|The Export of Works of Art and the Construction of Cultural Identity |
|In 1884, the potential export of Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna caused an outcry in London. Contested by Leighton, the President of the Royal Academy, and then Gladstone, the Prime Minister, the matter was debated in Parliament in 1885. ‘Saved’ for ‘the nation’, the Italian High Renaissance altarpiece transferred from Blenheim Palace and passed into the ownership of the National Gallery shortly after.
In 2002, the ‘loss’ of another Raphael once more placed British cultural identity under threat. Sold across the Atlantic, only the government’s refusal of an export licence and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s award of a major acquisition grant could retain the painting in Britain. Previously on loan from Alnwick Castle, the Madonna of the Pinks passed into the ownership of the National Gallery in 2004.
Across the Channel, by contrast, it was the potential export of Millet’s L’Angélus which sparked uproar in Paris in 1889. Contested by Proust, France’s first Ministre des Beaux-Arts, and debated in the Chambre des députés, this Modern Master painting was all but ignored by the Sénat. ‘Lost’ to the American Art Association, it fuelled Monet’s campaign to acquire Manet’s Olympia for the Musée du Louvre and eventually enjoyed a victorious return to France in 1891. The painting entered the Musée du Louvre as part of the Chauchard Collection in 1909.
In 2002, celebrating the acquisition of nine decorative panels by Oudry for the Musée du Louvre, the French art administration once more enjoyed the support of business. Acquired under new tax legislation introduced to strengthen the link between business interests and heritage conservation, the concern was a group of Old Master paintings, but again of French authorship, of course.
Exploring the construction of cultural identity in relation to the export of works of art, this paper traces and compares the retention of select works of art in Britain and in France from the end of the 19th century to the present day. It argues that Britain defines its ‘national treasures’ on the basis of aristocratic provenance and France its ‘trésors nationaux’ on the basis of artistic production. More specifically it holds that this difference first emerged in the 1880s. Drawing on a series of case studies, the paper illustrates how distinct social historical concerns – the consequences of agricultural decline, on the one hand, and institutional change, on the other hand – first linked cultural identity to aristocratic provenance in Britain and artistic production in France. It also shows that this difference continues to inform British and French export policy to the present day. Contrary to European Union legislation the paper thus concludes that the term ‘national treasures’ cannot simply be translated into ‘trésors nationaux’. Vice versa, the term ‘trésors nationaux’ does not simply align with ‘national treasures’.