Skip to content

Lenoir, Alexandre

    Full Name: Lenoir, Alexandre

    Other Names:

    • Albert Lenoir

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 26 December 1762

    Date Died: 11 June 1839

    Place Born: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Place Died: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Home Country/ies: France

    Subject Area(s): French (culture or style)


    Founder of the first popular (and first chronologically organized) art museum, a museum which saved many artifacts from the French Revolution’s destruction. Lenoir studied painting under Gabriel-François Doyen (1726-1806) but himself was an undistinguished artist. He married the Adélaïde Binart (1769-1832), a painter who studied under Jean-Baptiste Regnault. During the French Revolution, monasteries and churches were nationalized and closed in 1789 and their artworks confiscated and vandalized by the public. The 1790 the Commission des Arts selected two venues, the Hôtel de Nesles and the convent of the Petits Augustins in Paris to warehouse the art. As a member of the Commission, Doyen appointed Lenoir the Garde du Dépôt des Petits Augustins to inventory of paintings and statues stored there. In 1791 another commission, the Comité d’Aliénation determined that all art should be either sold or melted down. Lenoir, aided by Doyen and the sculptor François Daujon (b. 1759) restored many damaged monuments. Others, such as Michelangelo’s slaves statues, were rescued from annihilation. As the Revolution intensified, the new Republic abolished the practice of Christianity altogether in 1793. During the same time, the Grande Galerie of Palais du Louvre opened to the public on August 10, 1793 (23 Thermidor, Year I), as the Muséum Central des Arts, by decree of the National Convention. Lenoir became the museum’s bitterest critic because the holdings–predominantly modern paintings–did not reflect France’s history through original objects. Now intent on creating another museum for the art, Lenoir collected the sculpture from of the royal tombs of Saint-Denis Abbey, which the masses had desecrated. Using the authority of the Commission Temporaire des Arts, he seized other art, some in danger of vandalism and some not. Lenoir was appointed chief (“conservateur”) of the Dépôt by the Commission des Arts in 1795. The following year the Dépôt was renamed the Musée des Antiquités et Monuments Français and opened as the first public art museum organized historically. Lenoir petitioned the Comité d’Instruction Publique asking that the tomb of Francis I and all medieval statues be installed in his new museum to assist in French history. He amassed objects from all 83 départements of France. In 1799 Lenoir converted the museum grounds into what amounted to a national cemetery and garden with historic sculpture marking remains of great writers including Molière, La Fontaine, Boileau, Mabillon and others. The public flocked to the tomb of Abélard and Heloïse, created from remnants of their individual tombs and artists to this Elysée Jardin to draw inspiration. In 1800, Lenoir began publishing essays on the art in his museum, his Musée des monuments français and his Description historique. By 1803 the competing Palais du Louvre was renamed the Musée Napoléon and filled with looted artworks from the countries conquered by Napoléon, under the direction of Jean-Dominique Vivant Denon. After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, Antoine Quatremère de Quincy, now the Intendant Général des Arts et Monuments Publics, attacked Lenoir and his activities in Quatremère’s Considérations morales. Objects from the Musée Napoléon were repatriated and the following year Louis XVIII ordered the return of contents of the Musée des Antiquités et Monuments Français to the churches and other buildings from which they had been taken. Only then did Lenoir cease publication of his Description historique. Later the same year the remnants of Lenoir’s museum became the Ecole Royale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts. His son, Alexandre-Albert Lenoir, was a medievalist architectural historian who established of the Musée de Cluny in 1844. Lenoir remains a controversial figure. “Reckless und unscholarly, boastful and infinitely energetic” (Haskell), his devotion to saving France’s past from destruction nevertheless makes him a leader of historic preservation and conservation. His art histories written to accompany his exhibitions (Histoire des arts en France) are among the first histories of costume and stained glass (Bazin). He is the key figure for the notion that objects are best contemplated in a museum atmosphere separate from their context. Then as now, the idea had its detractors. As mentioned, Quatremère de Quincy demanded that objects in Lenoir’s museum be returned to their original locations; François-René Chateaubriand (1768-1848) decried that Lenoir’s museum rendered the objects of interest only to art historians. However, the young Jules Michelet, later France’s great romantic historian, found Lenoir’s museum “the eternal continuity of the nation,” a walking experience of French history, Merovingians through to the Enlightenment and his present day, via sculpture, furniture, and tapestries (Schama). Lenoir’s installation drew heavily on the historical concept of “decline and fall” outlined in the 1764 Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums of Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He was the among the first to arranged objects chronologically, a product of his interest in art qua history. Many of the reconstructions were fanciful. Although his own tastes were neo-classical, his saving of the medieval monuments of France helped establish interest in this area, most notably with the collector Alexandre du Sommerard (1779-1842) and Sommerard’s 1832 exhibition in the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny, which eventually became the Musée National du Moyen-Age.

    Selected Bibliography

    Histoire des arts en France, prouve´e par les monumens. Suivie d’une description chronologique des statues en marbre et en bronze, bas-reliefs et tombeaux des hommes et des femmes ce´lèbres, re´nuis au Muse´e impe´rial des monumens franc.*?;807;ais. Paris: Hacquart, 1810; Recueil de portraits inedits des hommes et des femmes qui ont illustre´ la France sous diffe´rens règnes, dont les originaux sont conserve´s dans ledit muse´e. Paris: [self-published], 1809; Description historique et chronologique des monumens de sculpture, re´unis au Muse´e des monumens francçais. 4 vols. Paris: Musée des monuments français, an V de la Re´publique [1795-1806]; Muse´e des monumens francçais: histoire de la peinture sur verre, et description des vitraux anciens et modernes, pour servir à l’histoire de l’art, relativement à la France; orne´e de gravures, et notamment de celles de la fable de Cupidon et Psyche´, d’après les dessins de Raphael. Paris: L’Imprimerie de Guilleminet, 1803; Muse´e impe´rial des monumens francçais : histoire des arts en France, et description chronologique des statues en marbre et en bronze, bas-reliefs et tombeaux des hommes et des femmes ce´lèbres, qui sont re´unis dans ce muse´e. Paris: Hacquart, 1810.


    Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art: de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, pp. 92-3; Haskell, Francis. History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 236-52; Haskell, Francis. Rediscoveries in Art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976, pp. 57-58; Mellon, Stanley. “Alexandre Lenoir: The Museum Versus the Revolution.” Proceedings of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 8 (1979): 75-88; Greene, C. M. “Alexandre Lenoir and the Musée des Monuments Français during the French Revolution.” French Historical Studies (1981): 200-22; Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989; “Alexandre(-Marie) Lenoir.” Dictionary of Art 19: 159-160; Schama, Simon. “Revolution and Desecration.” Financial Times February 5, 2011, p, 10; [for an excellent account of the Musée des Monuments Français, see, Michelet, Jules. Histoire de la Révolution Française, book 12, chapter 8.]; Froissart, Jean-Luc. Alexandre, Albert et Angéline Lenoir. Une dynastie en A majeur (1761-1891). Paris: J.-L. Froissart, 2012.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Lenoir, Alexandre." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: