The Musée Calvet, a rebirth ?

1. Musée Calvet, Avignon
Courtyard entrance
Photo : Didier Rykner

In 1988, the Musée Calvet in Avignon (ill. 1), housed in a beautiful XVIIIth century mansion built by the architect Franque, closed its doors for renovations that were supposed to last four years. The public should never be totally deprived of a museum : a partial reopening took place only in 1996 although the work had been stopped some time earlier. We will not go into the details of why this remodelling project was never finished. Let us instead turn to the future now that the outlook seems to have at last become significantly brighter.

The Musée Calvet has a specific status in that its financing relies both on the city of Avignon and the Fondation Calvet, trustee of the last will and testament of the founder. The foundation is responsible for “administrating and developing the legacy of real estate and other financial assets” bequeathed to it. Common sense seems to have set in, as the city and the foundation have agreed to relaunch the museum financially, restoring it and opening it in proper conditions. Sylvain Boyer, the dynamic curator at its head today constitutes the third and indispensable element for an efficient management team [1]. It seems, quite fortunately, that the mishaps besetting one of France’s most beautiful museums are now a thing of the past.

2. Musée Calvet, Avignon
A XVIIth century Provençal painting room
(the three paintings are by Nicolas Mignard)
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. Nicolas Mignard (1606-1668)
Pietà, 1655
Oil on canvas - 124.8 x 151.5 cm
Avignon, Musée Calvet
Photo : Musée Calvet

The recent inauguration of three rooms devoted to Provençal painting from the XVIth and XVIIth centuries (ill. 2) is the perfect chance to talk about this museum and the challenges still awaiting it, knowing that plans have been set out to restore its former luster. These three rooms that were remodelled on a low budget still show signs of the 1980’s architecture, outdated and not very attractive (especially the double siding for hanging the works), but that is not the issue : by reopening these galleries that had been closed formerly, after studying, publishing and arranging a new hang of the Nordic collection, the museum has taken a major step toward a full reopening which should be scheduled for 2011, an important deadline as it marks the bicentennial of its founding.
We can thus rediscover paintings by Nicolas Mignard (ill. 3), Reynaud Levieux and Pierre Parrocel. For the XVIth century, one should note the significant ensemble of three works by Simon de Châlons, including the large La Sainte Parenté (ill. 4), a masterpiece that has just been restored by the C2RMF. The decision not to reintegrate the few spots of missing paint matter is justified as the areas are very small. Once the viewer steps back, this lack in no way hinders a full appreciation of the work.

4. Simon de Chalons (1606-1668)
La Sainte Parenté, 1543
Oil on canvas - 188 x 268 cm
Avignon, Musée Calvet
Photo : Musée Calvet

5. Pierre II MIgnard (1640-1725)
Christ’s Ascension with the Four Doctors of the Latin Church
Avignon, Musée Calvet
Photo : Musée Calvet

With relatively modest means at his disposal, Sylvain Boyer faces some tough choices and has preferred to systematically restore the collections. For the moment, acquisitions have been suspended except in those cases where a relationship to the Avignon holdings seems important. Hence, in 2006 the museum bought two works on paper by Pierre II Mignard (ill. 5 and 6).
The museum will soon welcome a show of drawings by Joseph Parrocel that was previously at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with additional works, both drawings and paintings, belonging to the museum’s own collection. In 2011 – decidedly a key date for the establishment – a major retrospective devoted to the three Vernet painters (Joseph, Carle and Horace) will be organized in conjunction with the Louvre. This event will inaugurate the temporary exhibition galleries in the wing where construction work, begun in the late 80’s, was never finished. The sudden disappearance of Philip Conisbee (see news item of 19/1/08), a specialist on Joseph Vernet who was collaborating on the project, has been upsetting, but in no way threatens its completion.

6. Pierre II MIgnard (1640-1725)
Martyrdom of Saint Denis, Saint Eleutherius
and Saint Rusticus

Avignon, Musée Calvet
Photo : Musée Calvet

An Internet website was put online two and a half years ago and several publications are in progress at the moment : an addition to the catalogue for Italian painting which appeared in 1998 [2] is planned, as well as a catalogue raisonné for the very rich XVIIIth century French collections by Georges Brunel. A comparable work for XVIth and XVIIth century French art is also in the works.

7. Rome, XVIIIth Century
Apollo in Pursuit of Daphne
Oil on canvas - 61.8 x 74 cm
Avignon, Musée Calvet (Gift Marcel Puech, 1999)
Photo : Musée Calvet

Let us hope that all of these projects will reach fruition and that eventually the museum will also be able to reimplement an active acquisitions policy. From 1986 to 2001 at the time of his death, the great art lover Marcel Puech donated, lest we forget, thousands of drawings, paintings (ill. 7) and sculptures. In his last years, he would purchase works that found their way directly to the museum. It is only fair that his generous contributions be duly acknowledged by completing, at last the full renovation of this establishment.

Website of the Calvet Museum

Website of the Calvet Foundation

Didier Rykner, mardi 11 mars 2008


[1] The former director, Pierre Provoyeur, had been dismissed by the city council in hotly debated circumstances.

[2] Philippe Malgouyres, Philippe Sénéchal, Peintures et sculptures d’Italie. Collections du XVe au XIXe siècle. Musée Calvet, Avigon, Editions de la RMN, 1998.

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