Aller au contenu principal
Lien copié
Le lien a été copié dans votre presse-papier
21/03/2022 Collectionneurs, collecteurs et marchands d'art asiatique en France 1700-1939

Émile Guimet (1836-1918)

At first sight, Émile Guimet would seem emblematic of the bourgeoisie: a lover of music, sensitive to art, a collector on his travels thanks to a personal fortune inherited from his father’s factory, which he made profitable. Undeer this polished exterior, however, the man was unique. Early on, he resolved to create a museum from the collections he amassed, and then followed a thoughtfully laid out plan of acquisition. It was to be a museum of the history of religions, opening at the end of the 19th century in a France torn between tensions around the role of religion in society. "A museum of religion, including all the gods of India, China, Japan, Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire", announces the Catalogue des objets exposéswritten by the first curator, Léon de Milloué (1842-192?) in 1880 (p. 2).

Émile Guimet was born in Lyon in 1836 to a polytechnician father (Jean-Baptiste Guimet, 1795-1871), creator of "guimet blue", an artificial dye used in many industrial variations, while his mother, Rosalie Bidauld (1798-1876), was a recognised painter and outstanding musician. His education, about which few precise details are known, was dominated by applied sciences and arts, and undoubtedly provided at home; it must also have been solidly classical, as indicated by his writings and his references to Greece or Rome. He took over his father's factory in 1860 and worried about the well-being of his workers, as he explained in 1904 during the museum's jubilee: "Son of an industrialist, factory manager myself, I had spent my life in contact with the workmen, I had constantly occupied myself with giving them health of mind and well-being of body. I founded schools, courses, musical societies, mutual aid associations, and discovered that the creators of philosophical systems, the founders of religions, had had the same thoughts” (Guimet, 1904, p. 8). From philanthropy to philosophy and then to religion, this sentence admirably sums up Émile Guimet's quest.

With the reigns of the business in hand, he began to consider traveling. In 1862, on a tour of Spain with his friend Henri de Riberolles (1837-1908), the pair discovered cooking with olive oil and visited museums, as Guimet recounts in long letters to his mother, subsequentlypublished (Guimet, 1862). Then came the experience that would definitively guide his life. “In 1865, like everyone else, I was on a tourist trip to Egypt. The sight of the monuments, the visits to the Musée de Boulacq, the reading of the marvellous catalogue drawn up by Mariette, attractive even to the profane, all this opened my mind to the things of times past and particularly to the weighty beliefs whose symbols are visible in Egypt over miles of walls” (Guimet É., 1904, p. 5).

The Musée de Boulaq, which he visited several times, excited him to the highest degree. Back in Lyon, Guimet embarked on a shopping spree: “A small Italian museum was for sale, Etruscan tombs, funerary portraits and statues of prayers, all in terracotta. I bought the little museum. A dealer in Lyon had bought Abbé Greppo's Egyptian collection, and I picked it all up. One day I bought a mummy: what joy! Then another. To reach my bed, I had to step over the corpses. I changed rooms” (Guimet É., 1904, p. 6).

In the following years, he focused on his tasks as a head of industry, his scientific activities and studies in Egyptology, and his journeys (Greece and Algeria). As a member of the Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Lyon, he took part in the first congress of orientalists in Paris organised by Léon de Rosny in 1873, then in 1874 at the congress of prehistoric anthropology and archeology in Stockholm. From there, he took a getaway to Copenhagen to visit its museums, whose rigour impressed him, models “whether as to clarity of the administrative system, or the means of exhibition, or the clarity of classification", as he writes in the Esquisses scandinaves published the following year (Guimet É., 1875, p. 20). In particular, he notes the indispensable role of curators as transmitters of knowledge: "Each museum has a large staff of curators who divide up the work, but their role is above all teaching, demonstrating the cataloged objects" (Guimet É., 1875, p. 21).

