Alexandre du Sommerard and the Musée de Cluny

Alexandre du Sommerard and the Musée de Cluny

Like his family before him, Alexandre Du Sommerard (1779–1842) had a career in public service, first in the military, then in the civil service, then in the court itself. Passion for his native country of France was even more manifest in his art collecting and studies, which is where he directed most of his energies.

The first items he acquired were paintings by contemporary French painters, but, after 1825, he devoted himself to art from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, with particular attention to arts with French connections. In his actions and his collector’s tastes, Sommerard was likely influenced by Alexandre Lenoir (1761–1839), who rescued medieval treasures and monuments from destruction during the French Revolution and who later set up the Musée des Monuments Français.

By 1832, Sommerard had accumulated such a large collection that he purchased the late fifteenth-century Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny to house it. In each room of the building, he arranged furniture, objects, and textiles according to their function or symbolic value in an attempt to replicate the interior spaces of the past.

In 1838, Alexandre Du Sommerard published the first volumes of a multivolume work, Les Arts du moyen-âge, which he intended as a history of French medieval art. His collection and study included early Christian and Byzantine art as the precursors to western medieval art. He felt that history should not rely solely on written sources and that historians and the public needed to comprehend the history of art as well.

The illustrated atlas and album were issued serially, 10 installments in all and each with a beautiful, unique title page. Inside each installment were large illustrations of medieval buildings and objects. In the Avertissement, Sommerard brags that the publication used lithography, the most advanced technique in book illustration available at the time, in order to create accurate reproductions. At this point, chromolithography was still in development, and most lithographic illustrations were black-and-white, so it seems likely that the rich colors in Sommerard’s publication were added manually.

Upon his death in 1842, his collection and the building were bequeathed to the state. In 1844, Lenoir’s son, Alexandre-Albert Lenoir (1801–1891), oversaw the movement of his father’s collection to Roman baths that are immediately adjacent to the Hôtel de Cluny. The combined collections became the Musée de Cluny (now the Musée National du Moyen Âge). Edmond du Sommerard (d. 1855) was appointed the museum’s first curator and was responsible for the acquisition of the museum’s famous lady-and-unicorn tapestries. Since then, some items have been deaccessioned and moved to other museums, but the existing museum still reflects the ideas and tastes of Sommerard and Lenoir.

 
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