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The Denon corpus

Introduction to the Denon corpus

Title The administrative correspondance of Vivant Denon
Dates 1802-1815
Author Dominique Vivant-Denon, Director of Museums during the Consulat and the Empire
Significance     A first group consisting of six registers from the Archives des musées nationaux [The Archives of the Musées Nationaux] (AA 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10) and one register of ‘additional correspondence’ (*AA 12). A second group of letters to Napoleon from the collections of the Archives Nationales [French National Archives] and kept in boxes IV 1049, AF IV 1050 and AF IV 1676, as well as in series O-2, BB-30 and F-21.
Content overview Group 1 consists of 3,928 letters, including 319 from the additional register and 85 from the “Précis”. Group 2 consists of 97 letters, reports or notes from Denon to Napoleon, accompanied by attachments, including 60 addressed to Napoleon. The reference numbers of these letters are preceded by the siglum AN as they are located at the Archives Nationales.

Detailed description

Book cover of the de Vivant Denon's Correspondance

This corpus brings together documents from two distinct archives; registers from the Archives des Musées Nationaux and letters from the Archives Nationales.
The letters have been arranged into two volumes and published by Marie Anne Marie Dupuy, Isabelle Le Masne de Chermont, and Elaine Williamson, with the title Vivant Denon, directeur des musées sous le Consulat et l’empire: correspondance (1802-1815) [Vivant Denon, Director of Museums under the Consulat and the Empire: correspondance], (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1999).


The registers of the Archives des Musées Nationaux

Material description

Copies of the letters written by Vivant Denon during his time as Director of Museums have been transcribed in several registers which are now kept in series AA at the Archives des Musées Nationaux. The 55 registers of this series cover almost three quarters of a century of museum life, from the founding of the museum in 1793 until the departure of Nieuwerkerke, the last Director of the Imperial Museums, in 1870. The 3,609 letters published here are taken from six chronological registers dating from 1802 to 1815 (AA 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10), along with letters transcribed from a register titled ‘additional correspondence’ (*AA 12) comprising four hundred or so letters (distinguished here by numbers separated by a hyphen) which have been added to this edition at the appropriate chronological points.
The letters are in several different, clear and easy-to-read hands, and they were carefully transcribed. The paper is ruled, with margins containing the specifications of the subject and addressee of each letter.
As the purpose of these registers is to keep a record of dispatched letters, and to make the texts accessible, each volume ends with an alphabetical table of correspondents (classified by the first letter of the name and not strictly in alphabetical order), giving the date of the letter, its subject and a note of the page on which it was transcribed.
Only register *AA 5 is preserved in its original green folder. Two marks can still be seen on both the front and back covers: this is where the original string would have been attached to secure the register.
It should be noted that the letters reproduced for the collection from the registers kept at the Archives des Musées Nationaux are based on copies, which were often made before the original letters were sent. These copies were produced for administrative purposes only and as such do not include the polite formulas that would have been included in the final versions. In addition, despite having been transcribed with great care, these copies often show misunderstandings or mistakes on the part of the copyist, the most frequent being “sauts du même au même” causing the omission of one or more elements in the sentence. Wherever possible, the original versions of these letters have been located at the Archives Nationales or the manuscript department at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France [the French National Library].

Recipients and contents

The recipients of the letters can be divided into three categories, namely: the authorities to whom the Director of Museums reported (the Ministry of the Interior and the “Maison de l’Empereur” [the Emperor’s Household); other public officials (including his subordinates); and private individuals.
When he was appointed in 1802, Denon reported directly to the Ministry of the Interior. This changed on the first day of the Year XIII (23 September 1804) when his duties were placed under the authority of the newly established “Maison de l’Empereur”.
The influence of the “Maison de l’Empereur” increased with Daru’s appointment in 1805, which led to a great deal of correspondence between the Maison and Denon relating to the day to day running of the establishment. The correspondence often focused on topics such as the annual budget, the monthly distribution (normally by two separate couriers) of the employees’ salary statements (for employees at the Napoleon Museum and the Museum of Versailles), as well as the quarterly reports and supporting documents detailing the running costs of these two establishments (heating, lighting, various minor works, etc.). The Maison’s authority also extended to two of Denon’s most important areas of activity: the maintenance and fitting out of the imperial palaces (for which most of the paintings came from the museums), and major commissions, such as paintings of the 19 marshals of the Empire, or statues of the princes and great dignitaries.
Denon also corresponded with many state officials, first and foremost with his subordinates. His correspondence with officials in Versailles was fairly routine in nature, but there were a number of fiery exchanges with Lenoir, the curator of the Musée des Monuments Français. He corresponded mostly with the local prefects and mayors when dealing with the transportation of paintings to the provinces.
Finally, those in the ‘private individuals’ category are mostly artists he wrote to on the subject of commissions. On this topic, he also had to correspond with princes and high-level dignitaries, suppliers, and sometimes newspaper editors and members of different ‘learned’ societies (including foreign academies).

