- Joanna Barnes
French museum director, writer, graphic artist, collector, archaeologist and diplomat. He was the son of a provincial aristocrat. He went to Paris to further his law studies c. 1765 but entered the studio of Noël Hallé. He became Gentleman-in-Ordinary to Louis XV and was appointed keeper of the collection of engraved gems and medals that Mme de Pompadour had left to the King. In 1772 he entered the diplomatic service as attaché to the French embassy at St Petersburg, he was subsequently posted to Stockholm, Geneva (where his disrespectful engraving Repast at Ferney, of 4 July 1775, angered Voltaire) and, from spring 1776, Naples. There he became acquainted with Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador, and made many drawings of his future wife Emma. Denon began to acquire a diverse collection of paintings and engravings as well as antiquities from excavations at Nola, Catania, Agrigento, Pompeii and Herculaneum. He purchased the painting of the Resurrection of Lazarus (Paris, Louvre) by Guercino for Louis XVI, an etching after which was his reception piece at the Accademia in Florence. He collected 520 Etruscan vases, which were later acquired by Louis XVI and deposited at Sèvres to be copied. Denon advised the Abbé Richard de Saint-Non in the preparation of the travel book Voyage pittoresque dans les royaumes de Naples et de Sicile (1781–6), supervising artists and composing a descriptive journal of the expedition. He was appointed chargé-d’affaires in Naples in 1782. Following a disagreement with Saint-Non, Denon made his journal available to Henry Swinburne (1752–1803) for his Travels in the Two Sicilies, in the Years 1777, 1779 and 1780. Denon’s own Voyage en Sicile was published in 1788.
Denon was dismissed from Naples in 1785 and spent two years in Rome, where he became a member of the circle of Cardinal de Bernis and engraved plates after the Carracci, Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt. After his return to France in 1787, he published a review of the Salon and submitted to the Académie Royale an engraving after Luca Giordano’s Adoration of the Shepherds, the only etching recorded as a morceau de réception during the 18th century. He was elected to the Académie on 31 March 1787 and registered as an ‘engraver and artist of diverse talents’.
In June 1788 Denon settled in Venice, where he remained during the French Revolution. He moved in high social circles, giving lessons in engraving, and drew and engraved portraits of members of Venetian society, including those of Countess Albrizzi and the exiled court painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (both untraced). Denon was forced to leave in August 1792 when the city expelled all French nationals. Learning that his name had been placed on the list of émigrés and his French property confiscated, he courageously returned to France. He sought the protection of Jacques-Louis David, then a deputy of the National Convention. David had Denon’s name removed from the émigré list and commissioned him to engrave his unfinished painting of the Tennis Court Oath. Denon attended meetings of the Revolutionary Tribunal and sketched its members including Georges-Jacques Danton, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville and Jean-Baptiste Carrier (New York, Met.; Paris, Bib. N.). In 1793 Denon published L’Oeuvre priapique, a group of engravings supposedly inspired by the sexual practices of the ancient Pompeians.
In 1798 Denon joined the scholars who accompanied the French army under Napoleon on its Egyptian campaign. He went with General Desaix along the Nile Valley and made over 150 sketches (London, BM), some of which were included in his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte … of 1802, the first serious description of the antiquities discovered in Egypt (for illustrations see Armant and Hermopolis Magna [anc. Egyp. Khmun; Arab. el-Ashmunein]); Denon’s text and engravings were largely responsible for promoting the Egyptian Revival style in France. In November 1802 Denon was appointed director-general of the Imperial Museums, a role which gave him control of the Musée Central des Arts (shortly to become the Musée Napoléon), the Musée des Monuments Français and the Musée de l’Ecole Française at Versailles. He presided over the French museums during the years when artistic booty brought from all over Europe made Napoleon’s Paris the artistic capital of the world. In 1803 he became director of the Monnaie des Médailles, where he designed most of the medals commemorating contemporary events. In the same year he was elected a member of the Institut, where he gave a Discours sur les monuments de l’antiquité arrivés d’Italie. He was also artistic adviser to the Manufacture Impériale de Sèvres and the Gobelins Tapestry Factory. Denon organized and distributed imperial commissions not only to such artists as David, Antoine-Jean Gros and François Gérard, but also to lesser-known artists, and he recognized the talent of such sculptors as Guillaume Boichot and François Rude. He accompanied Napoleon as artistic adviser on his campaigns in Austria, Spain, Italy and Poland. In 1811 he visited Italy to examine the works of art to be requisitioned from suppressed churches and convents, making a selection of early Italian paintings for the Louvre. On 5 August 1812 he was created Baron of the Empire. After the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the final defeat of Napoleon, he refused to relinquish the works of art in his care until the Grenadier Guards forced him to submit. He resigned as director of the Musée Napoléon on 5 October 1815 on the pretext of failing health and went into retirement on the Quai Voltaire, Paris, where he housed his own collection. The last decade of his life was spent engraving and working on a general history of the arts (published posthumously by his nephews in 1829), a project that had been a preoccupation for some years. The catalogues of his possessions compiled after his death list 200 paintings, among them Gilles (Paris, Louvre) by Antoine Watteau and a Deposition (ex-Louvre) by Raphael, 750 drawings (many from the Zanetti collection in Venice), 600 prints and a wide variety of gems, medals, bronzes, maiolica, enamels, engravings and relics. The collection was dispersed in posthumous sales in 1826 and 1827. Among the numerous portraits of Denon are those by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (Paris, Louvre), Jean-Baptiste Greuze (Cherbourg, Mus. B.-A.), a bust by Antoine-Denis Chaudet (Dijon, Mus. B.-A.), his bronze funerary monument by Pierre Cartellier (Paris, Père-Lachaise Cemetery) and a self-portrait, Denon Drawing Some Friends (1823; Paris, Bib. N., Cab. Est.).
- Voyage en Sicile (Paris, 1788)
- Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte pendant les campagnes du général Bonaparte, 2 vols (Paris, 1802)
- Description de l’Egypte, 24 vols (Paris, 1809–22) [contains engravings after 150 drawings by Denon]
- L. J. J. Dubois: Description des objets d’art qui composaient l’une des parties du cabinet du feu M. le Baron V. Denon…monuments, antiques historiques (Paris, 1826)
- J. Duchesne: Catalogue des livres et ouvrages à figures du cabinet de feu M. le Baron V. Denon (Paris, 1826)
- A. N. Perignon: Description des objets d’art qui composent le cabinet de feu M. le Baron V. Denon … tableaux, dessins et miniatures (Paris, 1826)
- Brunet-Denon: Monuments des arts du dessin chez les peuples tant anciens que modernes recueillis par le Baron Vivant Denon (Paris, 1829)
- P. Lelièvre: Vivant Denon, directeur des beaux-arts de Napoléon (Paris, 1942)
- L. Armand-Calliat: Vivant Denon (Chalon-sur-Saône, 1964)
- J. Chatelain: Dominique Vivant Denon et le Louvre de Napoléon (Paris, 1973)
- P. Wescher: Kunstraub unter Napoleon (Berlin, 1976)
- P. ten-Doesschate Chu: French Masters of the Nineteenth Century, Dominique Vivant Denon, 121–1 of The Illustrated Bartsch, ed. W. Strauss (New York, 1985)