Les arts au moyen âge

Curated by Anna Fishaut, Fall 2012

Alexandre Du Sommerard (1779–1842) was a collector and curator whose main art historical interests were the Middle Ages and Renaissance, particularly as they were manifested in France. Over much of his adult life he collected objects that ranged from panel paintings to armor; his collection found a permanent home in 1832 when he moved it to the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny, a fifteenth-century palace that remains a museum today (its collection includes the famed La Dame à la Licorne tapestry cycle). Du Sommerard’s approach to curating was innovative for its time: he placed items within the palace according to their historical functions, reconstructing rooms with period furniture and assembling tableaux of like objects. His goal was to animate French history in a way that written accounts and documents could not.

Du Sommerard’s multivolume work Les arts au moyen âge was his final curatorial project. Begun in 1838, its publication continued until 1846, four years after his death. The text portion of the work is a discussion of his collection and its context, as well as a general overview of medieval art and architectural history. The ten plate volumes--here bound into four larger volumes--represent a vast range of decorative objects (from the Musée de Cluny collection when possible) and architecture using lithography and chromolithography, techniques that were still fairly new in the 1840s. Du Sommerard’s aim was to create glittering verisimilitude, and the effect is extraordinary: marble reliefs seem to leap off the page; mirrors seem almost to reflect.