CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

A New Look at the Confiscation of Heritage Objects in Europe at the Time of the French Revolution

Research Conference: 30 May - 31 May 2018

It is frequent that in one place or another the notions of secularisation and decontextualisation of art works that gave rise to the modern museums in the second half of the 18th century, are questioned. Such a reconsideration leads to recognize, in line with Quatremère de Quincy, that a work of art can only be appreciated in its original context. Hence the risk of wanting to rewrite our history by reconsidering the transfer of heritage objects, a phenomenon that has been present throughout history.

The most striking example is most probably that of the revolutionary confiscations in the transition from the 18th to the 19th century, a decisive period for the awakening heritage awareness. Up to this day tempers can flare in some regions that had to part with many of their masterpieces. In Belgium, for example, there is a growing body of opinion to denounce the violence of the French troops and to demand that the art works appropriated in 1794-95 be returned. This resurfacing of reclamations that take no account of the principle of non-retroactivity of law is both in line with the restoration to Jewish families of art objects confiscated by the Nazis and with the UNESCO’s recommendations for the restitution of cultural objects robbed by the former colonial powers.

A one-sided approach of this transfer of heritage at the end of the 18th century from the point of view of the art robberies tends towards reductionism. Indeed, one risks to forget how much the confiscation of cultural objects by the French nation was prompted by a universal ambition of liberation and art promotion with the aim of educating its citizens. This democratic ambition drew from the upcoming notion that heritage is determined by collective appropriation.

Complementary to the scientific inventory the KIK-IRPA is currently making up of the paintings and sculptures robbed by the French revolutionaries in the Austrian Netherlands and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, the institution organizes a two-day colloquium to take on a broad approach to the re-evaluation of the historical, political and artistic circumstances of this revolutionary confiscation throughout Europe, as well as its antecedents and direct consequences. The topic will be extended to all cultural and scientific heritage concerned and thus entail much more than art works.

The program of the conference can be found here.