The “Museum of French Art” in New York, founded as a society in 1911, was a subsection of the French Institute in the United States dedicated to arts. It was housed with the French Institute in the United States on 599 Fifth Avenue, New York City, had a Gallery with permanent French art collections, a library and a reading room. It held temporary exhibitions of French art loaned by private collectors. The Museum of French Art was most active until the 1930s, at a time when the opening of museums and art galleries was booming in New York.
Plans for the building of the French Art Museum in the United States, 1919 from Répertoire de l'art français aux Etats-Unis dans des collections particulières et au Musée d'art français. ([New York], 1919) British Library RB.31.C.836.
When the Museum of French Art was created, Fifth Avenue was already home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which opened in 1872, and for the Henry Clay Frick House, built in 1912-1914, whose collections were opened to the public in 1935. The Museum of Modern Art also opened on Fifth Avenue on 7 November, 1929, nine days after the Wall Street Crash. The Museum of French Art was inspired not only by fine arts museums but also by institutions like the “South Kensington Museum” (founded after the 1851 Great Exhibition, now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the more recent Musée des arts décoratifs de Paris created in 1905. It was never built as a distinct monument, though its trustees tried to raise funds for this purpose: in 1919, plans for such a construction were published at the end of the catalogue of its first official exhibition.
French Ambassador Jules Jusserand with Mme Jusserand, 1918 (Image from the Library of Congress)
The idea for the creation of a French Institute in the United States emerged at a council of the Alliance Française of New York. The institute had three subsections: the “Museum of French Art”, whose aim was to promote French Fine Arts and to be a window for French arts and crafts, past and present; the “Entente France-America”, focused on commerce, industry and science; and the “French Union”, a society dedicated to Belles Lettres: Literature, History and philosophy. The French Institute and its art section offered French language courses, technical courses on French arts and crafts, it awarded French language prizes to high school students and organised concerts and lectures for the public and for its members. The British Library holds the programme of a Gala Concert held in 1913 by the Museum of French Art in honour of the French Ambassador in Washington and his American wife, Mr et Mme Jusserand.
Programme for a Gala Concert offered by the Museum of French Art to the French Ambassador at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 14th, 1913. (New York, ) d.488.l.(10.)
Advertisement for an exhibition of the Museum of French Art, The Sun, 25 January 1920. NEWS12364
The first official exhibitions held at the Museum of French Art in 1918, 1919 and 1920, were organised chronologically (“From the Gothic Period to the Regence”, “Periods of Louis XV and Louis XVI”, “The Directoire and Empire Periods”). In 1920, the chairman of the Exhibitions department of the French Art Museum, Mrs Henry Mottet, donated to the British Museum (along with 20 major European and American museums and libraries) a copy of the catalogues for the first two exhibitions, which were published in large format limited editions of 100 copies.
Images from The First Official Loan Exhibition of the Museum of French Art, held in 1918, from Répertoire de l'art français aux Etats-Unis dans des collections particulières et au Musée d'art français.
Later exhibitions focused on specific French artists: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1922), Odilon Redon (1922), Picasso, Braque, Léger (1931), Degas (1931), Renoir (1931), Derain and Vlaminck (1932) and historical characters: “Napoléon and l'Aiglon” (1927), the Marquis de Lafayette (1930). Other exhibitions had a particular thematical, historical or geographical focus: “Fans and handiwork of court and home life, XVIth to XIXth centuries” (1926-1927), “The art and customs of the Basque country of southwestern France” (1927), “Silken textiles of France: Louis XIII to Louis Philippe” (1928), “Ecclesiastical arts of France” (1928), “French prints from the XVth century to the XXth century” (1932).
The Director of the Museum of French Art was Emile McDougall Hawkes, founder and first president of the Institut Français in the United States, a lawyer and engineer from New York who had studied in France and Germany, was active in several Franco-American cultural associations based in New York, including the Alliance Française, focusing on French language teaching outside of France, and he received the French distinction of Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur. He was a trustee of the Foundation of another Francophile and patrons of the arts, John Sanford Saltus.
A portrait of McDougall Hawkes, dated from 1910, and signed l.l., possibly John Bow, was sold in 2015 by Cowan’s Auctions. It bears a plaque inscribed “McDougall Hawkes, First Chairman of the Board of Trustees, 1911-1929, Museum of French Art, French Institute in the United States”.
McDougall Hawkes was also involved in other trade and science organisations, including the French-American Chamber Commerce, “Entente France-America”, a society which aimed “to develop commercial, industrial, economic and scientific relations between the American and French peoples” (New York Times, 11 Aug 1916), and the French-American Medical, Chemical and Physics Society.
Title-page, with McDougall Hawkes’ inscription, from Le Biscuit de Sèvres. Recueil des modèles de la manufacture de Sèvres au XVIIIe siècle ([Paris, 1921]) 7808.s.7.
When McDougall Hawkes visited the British Museum in 1922, he donated to the library a signed copy of Le Biscuit de Sèvres by Émile Bourgeois and Georges Lechevallier-Chevignard, illustrated by many plates.
Plate from Le Biscuit de Sèvres.
Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance languages
Museum of French Art, French Institute in the United States. Répertoire de l'art français aux Etats-Unis dans des collections particulières et au Musée d'art français. Tome I: l’Art gothique. First annual official loan exhibition of French art, January 29th to February 12th, 1918. Catalogue: Gothic period to the Régence. Tome II, Le dix-huitième siècle. Catalogue of the second annual official loan exhibition of French art: periods of Louis XV & XVI, held at the gallery of the Museum in the city of New York, January 14 to January 29, 1919. ([New York?]: Privately printed, 1919). RB.31.C.836 and RB.31.C.837.
“The French Institute and Museum of French Art in the United States”, The Lotus Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 9 (Jun., 1912), pp. 267-280. [JSTOR]
“To Develop French Trade: Prominent New Yorkers Incorporate Entente France-America”, New York Times, 11 Aug 1916, p. 11. MFM.MA3