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Note on the Life and Work of Jacques Thuillier

Roland Recht
p. 84-87

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 34, July 2012

Texte intégral

1“Faced with a history of art always suspended to transcendence, whether it be the dialectic of Spirit or the mystique of Progress, he would perform a Copernican inversion, putting the work and the artist back at the centre of the enquiry. Such secularization was unwelcome at a time which we can now see was desperately trying to cling to beliefs, while assertively claiming its freedom. Instead of well-trodden paths which allow for ever more subtle scholastic speculation that students so love and that awes the public, he recommended that all problems be ‘re-examined from every angle’…”

2These were Jacques Thuillier’s words, about Henri Focillon. They could apply to our colleague himself, departed on 18 November last year. Jacques Thuillier’s continuous, lifelong effort to “put the work and the artist back at the centre of the inquiry” is unmatched.

3Jacques Thuillier was born on 18 March 1928 in Vaucouleurs, a village in the Meuse district, with a population of no more than 2,000. As his father was appointed as a literature teacher at the Nevers vocational school in 1937, he attended school in that town, in which there was a cathedral and a museum. In his Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France he uncharac­te­ristically confided that: “I learned from my parents to distinguish a Gothic door from a Romanesque door, just as I was starting to learn the alphabet.”

4In 1944 he came first in the concours général for Latin translation, and was accepted into an advanced preparatory première class at the Lycée Henry IV.1 Like many of the youth of his age in the immediate post-war period, poor health slowed down his studies somewhat. He enrolled in an advanced première class at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, this time for the academic year 1950-1951, and was then accepted at the École normale supérieure. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in 1952, he wrote a thesis on the art critic André Félibien (1953). Jacques Thuillier’s interest in Félibien never waned. He considered him to be the first biographer of French art, and his work as an art historian began with him.

5In 1954 Jacques Thuillier obtained the agrégation. He then carried out research on art criticism in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and on seventeenth-century French painting, as part of an optional fourth year at the École normale (1954-1955). He then used a stay in Rome, as a resident researcher at the Primoli Foundation, as an opportunity to carry out research on French artists in Italy. In 1956 he was a resident researcher at the Thiers Foundation, a research associate at the CNRS, and then taught a course on art criticism at the Sorbonne, before becoming an assistant at the Institut d’art et d’archéologie, Rue Michelet, in 1959. He pursued his teaching career in Dijon, where art history had no academic existence, even though we know that Lucien Febvre had taught the history of Burgundian art there in 1914. As a lecturer on the History of Medieval and Modern Art, Jacques Thuillier inaugurated the presence of this discipline in Dijon from 1962 to 1970. He subsequently kept a close eye on the fate of this university, where modernists and then medievalists were successively appointed.

6His Doctorat d’État (Peinture et doctrines artistiques en France au XVIIe siècle) (Painting and Artistic Doctrines in France in the Seventeenth Century), defended in 1970, earned him his appointment from October of the same year as Professor of the History of Modern Art at the Université Paris-Sorbonne. Seven years later, the Collège de France created for him the Chair of History of Artistic Creation in France, which he held until his retirement in 1998. Until 1984, two art historians taught at the Collège de France, as André Chastel had held the Chair of Art and Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy since 1970.

7It would be tedious to list all the responsibilities Jacques Thuillier held during his career: in academia, on national committees (CNRS, Universities’ advisory committee), in heri­tage protection, (national committee for historical buildings, committee for the protection of museums, commission for classified and controlled museum acquisitions, etc.), international authorities (he was highly active on the International Committee for the History of Art from 1964 onwards, and became its scientific secretary in 1969), and on editorial committees (he took part in the creation of Art de France in 1961 and of Revue de l’Art in 1968).

