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The Virtual Wine Museum is an "Imaginary Museum"

Delaroche photo 1840 RCT.jpg


Hippolyte Paul Delaroche, 1835, private coll. - Photograph : Robert Jefferson Bingham, 1858 

The Royal Collection Trust, Tower of London

ANDRE MALRAUX AT HOME, 1953  Malraux assembles, disassembles and reassembles photos to layout his book The Imaginary Museum of world sculpture   ©Maurice Jarnoux


Malraux assembles, disassembles and reassembles photos to layout his book The Imaginary Museum of world sculpture

©Maurice Jarnoux

From the start of the 1850s, the photographic reproduction of artworks inspired many art historians. Seduced by the work of Gustave Le Gray, in 1850 Léon de Laborde, curator at the Louvre, suggested a futuristic project to the Minister of Public Instruction: a general photographic inventory of all public collections. During the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855, Benjamin Delessert successfully demonstrated the potential of photography for the diffusion of old masterpieces. In 1858, Goupil published The Works of Paul Delaroche, with photographs by Bingham. This collection constituted the first real catalogue of a painter’s work illustrated with photos (Source : Dominique de Font-Réaulx, L'œuvre d'art et sa reproduction, Musée d'Orsay, 2007).

From the end of the 1850s, the Beaux-Arts administrators acquired various artistic publications illustrated by photography, destined for provincial art schools or museums. Photography was already playing an essential role in the broadcast of works of art, but it was hampered by the high cost of such publications.

One century later, in his 1947 book Le Musée imaginaire [The Imaginary Museum], Malraux would analyse photographic reproduction’s role in making artwork from around the world accessible to all: “Today, [we] have colour reproductions of most great works at our disposition… [We] discover a great number of secondary paintings… An Imaginary Museum has opened, which will push to breaking point the incomplete confrontation imposed by real museums… I call “Imaginary Museum” the totality of what people can know today even without entering a museum – I mean what they know through reproductions, what they know through libraries.” Malraux’s prediction has come true; indeed, it’s gone far beyond even his far-sighted vision: new digital technologies have dissociated photography and its digital platform, and have promoted the massive sharing of top-quality digital images. The Internet allows us to access most artworks from around the world, meaning that the “Imaginary Museum” has now become a virtual museum, open to millions of individuals no longer confined to exhibition spaces, auditoriums or libraries. This new museum, accessible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, is a “museum without walls”.

The term “Imaginary Museum” has inspired authors and publishers, who have applied it to any collection of essential or favourite artworks that an individual – a writer, artist, or public personality – would display together in the museum of their dreams. This approach, which sees the imaginary museum as different for everyone, is the opposite of Malraux’s own. With The Virtual Wine Museum, we are able to visit an "Imaginary Museum", not an ephemeral product of the imagination, but a significant collection of artworks by great and minor masters: with over 1,700 artworks on display spread over 42 countries*, it recounts the history of wine, its role and uses through the ages, from Antiquity to the present. Confrontations are widely permitted and practiced, be they within a single theme, between artists, or from one era to another…

* A few figures: the pictorial works represent by 66% of the total, while 30% belong to the other visual arts and exhibitions. 20% come from French museums and institutions, 65% from abroad, 15% either belong to private collections around the world or lack a specific location. The visitors outside France represent 40% of the total.

Host institutions – especially in Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are ever more active in the diffusion of their art collections online. Unfortunately, most French museums are still reluctant to take the leap, with the notable exception of Paris’s municipal museums. We would like to thank all for their policy of free digital access to their works (open access to high-resolution images of artworks that are out of copyright).

This site was originally developed as part of a university project based around the creation of a virtual wine museum dedicated primarily to the medium of painting. The objective was to show how, and according to which themes, artists have treated wine and the vine. The museum’s creator, Eric Beau, is a member of the UNESCO network 'Chaire Culture et Traditions Vitivinicoles', University of Burgundy, Dijon. After having spent many years amidst the vines of the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy, he now lives in Bordeaux.

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