Fascinated by Egyptology, he read Champollion and studied hieroglyphs, yet something seemed missing: "Comparisons were necessary with other archaic civilisations. I had to turn my eyes to India, Chaldea, China” (Guimet É., 1904, p. 8). During the jubilee of the 25th anniversary of the founding of his museum, he explained: "When one really wants to appreciate the ancient or exotic civilisations that were the subject of my concerns, one must disregard one's own beliefs, strip oneself of all ideas given by one’s education, by one’s environment. To fully grasp the doctrine of Confucius, it is good to acquire the spirit of a Chinese scholar; to understand the Buddha, one must make oneself a Buddhist soul. But how do you get there by just contacting books or collections? [...] It is essential to travel, to touch the believer, to speak to him, to see him act. So I decided to go around the world, to visit Japan, China, India, as I had done in Egypt and Greece” (Guimet É., 1904, p. 9).

And Émile Guimet did indeed go around the world. The first step, and probably the one that helped him imagine this journey, was the Universal Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where he presented his products. Félix Régamey (1844-1907), a painter and draughtsman friend established in the United States, met him andagreed to accompany him on the rest of the trip as a draughtsman, responsible for documenting the mission, as well as for interpreting, as Guimet did not speak English well. They crossed the United States by train to San Francisco, and eventually disembarked in Yokohama. Their first stop, Japan, fascinatedthese two travellers. Guimet had an official mission order signed by the Minister of Public Instruction with the aim of studying the religions of the Far East. This document would prove very useful to him in Japan, where he would be received with all the respect due to his mission, even if the financing was entirely his responsibility. Guimet was thus able to question priests and monks, visit sanctuaries and temples, and record the answers to his questionnaires while Régamey piled up the sketches. Guimet bought books, statues, and religious objects with a vengeance, in a context of a wave of anti-Buddhismthat proved favourable to collecting. Always passionate about ceramics, he harvested them amply. Above all, he commissioned a renowned sculptor to make a third-size copy of the famous mandala of the Tō-ji temple, the centrepiece of his future museum. This part of the trip gave rise to the publication of a two-volume story, Promenades Japonaises, written by Guimet and illustrated by Régamey, published in 1878 and 1880.

They then continued to China, where the situation was much less favourable; political instability, economic stagnation, epidemics, and anti-foreign sentiments encouraged them to hurry along. Returning by the Suez Canal via Singapore, Ceylon, and India, they arrived in Marseilles in March 1877. Guimet quickly sent a detailed report of his mission to the minister, in which he detailed the results of his scientific investigation. He mentioned the official meetings held in Japan: "In these meetings, the most learned doctors answered all my questions with great grace, presented me with religious books and sacred objects, told me the works that I should obtain in order to understand their ideas, and wrote simple and clear answers to requests that I left them in writing, on creation, divine intervention, prayer, miracles, the future life, and morals" (Guimet É., 1877, pp. 2-3). In China: "I came up against the indifference of the mandarins in China, the hostility of the local priests and the complete lack of Chinese interpreters speaking French" (Guimet É., 1877, p. 5). For India and Ceylon, he was content to mention the contacts made with scholars and monks, as well as the future recruitment of two young people likely to join the language school envisaged in the same way as the museum, to teach Sanskrit and Sinhalese.

He enumerated the objects and works collected in Japan: “[…] more than three hundred religious Japanese paintings, six hundred divine statues and a collection of over a thousand carefully cataloged volumes in Chinese or Japanese and French.” In China: “The benevolence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries has put me in charge of a Chinese religious library almost as large as the one I brought back from Japan; this collection will be completed by correspondence, and I also hope to gradually double it with sculpted or painted representations of all the divinities of the Celestial Empire. For India: “The scholars whom I had the honour of seeing were good enough to draw up lists for me of all the special books I could find in London or Paris; they undertook, moreover, to procure for me all the local works published in pamphlets, and which cannot be found in Europe. It is also thanks to their kindness that I will gradually be able to have a collection as complete as possible of all the divine representations of the country, and also of all the sacred vessels and symbolic objects which are used in the worship of the different sects" (Guimet É., 1877, p. 8). For the future museum was already prefigured, as he explained to the minister: a religious museum, "which will contain all the gods of India, China, Japan and Egypt. These last two collections are already complete; a library of Sanskrit, Tamil, Sinhalese, Chinese, Japanese, and European, dealing particularly with religious matters; nearly three thousand volumes have already been collected; a school, in which young Orientals can come and learn French, and young French people can study the dead or living languages ​​of the Far East". This impressive publications program was intended to serve the community of scholars and students, as well as the general public.

