Summer Research among the “Immortals” of France

As we all prepare for the beginning of the autumn semester and the return to the lecture hall, I think about what I did this summer when I was not in a classroom and hence invisible to students. Like my colleagues, I was doing research. But what did research involve and how did I do it this summer is the subject of this post.

In brief, I had the good fortune of enjoying a short but intense period of work in Paris. Beginning with my MA, followed by my PhD and during my postdoctoral years, I was lucky enough to know most of the research facilities for art historians and many of the resources for scholars in the humanities. However, there are always hidden repositories of treasures. This summer I managed to get into one of the holy of holies, the Institut de France, on the Quai de Conti, across the Seine from the Louvre.

Institut de France, Paris.

Institut de France, Paris.

(This photo from Wikipedia is dated – the Pont des Arts is covered in padlocks today, alas.)

So how did I get myself into the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France and why? It started a few months ago when I was asked to participate in a conference on cultural exchanges between France and Asia to take place in early 2015. Having just published a book on European travellers and collectors of Asian art in the nineteenth century I wanted to explore new territory. I looked through my notes for various ideas and garden paths that I left unexplored, but nothing really spoke to me. Then I remembered that a little while ago, while preparing a module on Impressionism, I came across a portrait by Gustave Caillebotte, now in the Musée d’Orsay.

Gustave Caillebotte, Henri Cordier, 1883, oil on canvas, 65 x 82 cm. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. Gift of Mrs Henri Cordier, 1926. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Gustave Caillebotte, Henri Cordier, 1883, oil on canvas, 65 x 82 cm. Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Gift of Mrs Henri Cordier, 1926. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

I vividly remember my surprise and even a sense of thrill when this portrait appeared on my computer screen. Cordier (1849-1925) was one of the first names I encountered in the earliest days of my work on my Asian travel and collecting book, hence it had both sentimental and research value for me. A much respected figure in the history of modern Chinese studies in France, he published the monumental Bibliotheca sinica, a multi-volume dictionary of five centuries of European writings on China that became a reference work. The first entry in Cordier’s historiographic dictionary is the Cosmographie universelle of 1575, written by André Thevet, whose work I discussed with my first year students in another module called “Plural Art Histories”. Suddenly I thought to myself, “this is it!” To begin, I wanted to find out more about Cordier and how Caillebotte came to paint his portrait. As the Orsay museum website says, “We do not know how Caillebotte and Cordier came to meet, but they were certainly friends, although the artist never accepted commissions for portraits as he did not need to sell his paintings to live.”

Here is a happy instance of teaching and research nourishing each other and taking us on unexpected journeys. Having learned that Cordier produced not only the Bibliotheca sinica of some 70,000 entries, but also the Bibliotheca japonica and the Bibliotheca indo-sinica, and also co-founded T’oung Pao, the multilingual journal of Asian studies that began in 1890 and continues to this day, I saw that Madame Cordier donated Caillebotte’s portrait of her late husband in 1926, a year after he died. I can no longer reconstruct my original itinerary through google search but I somehow found my way to the fact that his widow also donated his papers to the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France in Paris.

I was excited and curious about those 86 volumes of Cordier’s papers. And I must admit that the idea of getting into the Institut de France had an appeal. Why, you might well ask. Because the Institut de France is the umbrella organization that houses the revered Académie française created by Cardinal Richelieu during the reign of Louis XIII, in 1635. Its members are said to be “les immortels” (the immortals). The Institut comprises four other academies: the Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, founded in 1663, by Richelieu’s successor, Colbert, minister to Louis XIV; the Académie des sciences, 1666; the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, 1795; and the Académie des Beaux-Arts, 1816. Although it looks like the fine arts were the last to be given official support, and not until 1816, in fact, the Académie des Beaux-Arts was a reformulation of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture created in 1648, also during the reign of Louis XIV.

In recognition of his contributions to knowledge production, in 1908, Cordier was elected to the Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, which included history, archaeology, philology, classics, medieval studies, and “Oriental studies”. He apparently became a pillar of the library from his election to the end of his life, working there everyday. Hence, his widow donated his papers to the institution with which he so identified.

