The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790-1890
by Tom Stammers, 2020, Cambridge University Press
Review by Simon Spier

Tom Stammers’ new volume The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c.1790-1890 is a significant contribution to the history of collecting in the nineteenth century, opening new vistas on an area that in Anglophone literature has been limited by its tendency to focus on a select cast of protagonists. This new study vastly expands the field of study and views collecting more widely as a cultural impulse shaped by political and social factors. In the hugely insightful introduction, we learn that this is based around three central and interrelated tenets: ‘Revolution’, ‘Collection’ and ‘Recollection’.  This section persuades the reader: In nineteenth-century Paris, collecting material remnants of the past took on a greater significance. Stemming from the political upheaval, both private society and the state attempted to rebuild historical continuity—or enforce political discontinuity—through various interpretations of such fragments.

The book is divided into six sections, which are suggested as focussed case studies, however each study is a microcosm of a much larger range of themes that spans collecting in many of its conceivable forms, from Old Master pictures to ephemera. Proceeding in chronological sequence but with temporal overlaps that reinforce the connectedness of each, the first chapter takes the writings of the artist and critic Pierre Gault de Saint-Germain (1754-1842) as its central source. These are utilised to explore the changing attitudes towards the identity of the amateur and the collector across the revolutionary period. Writers such as Gault struggled to present a future landscape for picture collecting as they came to terms with the ‘dilapidated patrimony’ and the fall of the artistic culture of the monarchy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This is framed by an excellent analysis of a rapidly expanding and unstable market for art and curiosities in Paris post-1800, where a new form of self-serving collector could snatch a fortune off of the back of the political unrest.

Chapter Two examines how the amateur and historian of France Jean-Louis Soulavie (1752-1813) used material and visual culture to preserve, or ‘archive’ the Revolution. Focussing on his extensive collection of prints, drawings, books and pamphlets, Stammers shows how collectors quite literally pieced together the events occurring around the Revolution, reinforcing the collage-like way in which political histories were constructed. The next chapter follows the themes of the importance of textual sources, and their material properties, to collectors wishing to fully understand the historical consequences of the Revolution, and includes a comprehensive study of the rare book trade in Paris in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.

The fourth chapter tackles the much-mythologised collection of Medieval and Renaissance objects of Charles Sauvageot (1781-1860), so important to the development of public museums such as the Louvre during the nineteenth century. This study prompts a wider meditation on the relationship between private collectors and public museums at this time, casting Sauvageot’s domestic cabinet as a legitimate site for public access to rare and unique works of art. The eventual acquisition of Sauvageot’s collection to the Louvre also raises questions about the way collectors used public museums as apparatus to prevent their legacy disintegrating within a vociferous market for rare decorative arts.

The final two chapters take place against the backdrop of the political and social upheaval of the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune and the end of the Second Empire. Firstly, through looking at how collectors Jérôme Pichon (1812-1896) and Léopold Double (1812-1881) amassed collections that revived interest in the decorative arts of the  eighteenth century, particularly those associated with the court that were recast as relics that, for collectors such as Double, somehow ‘resurrected’ royal dynasties materially. Lastly, the boundaries of public state-led and private patronage of the arts are disrupted through an investigation into the dispersal of the collection of the notorious antique dealer Frederic Spitzer (1815-1890) at auction in 1893. Stammers foregrounds the public’s expectation of the state to intervene and preserve an important piece of French cultural heritage in such a way that the reader gains an excellent sense of how auctions operated as arenas of social distinction and theatricality that played into the hands of the collector.

Of course this focus on individuals does not suggest any notion of individualism in collecting in Paris in the nineteenth century. On the contrary, Stammers reconstructs entire social networks and shared motives and means of collecting, and draws from an outstanding range of primary and secondary sources to show the interrelatedness of the various intellectual projects dedicated to preserving the past throughout the 100 years under review.

If this book could be improved one way would certainly be through its illustrations. Stammers’ lively prose is sufficient for obtaining a vivid picture of many of the collectors’ cabinets of treasures that he describes, but this would undoubtedly be enhanced by the inclusion of some colour illustrations in a larger format. Some of the meticulously rendered watercolours of the interiors of Sauvageot or of Lucien Double are key primary sources in their own right and would better serve the text if they were more legible.

There is also a noticeable absence of women in the study, which, by the author’s own acknowledgement ‘represents the systematic denigration of their pretensions to be collectors outside of gendered parameters’ (p.23). However, this reviewer feels that this view is slightly outmoded and insufficient by now, and many scholars are excavating the many contributions of women collectors, critics and dealers in the field of nineteenth-century cultural studies. Not least Stammers himself, who is editing a series of essays on this very subject due for publication shortly. Therefore it can be said with certainty that future scholarship will benefit greatly by being synthesised with this important new book, which intersects brilliantly with so many aspects of the visual and cultural history of nineteenth-century France.

Book information: 

The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790-1890
by Tom Stammers, 2020 Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 370 pp., £90.00 (hardback; ebook also available). ISBN 9781108781268.

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