Of course, the museum would be built in Lyon, for while Guimet was very attached to his region, he also advocated scientific decentralisation before his time. "I have every reason to suppose that this institution, as useful to commercial interests as to philosophy and philology, will be frequented by the many young people of Lyon, who are destined for foreign trade or for whom the remoteness of the capital deprives of the means to engage in language studies.”

Still in Lyon, Guimet simultaneously embarked on an adventure that nearly ruined him, the construction of the Bellecour theatre, inaugurated in 1879. Classically designed, inspired by the Opéra Garnier, but resolutely exotic, with its Indian Room, a changing diorama, and an Egyptian-themed restaurant, the business collapsed and was sold to the city of Lyon in 1892.

In 1879, the Musée de l’histoire des religions et des civilisations occidentales finally opened. After the first wave of excitement passed, results did not live up to ambitions; the school in particular never came to be. Guimet came to terms with this, as he recalled during the jubilee: "I realised that the scholars, archaeologists, philosophers, and philologists who could have been useful to me did not come to Lyon, and that the documents required did not end up there. Moreover, the scholars who could be interested in the museum were rarely in the provinces, while they visited Paris on all occasions. I had made with our publications, our conferences, the organised trips, the excavations undertaken, the natives gathered, a sort of scientific factory, and I found myself far from the raw material and far from consumption. In such cases, the factory is moved, so that's what I did: I moved the museum to Paris" (Guimet É, 1904, p. 15).

After long and bitter negotiations, Guimet obtained land in Paris, where the current Musée Guimet, inaugurated in 1889, was built largely at his expense and identically to the former one. He donated his collections to the state, which in return ensured the museum’s operation. He was appointed director for life, without salary, but with the right to oversee the recruitment of personnel. The faithful Léon de Milloué thus followed the collection’s migration and in 1890 wrote the first Petit guide illustré du musée Guimet. The museum’s director remained very involved in the daily life of the establishment. Acquisitions posed a problem; as no budget line was provided by the State, the director was compelled to make purchases with his own money, which wouldlater complicate allocations. But he managed to raise donations, follow the exchanges of the library, order collection and excavation missions, participate in conferences, and follow the particularly rich editorial activity. In addition to the Annales du musée Guimet, the Grande bibliothèque, the Bibliothèques d’étude, the Bibliothèques de vulgarisation, the Bibliothèque d’art, and the Revue de l’histoire des religions documented the latest scientific undertakings conducted by the museum. For Guimet, publications and conferences represented an essential element of knowledge sharing and a useful tool of communication, especially conferences, which quickly benefit from scientific advances to offer luminous projections. The library, at the heart of the museum system, provided texts and explanations on the religions and deities exhibited in a very didactic way, following the precepts drawn from the teachings of the museums of Boulaq and Copenhagen. “A museum of religions was above all a collection of ideas, questions of art and archeology could only occupy a secondary place. We therefore upheld above all the clarity of the demonstration. Taking each people, we carefully separated their beliefs, further subdividing them according to their principal sects, whenever the precision of our information has permitted us. In each of these divisions, we have grouped the various representations of the same deity in such a way as to bring out its importance,” explains Milloué in the Catalogue du musée (Milloué de L., 1883, p. X-XI).

