The Glories of China’s Summer Palace Live On at Fontainebleau

Treasures compete for attention at the Château de Fontainebeau’s Chinese Museum near Paris

Jades, porcelains, bronzes and a jewel-encrusted golden stupa compete for attention at the Château de Fontainebeau’s Chinese Museum near Paris. Hundreds of objects from the Beijing Summer Palace were brought here after its destruction in 1860.
PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/Meridian Writers’ Group

AS DIRECTOR Xavier Salmon unbars and swings open the ponderous shutters of the château de Fontainebleau’s Chinese Museum what were gleams of gold in the dark interior swell into a display of dazzling magnificence.

Jades, porcelains and bronzes jostle each other for shelf space around a jewel-encrusted golden stupa flanked by two upright elephant tusks. The walls are lined with Chinese landscapes in gold and black lacquer, and the ceiling is draped with Chinese silk tapestries. The chamber buzzes with beauty, and it is difficult for the eye to know where to rest.

In October 1860, British and French forces looted and burned the Beijing Summer Palace of the Manchu emperors as a reprisal for the torture and murder of envoys imprisoned while under a prearranged flag of truce. The French boxed up the best of the treasures they had plundered for shipment to Emperor Napoléon III, and the Empress Eugénie is said to have been present at the opening of the crates.

She personally selected items to display in a purpose-built museum, mixing together pieces from the Summer Palace with items from Siam, Japan and Tibet, and with other Chinese items confiscated from aristocratic families during the French Revolution. She commissioned new display cabinets inset with Chinese panels bought from Paris’s antique shops, and gave pieces of Chinese cloisonné to a master craftsman to incorporate in a vast chandelier that 150 years on still glitters overhead.

Ask Salmon how many items in the Fontainebleau collection come from the plundering of the Summer Palace and he answers immediately and unblushingly: “We think between six and eight hundred.”

This forthrightness about the number and source of its Chinese treasures is striking when compared to the often-timid response of museums in the English-speaking world. There, curators are usually kept well away from journalists looking for reactions to Chinese demands for the unconditional repatriation of treasures. Mentions of Summer Palace provenance are increasingly scarce in catalogues and cabinet labels, and replies to enquiries on this topic are often slow and incomplete, when they arrive at all.

Salmon’s candour is necessarily imprecise. The French expeditionary force provided lists of what it had packed for Napoléon III, but these contain very little in way of description. Much was later added which did not come from the French forces, including items plundered by the Chinese themselves, many subsequently appearing in antique markets from Beijing to London.

“[Eugénie] didn’t have an historic or artistic vision for these objects; she had a very personal vision,” says Salmon. “She didn’t have the sentiment of a curator or art historian. It is she who created this atmosphere, this ambiance, in mixing up techniques and colours in a manner to which her eye responded and which was of the China of her imagination.”

Eugénie’s dazzling creation, Salmon firmly asserts, is therefore now part of French patrimony, and cannot be broken up.

“Here everything is presented as Eugénie wished. This is not an analysis of Chinese art. It’s Chinese art as perceived by the French.”



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