Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849) was the most important Neoclassical
art historian in the generation after Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). It is difficult
now to appreciate his importance, due in part to the lack of translations of his 21 published
books: three were rendered into English in the 19th century, and one in the 21st. The Moral
Considerations has long been considered the most shattering polemic against public museums
ever written. But I will show that Quatremère’s polemic was aimed, not against museums per se,
but rather against the imperialist and secularist curatorial purposes of Parisian museums in the
age of Revolution. His Neoclassical commitments maintained the centrality of religion, and of
incarnation, to any proper understanding of the place and purpose of the fine arts.
Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is the William M. Suttles Professor of Religious Studies in the
Department of Anthropology at Georgia State University.
The Text of Quatremère de Quincy’s Moral Considerations on the Place and Purpose of Works of Art and Their Proper Use (1815)
MORAL CONSIDERATIONS On the Place and Purpose (Destination) of Works of Art
On the Purpose and Place (Destination) of the Arts (Arts) and of Works of Art (ouvrages d’Art), Considered in Terms of Their Influence on the Talent of Artists and the Good Taste (Goût) of Amateurs.
On the Place and Purpose (Destination) of Works of Art (Ouvrages d’Art), Considered as an Influence on the Effect of These Artworks (Ouvrages) and the Impressions One Receives From Them
Translation of the Preface to Quatremère de Quincy Lettres sur l’Enlèvement des Ouvrages de l’art antique à Athènes et à Rome, Écrites les unes au Célébres Canova les autres au Général Miranda (Paris: Adrien le Clere et C.ie, Quai des Augustins, No. 35, 1836), Avant Propos, v-xvj
The Major Published Works of Quatremère de Quincy, in Chronological Order
Works by Quatremère de Quincy Translated into English, in Chronological Order
Whatever its value to other disciplines, this essay is particularly rewarding for philosophical aesthetics, and deserves to be on all our reading lists; that it has not yet featured there prominently is a tragic accident of history.
In 1815, while Napoleon was bringing art to Paris for the people to enjoy, Quatremère de Quincy completed a biting critique of the removal of ancient art to modern museums. To “gather together the disparate fragments, methodically classify the debris, and render out of such a reunion a practical course in modern chronology: this is for a living nation to become a dead nation; this is for its living members to preside at its funeral; this is to kill Art to make history... or rather, not so much history, as an epitaph.” Quatremère argued that “the true love of antiquity requires you to separate as little as possible these venerable fragments from their places, their circumstances, and all the accessory elements with which they stand in relation.” The beauty of ancient art “finds its . . . realm in the faith of the viewer.” Modern critical reason is no substitute for removing a sculpture from a temple, because displaced objects lose “their real value by losing their proper use!”
In only the second English translation since 1821, Ruprecht sets the scene politically and philosophically, making abundantly clear the relevance of this polemic to contemporary cultural debate. His excellent commentary illuminates the great divide between Quatremère’s insistence on classical perfection and his rejection of revolutionary secularism.
Ruprecht makes a significant contribution to Comparative Religion and Museum studies with his translation of Quatremère’s Moral Considerations. This translation with an introduction addresses the complex relationship between religion, secularism, art, and the imperial politics of post-revolutionary France. Ruprecht’s timely work encourages reflection on the need for art as a public good and source of inspiration, which is in tension with the “culture of display” that characterized the early history of the modern museum and, in a related way, haunts our contemporary context.