8Jacques Thuillier actually had several intertwined lives, linked by his tireless, hard-working disposition. I will begin by talking­ about his work as a great “curator” – an English term that he would not have liked, though it defines his activity as a designer and organizer of monographic exhibitions. I would like to talk about that activity first, because it is, in a sense, a key to his way of thinking. Just as photography altered the very object of art history as it was coming into existence during the second half of the nineteenth century, so too, a century later, great exhibitions altered the use value of art works, thereby modifying the way art historians related to them. Jacques Thuillier was contemporary to this movement and played a major part in it. To him, an exhibition was an opportunity to bring together, beyond time and space, the components of an artist’s body of works. In that moment of truth, that which until then was only a hypothesis, a monographic fiction, was put to the test.

9In 1963 he created a 450-page catalogue for an exhibition dedicated to Charles Le Brun at the Château de Versailles, for which he wrote a brilliant introduction, a biography of the artist, and the notes for all of the known works of Louis XIV’s chief painter.

10A great part of Le Brun’s prestige amongst his contemporaries and, above all, amongst other painters stemmed from the fact that he was able, from a very young age and throughout his life, to accomplish the ideal not of the perfect painting but of the perfect painter, more fully and with more ease than anyone else.

11The second major event to which Jacques Thuillier devoted himself entirely from the moment he entered the Sorbonne was the exhibition of the works of Georges de La Tour, which opened in 1972. At the time, the dust had not yet settled after the upheaval of May 1968, and those whom the youth saw as the supporters of orthodoxy, along with their conception of art history, were under attack. The tradition of connoisseurship as it exists in France was being strongly challenged. It was considered as the quintessential expression of an obsolete art history, because it was too remote from the social and ideological considerations that should matter to art historians. At the height of this protest, Thuillier wrote the following proclamation, or rather manifesto, as an introduction to his exhibition of La Tour’s works (1972):

12La Tour is the triumph, as well as the justification, of art history. For La Tour would not exist without art history. He who was seen as a “famous painter” had hardly passed away when he slid into oblivion for over three centuries. Only the steady work of art historians could allow for this miracle to happen: from a simple name, one of the greatest painters of the sevententh century has been restored.

13Understand that this is the traditional art history which is now mocked and reviled, cut down to its core, and whose name no one dares to pronounce, even in universities and museums. There is nowadays a new way of dealing with artwork that rejects the thankless task of searching archives, that tolerates only direct confrontation with masterpieces, and that will comment only on the artist’s feeling of sacredness or social alienation.

14This was a declaration of war on Pierre Francastel’s followers from the École pratique des hautes études, and on the advocates of a semiology of art and of historical materialism. The retaliation was sharp. Attacks came from every side. But Jacques Thuillier held on, firmly attached to the convictions that his Inaugural Lecture of 13 January 1978 would powerfully reveal. I will mention one in particular, which seems to have formed a fundamental guideline in his work. An art historian, he said, cannot separate value judgement from his historical work, just as he knows that all the hierarchies that he builds are relative, and therefore temporary. But this conception of relativity and value judgement can only be based on a meticulous study of archives, which is a prerequisite for the constitution of a corpus. It should then be based on careful examination of the works, of their state of conservation, of repaints. The study of the prints that often preserve the memory of a disappeared painting is another source of information which allows one to acquire the broadest possible knowledge base on an artist’s works.

15As monographic exhibitions and books accumulated, we witnessed the transformation of the French seventeenth century: Nicolas Poussin, the Le Nain brothers, Laurent de La Hyre, Sébastien Bourdon, Jacques de Bellange, Lubin Baugin, etc. But the nineteenth century also caught Jacques Thuillier’s attention: in 1984 he pondered over what was called “art pompier”, just as the Musée d’Orsay was being prepared for inauguration, and composed an exhibition on Delacroix and French Romanticism for the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo (1989). It revealed a large number of works that had been unfairly relegated to provincial museum reserve collections that were so deep that it had been decided that they were best forgotten. Paradoxically, French Romanticism had never been the subject of an exhibition and, to add to the paradox, Jacques Thuillier’s exhibition would never be shown in France.

