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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 47-61
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Pahin de la Blancherie's Commercial Cabinet of Curiosity (1779-87)
Although Pahin de la Blancherie's Salon de la Correspondance has attracted the attention of historians and art historians alike, its character as a commercial cabinet of curiosity has never been explored. Looking at the hostility that La Blancherie engendered among the arts authorities of his time, I suggest not only that his art exhibitions encroached on territory jealously guarded by France's Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, but also that his penchant for displaying oddities along with his incessant wheeling and dealing jeopardized the Academy's ennobled vision of the fine arts. While the Academy waged a battle to assert the liberal arts status of painting and to distinguish works of art from crafts and curios, La Blancherie exhibited paintings and sculptures along with two-headed calves, anatomical models, and the latest fashions in combination locks. In another contrast, the Academy preserved its class status by barring members from engaging in commerce, whereas La Blancherie sold his wares openly and promoted himself in the unmistakable tones of a huckster. Finally, as the arts administration planned to establish a permanent exhibition of Old Master paintings in the renovated halls of the Louvre Palace, La Blancherie mounted his own show of French masters, which he embellished with characteristic self-promotional flair. For the Academy's defenders, this ambitious exhibition was the last straw.
The Salon de la Correspondance
The Salon de la Correspondance was organized by an unrelentingly mercantile host who affected the trappings of nobility. Baptized with the surname [End Page 47] Pahin de Leuchey, the Salon's founder went by several variations on the name Mammès Claude-Catherine Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie Newton (Langres, 1752-London, 1811). 1 Biographers agree on few details concerning La Blancherie's early life, yet they generally concur that he was born to a lineage of magistrates and lawyers of modest means. As a youth he traveled to the Americas, to Italy, and throughout France, seeking education and monetary fortune. Although financial success continually eluded La Blancherie, his voyages to the French colonies did provide material for his first publication, the two-volume Excerpt from the Journal of My Voyages (1776). 2 In 1777, La Blancherie settled in Paris and established the Bureau de la Correspondance in his rooms in the former Collège de Bayeux on rue de la Harpe. 3 As the head of the nascent organization, La Blancherie dubbed himself "Agent-général de correspondance pour les sciences et les arts."
In two publications that set forth the goals of the enterprise, La Blancherie described the Bureau de la Correspondance as a contribution to the emerging "republic of letters." 4 The prospectus for his forthcoming newsletter, News of the Republic of Letters and Arts (NRLA), 5 explained that "the work that we offer to our country and to foreign nations, under a title long consecrated in literature, has for its goal to facilitate the communication of minds, opinions, talents, and works in all genres." 6 To this end, the Bureau would serve two functions. First, it would open its doors one afternoon each week to French and foreign "men of letters and artists" interested in furthering communication across disciplinary and national borders. La Blancherie would "gather before their eyes books, paintings, mechanical devices, specimens of natural history, sculptural models and, finally, all types of ancient or modern works with which one would want to be acquainted, or to learn . . . the value, the existence, or the author." 7 Second, his newsletter would discuss developments in science, literature, and the arts and report on the weekly gatherings, noting "details of interest for curiosity and commerce." 8 A supplement published with each issue would list all of the objects presented at the previous meeting and those to be displayed at the next one. 9
La Blancherie harbored particularly high hopes for his exhibitions of painting and sculpture, which he advertised as complements to the Academy...