The Founder of the Louvre Museum Vivant Denon and His Erotic 'Oeuvres Priapique'
In the current article, we’ll examine erotic prints of the French artist, diplomat, and archaeologist Vivant Denon (1747-1825). His talents, manners, and exceptional devotion to art allowed him to be a favorite of both Louis XV and Napoleon. The sketches of ancient Egyptian monuments, which he made during Napoleon’s military campaign and included in the book ‘Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt,’ became the basics of modern Egyptology.
Fig. 1. Vivant Denon with a book of Nicolas Poussin (Wikipedia.org)
Fig. 2. Phallus’ depiction (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 3. Lying naked woman (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 4. Woman with a goat (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 5. Neapolitan Beauty (britishmuseum.org)
Dominique Vivant Denon, honored with the title of a baron at the age of 65, originated from a gentry family. His parents wanted him to work in the magistracy, but he was reluctant to study law. While attending the faculty of law in Paris, he also studied drawing and engraving with Noël Hallé. In the fourth year of his dwelling in Paris, Denon decided to quit the jurisprudence and devoted himself to the fine arts. Being 23-year-old, the artist produced a comedy ‘Le Bon Pere‘ and also an erotic novel. He was introduced at the court in 1768. His appealing appearance and whimsical wits made him a successful courtier. Louis XV made him responsible for the cabinet of medals and antique gems for Madame de Pompadour. Later, Denon became attaché to the French embassy at St. Petersburg, which was the beginning of his diplomatic career. At the time of the revolution, his property was confiscated, and he had to flee to Italy. Unsurprisingly, Denon’s charm attracted the women, which sometimes helped him a lot. Afterward, when the artist became acquainted with Josephine de Beauharnais, it was she who favorably recommended him to Bonaparte. Thus, his reputation was restored after the revolution, and he returned to France from Italy during Napoleon’s regime.
Fig. 6. ‘Le roman universel.’ A succession of six scenes relating, from right to left, the various steps of a relationship between a man and a woman. c.1790/94 (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 7. The expulsion from Eden (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 8. Night scene in a bedroom, with old procuress counting money while behind her, a couple is engaged in sexual activities. c.1790/94 (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 9. Couple on chair (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 10. The monk with a woman in a rustic setting (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 11. The nun’s dream of a naked woman carried by an angel to the light (britishmuseum.org)
In 1798, when Bonaparte invited Denon to his military campaign in Egypt, the artist was 51 years old. Despite the age, Denon accepted the invitation and took part in Bonaparte’s venture. Being at the theater of operations, Denon copied ancient oeuvres with risk for his life. Bonaparte appointed the artist as a director of the art department of the Institute of Egypt in Cairo. When Denon returned to Paris in 1802, he was appointed as the head of the Louvre. He transported lots of ancient masterpieces to France. In fact, Denon was the one who established the fashion for Egyptian art in Europe. The Bourbon Restoration predictably caused his retirement. Since 1815, Denon worked on an illustrated history of ancient and modern art, which remained unfinished due to his death in 1825.
Fig. 12. Priapic statues (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 13. Doctors gathered around the ailing King Phallus, sitting on throne. c.1790/94 (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 14. Orgiastic scene in Roman style (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 15. Orgiastic scene with copulating dogs in the foreground (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 16. Two couples engaged in sexual activities (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 17. Satyr and a nymph with a cupid and a goat (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 18. Satyr mating with a goat (britishmuseum.org)
The series of prints entitled ‘Oeuvres Priapique’ is a group of works produced by Denon during the 1780s. Burlesque erotic scenes were inspired both by Eastern sensual designs (fig. 26) and by ancient Western art. ‘Oeuvres’ depict ancient and mythological as well as medieval and modern erotic scenes. Denon sold the prints secretly when he faced financial troubles after the confiscation of his property. The series is full of humorous and charming details, such as the putto making a goat leap through the ring (fig. 17), the angel literally kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden (fig. 7), or the nun’s dream of a naked soul embraced by an angel, which inevitably reminds us of Cupid and Psyche (fig. 11).
Fig. 19. The crowd examining a giant phallus (probably belonged to Uranus)
The Thirteenth Labor
The series includes the print entitled ‘The thirteenth labor: erotic scene, with the 50 daughters of Thespius offered to Heracles’ (fig. 20) Thespius was a mythological king of Thespiae, who had 50 daughters and wanted grandchildren from hero Heracles. Coincidentally, his cattle were being devoured by a monstrous lion (not to be confused with the Nemean one). Heracles was 18 years old when he volunteered to kill the beast. Thespius offered him daughters as a reward. According to the myth, Heracles either was hunting on the lion for fifty days and each night had an intercourse with one Thespius’s daughter, or he mated them in one night. The second version sounds like the thirteenth labor indeed.
Fig. 20. The thirteenth labor: erotic scene, with the 50 daughters of Thespius offered to Heracles (britishmuseum.org)
The term ‘priapic’ since ancient times refers to rough sensuality and erection. According to Greek mythology, Priapus was another ‘suffering’ deity. His misfortunes were caused by the episode that also led to the fall of Troy. Priapus allegedly was the son of Aphrodite, cursed in her womb by Hera as revenge for the judgment of Paris. Thus, he was born ugly and impotent although, his main attribute is a large penis.
Fig. 21. Orgiastic scene, with obese and drunk Silenus, carried to a young naked woman who is offering her virginity to Priapus. 1793 (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 22. Woman with a statue of Priapus (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 23. One woman and two men engaged in sexual activity (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 24. Fellatio scene (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 25. Fingering scene (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 26. Orgy copied from a Chinese print (britishmuseum.org)
Sources: Wikipedia.org, britishmuseum.org
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