16Jacques Thuillier was an indisputably talented writer. His demanding writing always showed a concern to translate as precisely as possible his intuitive response to a work of art. Although he belonged to the same tradition as Henri Focillon and André Chastel, his writing was neither overly rhetorical like Focillon’s, nor did it have the very literary resonance of Chastel’s – as for instance when he wrote about Charles Le Brun:

17Le Brun is, above all, the painter of Battles. For him, virile nudes and beautiful horses suffice as a language. Momentum, combat and defeat abundantly multiply the movements of body and soul. Constantine and Alexander are convenient pretexts to unravel these “passions”, still so close to those instincts we call ardour, anger, pity, fear or despair, and awaken the basic, secret, motivating forces of all life.

18An authentic writer who practised what was called écriture-artiste, Jacques Thuillier admired a form of classicism which he thought was best represented by Félibien, whose “clarity and elegance” he admired. Thuillier worked on his texts with exceptional patience, irrespective of their intended purpose. Although he aimed to be clear and elegant, he never shied away from controversy: throughout the text, he would throw jabs, and sometimes bites, at the art of his time or at conceptions of art history that he did not share. It came as no surprise that the Académie française wanted a man who cared so much for language to join its ranks. He and the older André Chastel were the only art historians who could have aspired to do so. However, as Jean d’Ormesson and Marc Fumaroli revealed a few days ago, Jacques Thuillier never gave in to their friendly pressure.

19He put his art of persuasion to use in his public action, when debating with his peers on problems regarding museum and monument heritage, with a particular focus on what was then still called “the provinces”. It was in the provincial museums, as I have said, that he made so many discoveries. He searched the archives of the different départements (counties), in order to document a particular sale or fact relating to an artist’s career. He was also a true lover of art, and he and his brother Guy made a pair of collectors which spontaneously brings to mind the Goncourt brothers. For sixty years they accumulated ­paintings, drawings and prints from all periods. He exercised his eye and his judgement virtually every day on prints and drawings found at art dealers or anonymous paintings the quality and historical interest of which he immediately detected. This collection he donated and, contrary to many donors who only think of prestigious institutions such as the Louvre or Orsay, the Thuillier brothers remained faithful to the Lorraine region. A total of 2,000 drawings and 12,000 prints were sent to the Nancy museum, and almost 100 paintings were sent to the county museum of Vic-sur-Seille, where Georges de La Tour was born. They now form the core of its collection.

20And, of course, Jacques Thuillier was a marvellous teacher who, from the University of Dijon to the Collège de France, encouraged a great number of now famous art historians to study seventeent-century – and other – art. It is without a doubt at the Collège de France, where he taught for 21 years, that he gave the best of himself. He initially dedicated his lectures mainly to the seventeenth century, giving painters from Lorraine and art theory a special place. Then, from 1988 onwards, he alternated the study of romantic painting and the seventeenth century. But what is most surprising to this day is his interest in computer science, which he expressed by dedicating his 1986 seminar to it, and then all of his seminars from 1989. Ahead of his French and foreign colleagues, he had thought about the huge contributions that could be expected from the digitization of archive documents or collections.

21Jacques Thuillier saw the Collège de France less as a place of consecration than as a unique form of scholarly sociability. He saw the co-habitation of so many disciplines as a formi­dable opportunity for intellectual emulation. He was moreover keenly interested in the work of his colleagues, especially when it came to the natural sciences. You have all seen him atten­ding the quaterly meetings of the Faculty on Sundays, even just a few months before his death. He was exemplary in his discreetness, but was always attentive to and concerned about the future of the Collège. We will no doubt all remember him as a courteous man who, in his search for the personality of seventeenth-century­ painters and for that of his contemporaries, was particularly sensitive to all the expressions of a singular life.

Jacques Thuillier, a French art historian, was born in Vaucouleurs (Meuse) on 18 March 1928. He died on 18 October 2011, aged 83. In 1977 he was appointed as Professor at the Collège de France, where he held the Chair of History of Artistic Creation in France until 1998.

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Roland Recht, « Note on the Life and Work of Jacques Thuillier », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2015, consulté le 18 décembre 2018. URL :

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Roland Recht

Emeritus Professor of History of European Medieval and Modern Art from 2001 to 2012

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