Although I am familiar with the various research libraries in Paris and have a small stack of reader’s passes, I have never crossed the threshold of this particular institution. Moreover, the conditions of access and use are daunting. As the website clearly stipulates, I had to find two immortals to present me to the director of the library: “Les chercheurs souhaitant être admis comme lecteurs doivent être présentés au directeur de la bibliothèque par deux membres de l’Institut” (“researchers hoping to be admitted as readers must be presented to the director of the library by two members of the Institute”). Among my illustrious friends and colleagues one, Hollis Clayson, has just been nominated Chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes académiques (Order of Academic Palms) in recognition of her major contributions to French education and culture, but none has yet been elected to the Institut. I wrote to the director at once. Surely there were exceptions made for qualified researchers. The director courteously responded the next day, informing me that unlike the places I have known, the Bibliothèque is not a public library, being intended for the exclusive use of the members of the Institut. She advised me to write to the permanent secretary of the Institut to request his sponsorship (“parrainage”), stating my qualifications, and the reason and exact object of my research.

Fig 3To cut a long story short, after an anxious wait I obtained the necessary recommendation and turned up at the appointed hour. By now it was the first Monday in August and Parisians had abandoned the capital for summer holidays elsewhere. I didn’t exactly storm the barricades, but it was exhilarating to go through the gates, past the first courtyard and into the second.

The library is situated on the second floor, partly covered by the two giant magnolia trees.

Bibliothèque de l'Institut de France. Photo: author.

Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France. Photo: author.

I’m not allowed to post any interior views of the library, but there are images of the reading room on the website. Scroll down towards the bottom to see the desk with the imitation bronze griffons that were my companions everyday from 12pm to 6pm when I pored over Cordier’s papers.

Readers consulting archival documents must sit at the first table closest to the presiding librarian. I took seat number 33 everyday, opposite a Japanese specialist of Balzac. A few times a scholar of Georges Sand took the seat to my right. Thus I spent my afternoons until the Bibliothèque de l’Institut closed for their annual break in the second half of August.

Once admitted, readers are treated with extreme courtesy and “bienveillance”. I called up volume after volume of Cordier’s papers, marvelling at the names of his correspondents. I recognized major Western sinologists of half a century or more — his precursors when he arrived in China at the age of nineteen to work for the American firm Russell and Co; his contemporaries as time wore on; and later, his pupils and successors in East Asian studies. A professor of history, geography and Asian law in Paris at the École des Langues Orientales from the 1880s to 1925, Cordier would train many cohorts of French scholars, diplomats and colonial administrators in Asia. I spent the first week acting like the paparazzi, furiously taking pictures of the handwritten letters and telegraphs sent by the great and the good the world over.

Once I got over the rich and famous, I noticed the active production of knowledge, for example, in letters containing hand drawn maps of previously uncharted parts of China by his correspondents, and various additions and amendments by contributors to his ongoing editions of the Bibliotheca sinica, Bibliotheca japonica, and Bibliotheca indo-sinica. It was clear that over the decades Cordier brought together government, military, academic, literary, religious, technological and commercial circles at pivotal moments of Western contact with and study of Asia. Returning to Paris after nine years in Shanghai, Cordier gathered and then disseminated the collective learning of several generations of Asianists.

It is too early in my research to say anything definitive about his precise role in the transition from the often haphazard learning of individuals overseas, as was his own experience in China working for an American trading firm, to the curricula of academies and universities in France. However, I can say with confidence that this “accidental sinologist” took part in the systematization of Asian studies in the West.

I didn’t find any love letters from Cordier like the ones that my colleague Lucy read from the critic Lawrence Alloway to his wife Sylvia Sleigh, but I share her observations that “archival research poses a unique set of challenges.” In Cordier’s case, there is the sheer volume of materials, and I haven’t even mentioned the unpublished manuscripts, government documents, and other heterogeneous information he collected. Recall that there are 86 volumes. There are undoubtedly dozens of ways to approach the material, to draw out of the heterogeneous documents new questions and new methods of study. It will take me some time yet. Happily, in the precious weeks between teaching I started a new project that took me to a research centre previously unknown to me, and I have at least solved the mystery noted by the Orsay museum and left unresolved in all existing publications on Caillebotte’s portrait of Cordier. I now know how they met and I will discuss it in my paper at the conference in February 2015.

Dr Ting Chang, Assistant Professor, History of Art


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