In 1877, Guimet married Marthe Sanlaville (1857-1915), younger sister of Lucie Sanlaville, his first wife, who had died three months after their marriage in 1868. In 1880, Jean Guimet was born (deceased in 1920 in an accident). Until his death in 1918, Guimet continued to manage the factory, the museum, his scientific activities (congress of orientalists in Rome in 1899, international conferences on the history of religions), his institutional responsibilities (Société asiatique, Société franco-japonaise de Paris, Société française des fouilles archéologiques, Commission archéologique de l’Indochine), and his travels (to Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Romania, and Germany). However, a single museum was no longer enough for him: in 1913, a new Musée Guimet was inaugurated in Lyon to accommodate superfluous objects in Paris, on loan or deposit. The negotiations, once again, were arduous, as the Director of Higher Education complained: "Certainly, Guimet is an indefatigable donor, but he is also a terribly stubborn person, with whom it is not easy to agree administratively. For at least two months I have been asking him to submit to the minister the text of the agreement he wants to negotiate with the city of Lyon, the exact list of objects belonging to the museum that he wants to send to Lyon. I cannot get it.” (S.R., 1918, p. 342). Between Paris and Lyon, the attribution of certain objects today is tricky, as questions of an administrative nature were repellent to Guimet.

He also cultivated another of his passions, music. Having createdchoirs, choral societies, and a brass band in the factory, he also composed musical pieces, namely oratorios, published in a collection in 1863. In 1894, his opera Taï-Tsoung on a Chinese theme was performed in Marseille and was received favourably by the local press. Music had always been an element of social progress for him. Of his first trip to Spain, he recounts: "While the travellers are having supper, we take a tour of the city and I find What?...a marching band of young workers coming out of their rehearsal. I no longer wonder at the astonishing progress the Spaniards have made in civilisation for two or three years; they have Fanfaristes in berets and red belts, Spain is saved! (Guimet É, 1862, p. 16).

Named Officier of the Légion d’honneur in 1895 (LH//1244/25), Commander of the Order of the Sacred Treasure of Japan (1899), Knight of the Royal Order of Cambodia, and winner of the Lefèvre-Deumier Prize awarded by the Académie (1908), Guimet was finally elected a corresponding member of the Institute in 1917. This belated recognition no doubt reflected the gap that separates certified science from a character too often relegated to the rank of simple self-taught patron, as if his wealth tarnished his long-lasting achievements. The man was certainly outspoken and had a particular sense of humour, as evidenced by this remark in his Croquis égyptiens, in which he comments on the scenes of royal offerings with regard to the practices widespread in Egyptian society: “[…] the Egyptians, as we see, knew that small gifts maintain friendship, and the morality of these representations is that the bakshish, being accepted with pleasure by Ammon or Isis, can be declared a divine institution" (Guimet É. , 1867).

After his death, the scientific orientation of the museum evolved towards a clarification of the subject and the accent focused more and more on art and archeology, in particular to promote new collections. The last word can be left to the curator Alexandre Moret (1868-1938) who followed him, in the Bulletin archéologique du musée Guimet in 1921: "To bring together and classify divine images and objects of worship from the ancient and modern Orient in well-closed display cases, labelling dogmas and rituals on the shelves of a library, was not enough for him: his ambition was to initiate the general public into the origins of philosophical and religious problems, to act on them through lectures and books, to solicit research from scholars and to make it accessible to all those who are fond of art and religious thought" (fasc. 1, p. 7).

The collection

The original collection assembled by Émile Guimet went through several successive inflections. When it eventually dissolved,subsequent curators tended to abandon the history of religions to place the accent rather on the artistic and archaeological dimension of the collections, which were increasingly focused on Asia thanks to donations.Becoming part of the direction of the museums of France in 1927, the museum underwent a profound change with the reorganisation of the national collections in 1945: it received the pieces of the Asian department of the Louvre museum in return for its Egyptian and Middle Eastern collections.