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Interview with Laure de Margerie

The French Sculpture Census (frenchsculpture.org), a new digitial platform, features 7,134 works, with time, it will grow to encompass 15,000 to 20,000 works. A fact sheet (featuring location, technique, inscriptions, date, inventory number, acquisition origin, history, bibliography, and expositions the piece has featured in) accompanies each sculpture. The project was initiated by Laure de Margerie, a French researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Dorothée Charles (D.C.):  How was the project frenchsculpture.org conceived?

Laure de Margerie (L.M.): The project was inspired by two sources.

The first is the Sculpture Archive at the Musée d’Orsay for which I was responsible for thirty years (1978-2009). The curators and I built a very efficient tool that consisted in part of 100,000 photographs of 19th century sculptures made in France and the world over. My tracking obsession dates back to these years!

The second is putting two databases developed by the Painting Department online on the Louvre Museum website: d’Outremanche, which lists British works in French public collections, and La Fayette, which lists American works in French public collections.

The first phase of my project goes back to 2001: I was “stranded” at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, one of the best art history libraries in the United States, by the shutdown of airspace after September 11 and I began a census of 19th century French sculptures in American museums. When I settled down in Dallas in 2009, I restarted the project while broadening its chronological scope to 1500-1960 and without limiting myself to museums.

Finally, I can also mention two more private elements: in my family, three generations of diplomats accustomed me to bilateral relations, and crossing the United States in an Airstream trailer when I was 15 made me understand early on that the U.S. was not limited to its big cities.


D.C.: When will the project be complete? And how many works will it present?

L.M.: Five years later, the French Sculpture Census is already 7,000 sculptures strong. For the moment, I have abundant material and I already have a long list of institutions to contact, of leads to follow, and of catalogues to utilize, but I am still far from finishing my investigation. I am looking forward to the next step when I will take an entire month to comb through a state in order to uncover ALL the French sculptures that could be there.

I estimate that five years will still be needed to cover everything and that the result, which will never be final, will incorporate approximately 15,000 sculptures. Obviously, if I did not work almost alone, it would go faster!


D.C.: A project that covers the entire U.S. territory is rare. Which institutions do you work with?

L.M.: I am very conscious of pressing the United States into the French spirit of centralization that led André Malraux to create, in 1964, an “inventory” that, “from the teaspoon to the cathedral”, records France’s artistic riches. In the United States, few projects are done at a federal level in the cultural domain. I am lucky that one of the exceptions is sculpture: “SOS!” (which here means Save Outdoor Sculpture!) is a large inventory of sculpture in public space under the auspices of Heritage Preservation.

Therefore, in the absence of a centralizing agent, I work by individual contact with approximately 300 institutions that have works in the Census. And at each institution, I am generally in contact with several people:  the curator, the registrar, the rights and reproduction administrator...


D.C.: What types of sculpture do you catalogue?

L.M.: I catalogue nearly everything: sculpture in the round, reliefs, medals; sculptures from museums and from outdoors, sculptures from facades and decoration of buildings, even categories that are not always classified as sculptures: ceramics by sculptors (Gauguin, Rodin, for example), porcelain statuettes, several utilitarian” objects like vases, andirons, armoires...


D.C.:  What stories are you telling through this index?

L.M.: That’s a very important aspect: the stories I wish to tell are those of the men and women to whom we owe the presence of all these sculptures. They can be the artists themselves, political and economic emigrants who settled in the United States. They can be the dealers who played an important role by furnishing the impressive Gilded Age collections or by organizing expositions for French sculptors of 1920-1930, for example. The collectors themselves have established a taste and many are their pieces now housed in museums. Also, we musn’t forget the curators who managed to guide their public in a particular direction, for example sketches in terracotta.

But it can also be ordinary citizens like those who, in 1949, sent artwork by the Merci Train whose story I tell on the website (http://frenchsculpture.org/fr/merci-train-1949). Behind these works is a curiosity, a desire to share a taste, and above all, the pleasure of art.


D.C.: Which artists are most represented?

L.M.: The overwhelming winner is Rodin, with more than 10% of items in the Census, 700 of 7,000. And it’s not finished! This summer, an intern from the Ecole du Louvre (a very good art history school housed in the Louvre) will process the 200 Rodin sculptures collected by Iris and Gerald B. Cantor at Stanford. Rodin had several great American collectors, some of which decided to build collections representative of his work.

Maillol, the author of Night behind me on the photograph, has also been well collected by American museums. When he was still alive, several exhibitions showing his works were organized in the US.


D.C.: Who are the female artists?

L.M.: There are few, 32 of 700, not even 5%. There are monstres sacrés like Sarah Bernhardt or Louise Bourgeois, there are ephemeral or impeded talents like Marie d’Orléans or Camille Claudel, and for me there was the pleasure of discovering singular pieces by Anton Prinner or Claude Cahun.


D.C.: How is the database organized? What kind of team do you work with, and with what funding?

L.M.: The website frenchsculpture.org is a reflection, enriched by pages of texts, of a database that has been my everyday work for five years now. The permanent team is composed of me, and that’s all! To enrich the database, I had the temporary help of five interns from the Ecole du Louvre, and since April 2014, of a young French woman from Chicago, Charline Fournier-Petit, who volunteered to help with the project. A gift from heaven!

The funding is shared among six partners who each contribute in different ways. The University of Texas at Dallas renumerates me part-time, finances part of the travel, and computer equipment. THe Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas just financed programming development between the database and the internet, the creation and the hosting of the site. The (French) National Institute of Art History (INHA) brings in crucial funds that allow me to pay those artists’ rights whose work is not yet part of the public domain. The Musée d’Orsay furnishes assistance for the development and the maintenance of the database. The Rodin Museum will finance a researcher who will devote himself to the Rodin files. And the partnership with the Ecole du Louvre permitted 15 interns to study themes related to the Census or to important museum collections.


D.C.: To whom is the website addressed?

L.M.: My wish is that the website satisfies many different publics. Of course, my museum colleagues, curators, archivists, conservators, as well as academics, but also collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and finally, the public of amateurs and curious people that I wish to see grow. That is why I included pages explaining, for example, how a sculpture is created. For me it’s about opening the public’s eyes and sharing a delight.


Laure de Margerie, director of the French Sculpture Census, was senior archivist and head of the Sculpture Archives at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, from 1978 through 2009. In this position she curated several exhibitions, including Facing the Other: Charles Cordier (1827-1905), Ethnographic Sculptor (Paris, Quebec City, New York, 2004/05). She was part of the team that installed the sculpture collection at the opening of the museum in 1986 and co-authored the collection catalogue (1986). De Margerie also worked as archivist in charge of historic buildings in Normandy in Rouen (1983-85) and oversaw rights and reproductions at the National Archives in Paris (1991-92). She was awarded a fellowship at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts (2000-01), and was the Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department guest scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California (fall 2011).