Origins of the Art Museum

It is hard for me to imagine a world without art museums, but they are in fact a fairly modern concept.  Most art collections were either owned by royalty or the extremely wealthy and were not available to the general public.  July 14 is Bastille Day, the day that the French Revolution began in 1789.  The enormous Louvre palace, which was only one of King Louis XVI's palaces, contained a vast royal art collection: thousands of paintings, drawings, sculptures and decorative arts from across the globe and dating back centuries.  This was turned into a public art museum less than one month after the French Revolution began, making it one of the earliest art museums.  However the Art Academy had been located in the Louvre for approximately a century prior and displayed art publicly at the annual Salons.  Today the Louvre is one of the largest art museums in the world. 


However the Louvre wasn’t the first art museum that was open to the public. There were at least two in the 17th century, the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, originally a private collection, opened to the public in 1671 and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University opened in 1683 as the first university art museum, though both were considerably smaller in size than the Louvre. 

Before the 20th century art museums looked quite different then today's museums.  Notice the cluttered layouts of art in the two paintings, museums walls were absolutely packed with art hung in what is today known as the "salon style" layout, hung in several horizontal rows.  Some items would have been identified for the viewer but not all, and it was much harder for the viewer to appreciate an individual painting.



The Tribuna of the Uffizi, Johann Zoffany, 1772-78, Royal Collection,Windsor Castle

In Florence, Italy the administrative offices of the ruling Medici family in would later become the Uffizi (the word for offices in Italian) which contained their large private art collection.

In the 16th century the artist and architect Buontalenti designed the first gallery in the building, the Tribuna of the Uffizi.  The gallery had been open to visitors by request  and was considered a highlight of the Grand Tour, the trip taken by aristocrats through continental Europe.  This contained many famous Renaissance paintings and ancient sculptures.  The well known painting by Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi (above) shows how the gallery looked at the time and included portraits of the actual visitors.  He painted this work for the King and Queen of England since they were unable to visit and see it for themselves.  It is an interesting work which contains paintings within a painting.  In 1765 after the Medici family was no longer in power, the entire building was opened to the public as a state art museum, the Uffizi Gallery.

Laocoön, Roman copy from 1st c. AD after 2nd c. BC Hellenistic original, Vatican Museums

Another prototype of an art museum which was visited on the Grand Tour was the Pio-Clementino Vatican museum which opened in 1771.  This was the joint project of two Popes: Clement XIV and Pius VI (which is why it was named Pio-Clementino).  The work housed in this museum had been collected since Pope Julius II first purchased the Laocoön sculpture after it was uncovered in 1506 (I discussed that sculpture in a post last week).  The Pio-Clementino also housed several other famous Greco-Roman sculptures including Apollo Belvedere and Sleeping Ariadne as well as many Renaissance paintings.  Later the Pio-Clementino expanded to the current Vatican Museums (follow the link to learn more of the history on their website).

Another important early museum was the British Museum in London, which opened to the public in 1759. This was the personal collection of archaeological artifacts of Sir Hans Sloane.  When it opened it was both an art museum and a library and also contained many important items pertaining to science, history and anthropology. All of these museums still exist today, and along with thousands of others they continue to enrich our lives with art.

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