Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823) Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon Oil on canvas 61.5 x 51.5 cm Louvre museum, department of paintings, Paris © RMN, Paris, Daniel Arnaudet


From May 28 to August 29, 2011 – Musee Denon

A diplomat, drawer, engraver, lover of literature, Vivant Denon (1747-1825), also the perfect amateur of the XVIIIth century, became the first director of the Louvre museum and the instigator of Napoleon’s artistic policy. One strong trait is seen throughout his numerous activities, his concern with spreading art through the museum’s organization, through the reproduction of art works and the creation of the images of power. The musée Denon, under the aegis of the great man born in Chalon-sur-Saône, has dedicated its efforts since 1895 to the knowledge and the presentation of his work with the help of a scientific committee chaired by Pierre Rosenberg from the Académie-Française and honorary Chairman of the Louvre museum.

An image wisely elaborated

It was to answer these questions that the idea came up to organize this exhibition around one single work of art, in collaboration with the Louvre museum. Henri Loyrette, the current director of the great Parisian museum, welcomed the suggestion of this first edition with enthusiasm, in order to pay tribute to the first director. Many other loaners have contributed to the exhibition with prestigious works of art. The study of the «multiple faces» of Vivant Denon is the first of a cycle of exhibitions dedicated to his relationship to the museum and the spreading of art. The abundance of portraits and self-portraits of Vivant Denon painted, drawn, sculpted and engraved make him one of the most represented personalities of his time. But the treatment and the construction of each image imply very different intentions. Denon took as many efforts to show his image as he did to orchestrate the Napoleonic gesture.

An emblematic portrait by Prud’hon

The reference work of this first «exposition-dossier» is the 1813 portrait of Vivant Denon, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, in which his important position is manifest. He too was from Bourgogne and was one of the greatest painters of his generation. The work is not completed, in a new frame, and opens the door to all the necessary questions surrounding the creation of Denon’s legend. Symbolic objects of his activities and his exceptional encounters complete the iconography, such as a tea cup from the Egyptian tea set made by the Manufacture de Sèvres (Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau), Denon’s profane reliquary (Musées de Châteauroux), the mold of the head of Vivant Denon (Musée de l’Homme / Muséum d’Histoire naturelle) or even an engraved stone representing Louis XV, by the marquise of Pompadour (BNF, cabinet of Medals)…

The construction of the legend

Representations of Denon are either private or public or allegoric. The portraits painted by Prud’hon and Greuze represent the man in his functions, but they also reveal -with some restraint – a few intimate traits. From the individual portraits when he made his first steps in society to the official representations at the end of his career where he is always well positioned (even if he did not attend the event represented!) the instances with Denon are many, thus allowing the creation of the legend. The «Savior» of the Spanish patrimony, the relentless investigator on national patrimony and archaeology, Denon is present everywhere. The number of self-portraits is awing: they are stylistic compositions or artistic statements, and all demonstrate a true sense of staging. The «intimate allegories» are more complex, and while some are amusing, such as Denon represented as a fawn, others are very ambitious such as The souvenirs of Vivant Denon e voked by time . Thirteen self-portraits are grouped together in a large lithography, on a banner carried by time. This should give him some respite, and maybe the opportunity for a desire for love