History of the museum collections

By Guillaume Ambroise, curator and director : 2010 to 2012.

Logo "Musées de France"

It is reasonable to consider the Chaptal Decree of the 14th of Fructidor of the year IX (1st of September 1801) as the founding act of the Museum of Fine Arts, Bordeaux, as indeed it was for the majority of large regional museums. The report presented by the minister made provision for the dispatch of consignments of art works sufficiently large to justify the creation of museums to the fifteen towns and cities concerned. The situation in Bordeaux after the events of the revolution was undoubtedly similar to that encountered in the other large towns of the Consulate, with the possible exception of the fact that only a very small number of works had been saved and gathered together at the storehouse of the ancient convent of the Feuillants.

Pierre Lacour (1745-1814), a neoclassical painter who had passed through the workshop of Jean-Marie Vien (1716-1809), managed the storehouse with exemplary rigour and integrity. Despite this, when the deliveries of art works arrived, first in 1803, and then in 1805, totalling forty-four works in all, Pierre Lacour only had eight paintings and two sculptures [1] to add to the new arrivals – the only works to have escaped the revolutionary confiscations. It is thus easy to see why the spectacular arrival of paintings from the Central Museum of Arts played such a pivotal role in the development of the Bordeaux museum. A number of genuine masterpieces [2] arrived in Bordeaux with these two deliveries, and today more than ever they represent the basis of our collections of European paintings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  Appointed as curator, Pierre Lacour began working to expedite the creation of the first museum, which opened at the end of the year 1810 in the former town house of Jean- Jacques Bel in the allées de Tourny. This beautiful building, the former seat of the Royal Academy of Science, Literature and Arts, remodelled and adapted by the architect Richard-François Bonfin (1730-1814), also housed the school of drawing, the library, an exhibition room of antiques and an observatory. The opening coincided with the arrival of the first major  donation [3], granted by François-Lucie Doucet, a Parisian goldsmith, with whom Pierre Lacour had become friends. When Lacour died in 1814, his son, who was also named Pierre (1778-1859), took over the role of curator and continued to develop the museum with efficiency and zeal worthy of the highest praise. He was notably responsible for the first scientific works on the museum, and in particular the publication in 1855, in collaboration with Jules Delpit, of a complete catalogue of the museum’s collections[4].
The advent of the Restoration further encouraged the development of the museum thanks to the arrival of regular consignments of art works. The Duchess of Angoulême boarding at Pauillac painted by Baron Gros is a vivid witness even today to the solicitude of Louis XVIII for the City of Bordeaux, which the contemporary press had nicknamed the “City of the twelfth of March”. Paradoxically, the arrival of several large-format paintings led to the exchange, and ultimately permanent loss, of one of the masterpieces of the collection, Christ on the cross by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), the large dimensions of which meant that it could no longer be exhibited[5].
The lack of space at the allées de Tourny eventually led the city council to organise the transfer of the collections to the north wing of the Rohan Palace. The work was supervised by Michel-Jules Bonfin (1768-1841), the son of the previous city architect. The opening of the new venue took place at the end of the year 1820.
Shortly after, in 1821, the museum enjoyed a unique opportunity to enhance its collection when the Marquis de Lacaze offered his major collection of paintings to the City. In his role as military commissary, the Marquis had travelled the length and breadth of Europe, and in particular had spent a lot of time in Germany, hence his large collection of high-quality paintings[6]. The affair dragged on for many years, but was eventually brought to a successful conclusion in 1829 thanks to the decisive intervention of Charles X[7]. Two hundred and sixty-three paintings thus joined the museum’s collections, which until that point barely had one hundred works.
The decades that followed up until the advent of the Second Empire were lean years indeed in comparison. The development of an active ‘Friends of the Arts Society’ from 1850 enabled the City to begin acquiring excellent art works by a number of artists who had already achieved wide official recognition. The annual Salon organised by the City played host to all the ‘great names’ of the Second Empire and the Third Republic. And thus the collections welcomed not only the extremely famous Greece on the ruins of Missolonghi by Eugène Delacroix in 1852, but also the poetic but nevertheless monumental Bath of Diana by Camille Corot in 1858. It was also during the Second Empire in 1855 that another major work by
Delacroix entered the collection: The Lion Hunt. The bequest made in 1861 by Lodi-Martin Duffour-Dubergier, a former mayor of Bordeaux, of 37 paintings added to what was already rich collection of older works.
