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The world’s richest man makes quite an impression

4 February 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

The Musée d’Orsay ended January on a high note by putting its new Caillebotte on show. It was in 2020 that the then culture minister, Franck Riester, designated Partie de Bateau (c. 1877–78) as a ‘national treasure’. But it was not until last Monday that a French museum could claim the painting for its own, thanks to the largesse of another national treasure, the luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, which had bought it for €43m from the descendants of the artist and made a present of it. Something of a coup for the Musée d’Orsay then, which, as Le Monde reports, has an annual acquisitions budget of around €3m. Excellent timing, too, as next year we can expect a raft of exhibitions marking the 150th anniversary of the First Impressionist Exhibition on the rue des Capucines. Caillebotte didn’t take part in that landmark show, but was largely responsible for bankrolling the Second and divided critical opinion with works such as Les Raboteurs de Parquet (1875).

Jean-Paul Claverie (advisor to Bernard Arnault, president and CEO of LVMH), the French culture minister Rima Abdul-Malak and Christophe Leribault, director of the Musée d’Orsay, with The Boating Party by Gustave Caillebotte, on 30 January. Photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

A statement from Rima Abdul Malek, the current minister of culture, made a point of thanking LVMH – and both she and an adviser to Bernard Arnault (president and chief executive of LVMH and notable art collector), were present at the unveiling of the painting in Paris last Monday. What jaded Anglo-Saxon observers might regard as a run-of-the-mill case of private philanthropy leading to some public benefit took a typically French turn just a day later. The announcement of the gift came just after LVMH reported record profits (and a doubling of its dividend) and just before 1.2m aggrieved French workers went on strike. At Tuesday’s protests against the raising of the pension age from 62 to 64, the face of Arnault graced more than one placard, accompanied by slogans suggesting he contribute more to the common good. The world’s richest man is an easily identified source of ire in a country that needs no encouragement to take to the streets. Partie de Bateau is to be shown at various venues in 2024 and Caillebotte will also get a full-scale survey at the Musée d’Orsay in the autumn. While it’s possible that certain members of the nation will feel a touch more grateful next year, Rakewell wouldn’t count on it.

Taxing times: Bernard Arnault’s face on a placard in Toulouse on 31 January. Photo: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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