The letters preserved at the Archives Nationales


We have selected a number of original letters, written by Denon to Napoleon, from the collection preserved at the Archives Nationales.
The selection includes letters written to the First Consul and later Emperor, but also confidential notes and feuilles de travail [worksheets] written to record discussions and the decisions taken. Documents from other collections, notably the O-2 series (Maison de l’Empereur), have been added to the collection on an ad hoc basis. These are either letters sent by Napoleon to his ministers or to the intendant general of his Maison, or documents that provide additional information useful for understanding the context of the other texts.
Some of these original letters are also part of the registers at the Archives des Musées Nationaux.
In these cases, we have decided to reproduce both versions of the text in order to preserve the entire body of copied letters in the museum’s correspondence registers, while maintaining the authenticity of the original version. There are sometimes significant differences between both versions of a text which have been noted in the collection. These discrepancies should not be overlooked.

Material Description

Denon’s administrative letters were rarely written by hand and weren’t always signed, even when they were intended for the Emperor. Even without a signature, texts can be attributed to Denon on the basis of the watermark or size and colour of the paper, the handwriting of the scribe or secretary, the colour of the ink, the width of the nib, or sometimes the dating of the document. Letters received by the Emperor at the Secretary of State were registered and often inscribed with their date of reception, which also aids the process of attribution.
Denon’s letters to Napoleon are particular in that from 1804 onwards, they were rarely written on letterhead paper in contrast to letters he wrote to ministers or other individuals. During the Consulat, the director had written on paper with three different letterheads, successively designed to reflect the evolution of his job title, the transcription of his own name, and the change in the name of the museum. (AN 1, AN 3, AN 4, AN 6-AN 11, AN 12-AN 13).


In the letters and notes he wrote to the First Consul and then to the Emperor, Denon addressed the principal artistic activity of the time. This included the design and construction/production of monuments, statues, medals, paintings, tapestries, engravings and drawings to commemorate the achievements of period as well as the individuals behind them; the organisation of the Salon and other exhibitions; choosing the works of art to be brought to France from the conquered territories; and the transfer of paintings to the imperial palaces and provincial museums. But his correspondence also gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at the artistic administration of the time, for example details of the reorganisation and restructuring of an artistic establishment under Denon’s direction, Denon’s persuasion of the members of the commissions charged with making important artistic decisions, the negotiation of artist fees (in particular the Emperor’s Premier Peintre [First Painter], David). Finally, the reader can sometimes perceive Denon’s personal feelings of joy and sorrow in response to the changing nature of his relationship with the Emperor.

Introduction to the digital edition

The information included at the beginning of each letter gives the bibliographical source, the number of the letter, its date, the name or role of the addressee, the name of the author of the letter (“Précis” when a letter was not written by Denon), the name, side and page of the source register. This is so that the letters remained linked to all of Denon’s administrative correspondence.
The indication of the origin of the additional register is made after the number of the letter by a hyphen followed by a number. The same applies to the registers kept in the Archives Nationales. In the paper edition, the footnotes are located at the bottom of the page where they have been renumbered and attached to the letter to which they belong. This is so that both the text of the letter and its notes could be printed.


The original spelling has been maintained throughout the correspondence, both for proper nouns and for certain spelling peculiarities of the time, e.g. “mai” [May], is spelled “may”. Abnormal spelling is indicated by the word ‘sic’ in square brackets, indicating authors’ interventions. Any underlined passages in the manuscript have been maintained and reproduced in italics. Emphasis, punctuation, use of capital letters, hyphens and the cedilla follow modern usage. Abbreviations have expanded. Words that have been erased in the paper edition are shaded in grey.