(b. 1780, Grasse, d. 1850, Paris)
Vivant Denon Replacing El Cid's Remains in their Tombsc. 1811
Oil on canvas, 40 x 35 cm
Musée Antoine-Lecuyer, St Quentin
Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747-1825) was a French painter, printmaker, illustrator and author. A diplomat under the ancien régime, he served Napoleon as supervisor of the scholars sent with his Egyptian campaign, and afterwards as director of the Musée Napoleon (Louvre). As organizer of the Salon exhibitions under the empire he had great powers of patronage and largely dictated the programmes of the pictures of the Napoleonic campaigns painted by Gros and others. His taste was eclectic and he also encouraged young artists, such as Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard.
Denon had a passion for collecting relics of the great - bones of Abelard, a tooth of Voltaire, whiskers from Henri IV's moustache - and Fragonard depicts him replacing in its tomb, after an evidently minute examination, the skull of the semi-legendary eleventh-century Spanish hero El Cid. In a subtly edited form, this referred to events during the French siege of the Spanish city of Burgos in 1808, when a regiment of dragoons, hoping to find gold and jewels, destroyed El Cid's monument in San Pedro de Cardena near the city. The French governor of Castille, appalled at this sacrilege, salvaged what he could of the remains and built a new monument in Burgos, but not before he had presented Denon with a parcel of the great man's bones. Far from replacing them where they belonged, Denon kept them for the rest of his life.