

Goncourt’s many differences from Cernuschi and Guimet are important for understanding the conceptions and practices of collecting and display in France in the late nineteenth century. At the centre of my book are two men who created museums of Asian art in Paris, and a third who refused to subject his beloved personal treasures to the gaze of strangers. I use this trio to examine a larger history of contact between modern Europe and East Asia through travel and collecting.

But I also wanted another perspective. Did Asian counterparts to Cernuschi, Guimet and Goncourt exist in Europe and the United States? What can we know about their experiences? There is a small but fascinating body of travel writing, mostly by official envoys from China and Japan to the West. Take a look at my first chapter to find out more!

Dr Ting Chang (Lecturer, History of Art, University of Nottingham)

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