The Cernuschi Museum from the 19th to the 21st centuries. The museum, past and present

The Cernuschi Museum has a heritage of 140 years of discoveries reflecting the changing Western vision of Asian art. The collection, brought back from Asia by Henri Cernuschi at a time when the Impressionists had a passion for Japanese prints, made the mansion on Avenue Vélasquez a centre of Japonisme from 1876 to 1896. 

After the museum opened in 1898, it hosted numerous exhibitions devoted to the various forms of artistic expression in China and Japan. From 1919 to 1946, significant archaeological discoveries in China and Vietnam contributed to changing the face of the Cernuschi Museum, now primarily devoted to Chinese antiquity, considered the cradle of Far Eastern cultures.

From 1946 onwards, the Cernuschi Museum embraced the living Asian arts, such as Japanese calligraphy and contemporary Chinese painting. From the 1950s to the 1990s, a dynamic policy of acquisitions and exhibitions enabled the constitution of one of the foremost collections of its kind in Europe.

Following the program of reforms in China the 1980s, the large Chinese museums began to open up to the international scene: during the following two decades, the Cernuschi Museum hosted major exhibitions of works from China, introducing Parisian visitors to bronzes from Shanghai Museum, the origins of celadon and the spectacular Buddhas from Shandong, for example.

The renovation of the Cernuschi Museum has helped promote its collections of ancient and modern art works and enhanced its image: the international impact of the exhibitions devoted to the Chinese artists of the School of Paris strengthened the close ties between the museum and the Asian artists active in Paris in the past and today.

Directors of the museum

Eugène-Benoît Causse, secretary to Henri Cernuschi, became the museum’s first director, in 1898.

Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac (1877-1932) succeeded him in 1905, and transformed the institution by organising numerous exhibitions of historical importance, such as the exhibition of Buddhist art in 1913. He specialised the museum in the art and archaeology of Chinese high antiquity, in close collaboration with the great Sinologists of the time, including Édouard Chavannes (1865-1918) and Paul Pelliot (1878-1945).
Over a period of almost 30 years, Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac made numerous acquisitions and secured some significant donations. He initiated an active policy of exhibitions, and in 1922 founded the Société des Amis du Musée Cernuschi, whose first gift, in 1925, a great lintel from the late Eastern Han period (25-220) (M.C. 6862), marked the beginning of a long series of donations that endures to this day.

René Grousset (1885-1952), historian of Asia, who had been deputy chief curator of the Guimet Museum since 1925, succeeded Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac in April 1933. He brought about considerable renovation work on the first floor of the building (1934 -1935) and enriched the collection with Vietnamese archaeological works from the Bronze Age (Dong Son culture), largely from excavations directed by the Swedish archaeologist Olov Janse in 1934 and 1936. From 1944 to 1952, Grousset jointly directed the Guimet Museum and the Cernuschi Museum. He left the latter a very large library of books that today carries his name. From 1946 to his death, he was a member of the Académie Française.
Son of the Japanologist Serge Elisseeff, Vadime Elisseeff (1918-2002) succeeded René Grousset and directed the museum for 30 years (1952-1982). He oversaw the renovation of the ground floor of the building, now given over to the permanent collections. He carried on the work begun by René Grousset, opening up the museum to contemporary Asian art, notably through large exhibitions. The profoundly transformed collection was enriched with significant donations, such as those of Madame Marie-Madeleine Wannieck and the collection of modern Chinese painters gifted by Dr Guo Youshou. This collection has continued to grow ever since and constitutes a unique ensemble in Europe.

Marie-Thérèse Bobot (1929-2011), who headed the museum from 1982 to 1994, pursued the acquisition policy of her predecessor, focusing on archaeological pieces as well as 20th-century Chinese paintings. She devoted numerous exhibitions to this field, notably introducing Parisians to the work of Wu Zuoren and Wu Guanzhong. Marie-Thérèse Bobot was a recognized specialist of Chinese funerary figures and Chinese painting from the first half of the 20th century, and developed a special interest in the work of female artists.

Gilles Béguin (1946-), curator of the Nepalese and Tibetan arts section at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet for 23 years, served as director of the Cernuschi Museum from 1994 to 2011. He has authored many books on various fields of the Asian arts, in particular the Himalayan arts, Buddhism and the museum collections. Under his directorship, the building underwent a major renovation, and the exhibition areas were extended and redesigned to modern standards. International heritage exhibitions devoted to the arts of the Far East and Central Asia presented Parisians with the latest great archaeological discoveries. Thanks to the Société des Amis and a network of French and foreign collectors, the museum was enriched with a number of significant works.

Christine Shimizu (1950-) directed the museum from 2011 to 2015, having formerly occupied the positions of curator of the Japanese collections at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet and then chief curator of the Asian collections at the Musée National de Céramique de Sèvres. Internationally renowned for her scholarship, she has contributed to expanding knowledge of the Japanese arts through university courses and conferences. She is the author of numerous books and has curated many exhibitions in France and abroad. Thanks to her expertise in this field, she brought about purchases and gifts of numerous 20th-century Japanese ceramics for the museum’s collection.

Eric Lefebvre succeeded Christine Shimizu on 1 June 2015. After occupying the position of curator of the Chinese collections of the Cernuschi Museum for almost ten years, Eric Lefebvre joined the Guimet Museum in 2013. He also taught the history of Chinese art at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and at the École du Louvre and has curated many exhibitions devoted to Chinese art, particularly painting, in France and abroad.