Bonafos on Stammers (2020)

Stammers, Tom. The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790–1890. Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp. xii + 361, 30 illustrations, ISBN 978-1-108-47884-7

Scholarship on the ideas and practices structuring early modern collecting culture has thrived for a few decades. Only more recently have historical and literary studies examined the real and fictional figures of collectors and their collections in the nineteenth century and beyond. Up to now, such studies exploring historical consciousness and material culture tended to focus primarily on institutional practices in the establishment of heritage conservation and the birth of the modern museum. This is the point of departure for Stammers’ study, which seeks to fill the gap in the historiography of collections by examining the role of private collectors in the preservation of cultural artefacts in post-revolutionary France. In this exploration of the world of modern collectors, Stammers starts by discussing the ways in which early nineteenth-century actors reclaimed the legacy of eighteenth-century collecting practices, before highlighting how they navigated a rapidly changing art market and negotiated evolving commercial forces to present themselves as essential agents of the preservation of the national past.

Expectedly, the French Revolution acts as the defining event in this narrative. Creating a rupture between ancien régime patronage and modern collecting, the revolutionary dismantling of monarchical, ecclesiastic, aristocratic, and academic establishments opened up an era of fluctuation, where taste, status, and financial as well as cultural capital, all coalesced to determine the il/legitimacy of private collectors’ ownership of national art and heritage, and served as both a shaping factor and a desired outcome of the act of collecting. The increased circulation of artworks and cultural artefacts in the wake of the Revolution created a new context on which Stammers intentionally insists. Indeed Stammers’ goal is to connect the careers of individual collectors to the political, cultural, and material environments that made their collections possible in the first place, since “what should be collected, how it should be acquired and by whom remained intensely controversial” (4) through the long nineteenth century. So, while each of the book’s six chapters is articulated around a central figure or two, the author successfully exposes the “commonalities,” the “contextual constraints,” (8) and “subsidiary actors” (9) that shaped the activities and destinies of these figures. In connecting the dots, Stammers recreates the world of nineteenth-century Parisian collecting, taking the reader from the collectors’ private cabinets to the book stalls of the Parisian quays, the galleries of the Louvre, and the fast-expanding hub of the modern art world: the auction house.

Scholars familiar with the likes of Walter Scott’s Oldbuck or Honoré de Balzac’s Cousin Pons, and with the types of panoramic literature emblematizing the many eccentricities and manias of the modern age, will undoubtedly find familiar the real-life, but otherwise little-known, figures discussed in these pages. Yet, idiosyncratic as they may be, these collectors serve to illustrate larger trends of the two main periods explored here: the 1790s through the 1850s and the 1860s through the 1890s. In this chronology, the Second Empire acts as a turning point in many ways: Haussmannization precipitated the vision of a vieux Paris in need of rescue, new fortunes disrupted a standardizing art market with an influx of capital, while a shift towards the rehabilitation of eighteenth-century art was taking place.

Chapters one through four concentrate on the former period, while chapters five and six examine the latter, with an increasing political focus, including the experience of the Commune and the consolidation of the republican regime. The first chapter examines the work of Pierre Gault de Saint-Germain to present the redefinition of the meaning and status of such labels as amateurs and curieux in a post-revolutionary context. While the curieux epitomized blind accumulation tending towards mania, the amateur represented the true collector whose role as an arbiter of taste became viewed as vital in the vacuum created by the Revolution. After these preliminary definitions, chapters two through four each address a type of collection in turn: revolutionary memorabilia through the collections of Jean-Louis Soulavie, rare books through the activity of Arthur-Marie-Henri Boulard, and medieval and Renaissance antiquities with the famous cabinet of Alexandre-Charles Sauvageot. Progressing to the fin de siècle, chapters five and six analyze the traumatic impact of the Paris Commune on the work of collectors such as Jérôme Pichon and Léopold Double, before turning to the much-publicized sale of Frédéric Spitzer’s collection in the early 1890s.

Mobilizing an extensive array of archival sources, Stammers’ study achieves a double goal. In presenting the activities of these individual collectors, the book offers a compelling synthesis that admirably maps the constants at play through the decades: the constitution of a symbolic lineage of private collectors, acting as an aristocracy of taste that followed moral imperatives equating collecting to salvaging the past; the heroic undertones of such activity developed in the public image of private collectors; and the dialectic tensions between private collections and public institutions, which only increased with time. Illustrating the constitution of “an exclusive and self-mythologizing Parisian community” (121), it also brings forgotten individuals back to life through their own words. Thus, this book offers an important contribution to the study of heritage and historical consciousness by giving their due place to the many individuals whose passionate pursuit of the past was instrumental in the constitution of national patrimony. One further step in this new direction would be to examine the role and legacy of private collectors in the province as opposed to the Parisian center.