The continual growth of the collections brought the lack of available space into sharp relief once again. Spread throughout the Rohan Palace, the works suffered from the absence of any real location designed to house them. A first fire on the 13th of June 1862 destroyed many of the archives, but thankfully did very little damage to the art works[8]. Unfortunately this first severe warning was not followed by any plans to rapidly build a new museum. A second and far more damaging fire broke out on the 7th of December 1870, this time with far more serious consequences for the collections of paintings. Many works were damaged, and several of them were permanently ruined in the blaze[9]. This disaster, after a number of hesitations and considerable thought concerning location, led to the launch of a vast building project right next to the existing Rohan Palace. The city’s architect, Charles Burguet (1821-1879), had planned to construct two wings on the garden side, extending the Rohan Palace, and linked together by a gallery. Fearing that this would block off a perspective, the City took the decision to build only the two wings, which today still house the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts – proof if proof were needed of the remarkable quality of their design and construction. Indeed, it would be difficult to overpraise the measure and rare elegance of these two buildings, which confirm historical references to the construction of French museums in the 19th century. The influence of the Louis XVI style is so subtle here that it allows perfect assimilation with the urban environment of the Rohan Palace and the hôtels of Poissac and Basquiat. The interior, with typical Third Republic pomp, received decoration worthy of a bourgeois palace with thick, decorated mouldings, its elegantly designed glass roof, Hungarian parquet and its heavy crimson velvet curtains that obscured the light from the large windows[10].
The museum encountered no major upheavals between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. A policy of regular but unspectacular acquisitions continued the themes of realism and academicism[11]. This reached its apogee in 1933 with the State deposit of the Henri Gervex masterpiece, Rolla. At the end of the Second World War, a vast operation to count and classify the works led to the reorganisation of the collections, parts of which were sent to the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Aquitaine Museum. With its specific role as a museum of fine arts officially established, it then went on to become the reference in terms of European art of the 16th to 20th centuries for the entire South West region. A renowned expert on modern art, Jean-Gabriel Lemoine (1886-1953) initiated a perspicacious policy of acquisition in the immediate post-war period. In particular he favoured the acquisition of work by artists from Bordeaux or associated with the Aquitaine region. And thus major works by Odilon Redon, Albert Marquet, André Lhote and Roger Bissière came to join the existing works at the museum[12]. Gilberte Martin-Méry (1917- 2005) brilliantly pursued the same policy, particularly favouring the paintings of Albert Marquet and André Lhote and the sculptures of Robert Wlérick[13]. He was also able to take advantage of some fortuitous opportunities in terms of older paintings and thus build up the collection of Caravagesque works as well as the nucleus of a collection of British artists. The State has assisted this deliberate policy, encouraging a large number of donations and loans, one of the most recent of which in 1991 enabled the museum to exhibit a remarkable canvas by Pablo Picasso, Olga reading.
Since these early years, the many successive curators have all striven to maintain the museum’s double vocation, respecting the delicate balance between the necessary enrichment of the collections of old paintings and at the same time paying full attention to the art of the 20th century. Numerous donations have also helped to enrich the collections, and in particular donations by Jean-René Tauzin (1971), Robert Coustet (a regular donor since 1981), René Domergue (1983), Jeanne Schnegg (1984-1985), Henriette and Georgette Dauzats (1985) and more recently Jean-Pierre Moueix (2006) and Daniel Thierry (2010). In addition to these generous donations, the effective support of the Friends of the Museums Society[14. has further developed the collections through many judicious purchases. Mention must also be made of the regular financial support given both by the State and the Aquitaine Region since 1982 which has further encouraged the policy of acquisition[15]. An establishment at the very forefront, the Museum of Fine Arts, Bordeaux, recently benefitted from a major programme of re-hanging of its collections, the prelude to a thorough reorganisation of its exhibition areas that should be finished in 2012. In anticipation of these positive future developments, this guide aims to be an accurate reflection of the spirit of our collection, the fruit of long and patient work, of which the City of Bordeaux has always been justly proud.
Guillaume Ambroise
"Avant Propos" in Guide des collections XVIème-XXème siècle, éditions Le Festin, 2010. Bordeaux.

