Emile Guimet travels around the world in his own museum

Émile Guimet, Studio Durand, Lyon, ca 1870 © Collection Famille Guimet and musée Guimet, Paris / Image MNAAG

Emile Guimet, the founder of Musée National des Arts Asiatiques, was born in Lyon, in 1838, the son of a chemist who invented a special ultramarine blue. His family’s wealth enabled him to travel extensively, first to Egypt in the 1860’s, then for ten months around America and Asia with an artist, Félix Régamey , a friend of Verlaine and Rimbaud, who used to draw for newspapers and was exiled after the Commune of 1870. It is their voyage to Japan, China and India that is recounted at Musée Guimet until March 12.

Chromolithographie ad of  « bleu Guimet » © Collection Famille Guimet et musée Guimet, Paris / Image MNAAG

What is more romantic than settling on a journey with an artist who can record everyone you meet  and every monument you see? Nowadays, we use our i-phones but all through the 19 th century, sketchbooks were common and some of Guimet’s notebooks are exhibited with Régamey’s paintings. This is a wonderful exhibition with a strange title « Enquêtes vagabondes » that Emile Guimet lets us discover.

A page in Guimet’s journal in Egypt

The show starts with the origins of Guimet’s fortune, the ultramarine blue, invented in 1826 by his father Jean-Baptitse Guimet. It is an artificial coloring made with thiosulfate of sodium aluminiosilicate and it replaces cheaply the ultramarine blue made with lapis lazuli. His father would go on founding the future Pechiney company. His mother was Rosalie Bidauld, a painter, and the daughter and niece of two famous artists Pierre Xavier and Jean Joseph Xavier Bidauld.

the famous blue invented by Guimet’s father

His first travels take him to Spain and Egypt, the gateway to Asia, where he is eager to meet new people and new religions.

He will celebrate Ferdinand de Lesseps, who is digging the Suez canal, with a poster, and will sail back from Asia using the canal. His journals are so precise that they are published in 1867. In 1868, he marries Lucie  Sanlaville who dies three months later. With his father dying in 1971, he takes over the running of the factory and achieves a huge success.

The ten months adventure starts in America, in New York and Pliladelphia where he sells his ultramarine blue process. With Félix Régamey, he searches to understand the multiple religions throughout the country. There is a fascinating painting of a Mormon priest converting an Indian Chochone in the show. They will embark for Japan from San Francisco.

Félix Régamey, Discussion between a shintoist priest and one from the Tendai sect, 1877-78

This is the time when the Meiji period (1868) starts in Japan and the country is opening to Europeans. their residence permit for two months  is visible her. Guimet concentrates on the history of religions and meets many monks. He collects guidebooks, drawings and statues which he will bring back to the museum. But he also is very interested in musics and sees a number of dance and theatre shows.

Émile Guimet et Félix Régamey with their interpreters and cook Anonymous Kyoto, 1876, © Collection Famille Guimet et Musée Guimet

From Japan, they travel to Sri Lanka and India with a short stop in China which they find poor and difficult to penetrate. When they come back to France through new the Suez Canal, Guimet marries his sister in law, Marthe,  who gives him a son.

Félix Régamey, Sacred bridge and banal bridge in Nikko, 1877-78

All his collections are exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1878 at the Trocadero. At the time, his company in Lyon produces a thousand tons of ultramarine blue!

Pierre Baptiste, curator of the show with Cristina Cramerotti

There are numerous photographs of Paris at the time that show his collections in a bric à brac of sculptures of paintings hanging one above the other. After starting a museum in Lyon, he decides that Paris is the place to build it an the city and the state cofinance the future Musée Guimet with him.

What is interesting in this show is to see the progressive accumulation of objects and to observe the creative process of what will become one of the major Asian art collections in the world. Emile Guimet was immensely curious and had a fantastic eye. And it shows….  Starting gin January there will be screenings of films on the period from the Seydoux Pathé collections. (Musée Guimet, until March 12, 2018)

Galeries du Trocadéro. Emile Guimet and Félix Régamey’s scientific mission in the Orient,
anonymous photograph, 1878 © Musée Guimet, Paris, dist.

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