[1] One of the very first paintings to join the museum’s collections was a work by Jean-Joseph Taillasson, The tomb of Elisha, which the painter presented to the Academy of Bordeaux in 1774 as a morceau de réception. The two sculptures included an exceptional work, the Bust of Cardinal de Sourdis, produced in around 1621 by Bernini for the commissioner of La Chartreuse. This work is currently exhibited in the collection at the Aquitaine Museum.
[2] These include Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian, The Virgin and the Infant Jesus by Pierre de Cortone, The Martyrdom of Saint George by Rubens and The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by Jean Restout.
[3] The museum has two works that require special mention thanks to this donor: Venus on the waters and Venus and Adonis, by an artist whose works are extremely rare in French public collections, Johann Zoffany.
[4] This work also provides details concerning the museum’s opening times. We discover, not surprisingly, that the museum is above all a place where artists can hone their skills through copying. It was only open to the public on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
[5] This work, a revolutionary confiscation from 1794, comes from the town of Lierre, as does the Martyrdom of Saint George by Rubens on exhibition at the museum. This work by Jordaens, a cruel loss to our collections, has been on display at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew since 1819. It is not completely unrealistic to envisage a future exchange that will enable this painting to come home to the museum it should never really have left.
[6] These remarkable works include The Dispute of the Philosophers and The Dispute of the Theologians by Luca Giordano, Eliezer and Rebecca by Giambattista Pittoni, Man singing and playing the lute by Hendrick Ter Brugghen and The lightening-struck oak by Jan Josephsz Van Goyen.
[7] The Marquis de Lacaze initially wanted 80,000 francs for his collection. After negotiation the final agreed figure was brought down to 60,000 francs, two-thirds of which was paid by the State. This remarkable collection thus came to the city for the modest sum of 20,000 francs.
[8] The two works by Giordano, The Dispute of the Philosophers and The Dispute of the Theologians were amongst those damaged in the fire of 1862.
[9] Sixteen paintings were completely destroyed including The Assumption of the Virgin by Jacob Bunel, Saint Bernard receiving from the Virgin the rule of the Abbey of Clairvaux by Guerchin, The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gaspard de Crayer, Hercules and Omphale by Luca Giordano and The Lion Hunt from the workshop of Rubens.
[10] Sadly, all these rich furnishings and decorations disappeared during the major renovations undertaken in the 1950s.
[11] For example, the museum acquired several works by Alfred Roll, in 1886, in 1889, and then once again in 1906.
[12] The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon, for example, acquired in 1953 or the Back-lit nude by Albert Marquet in 1955.
[13] In 1960 alone, no less than seventy works by Albert Marquet entered the collections, notably thanks to a large donation by Marcelle Marquet.
[14] In particular the donation in 1998 of an extremely rare painting by Georges Dorignac :  Nude woman, or more recently, in 2009, the Portrait of a woman by Theo Van Rysselberghe.
[15] The many masterpieces that have joined the collections thanks to the F.R.A.M. Aquitaine include David holding the head of Goliath by Aubin Vouet and The Church of Notre Dame in Bordeaux by Oskar Kokoschka.


Image de "Salon des amis des arts de Bordeaux", par Casimir Victor Paul.1890.

"Salon des amis des arts de Bordeaux", par Casimir Victor Paul.1890.