When the Allies entered Paris in 1815, they found in the gallery of the Louvre about two thousand works of art—the gems of the world in painting and antique sculpture—mostly the spoils of war, deposited there by the Emperor Napoleon. The selection of these works was entrusted to a commission, at the head of whom was the Baron Denon, who accompanied the Emperor in all his expeditions for this purpose. The Louvre, at this time, was the acknowledged emporium of the fine arts. The grand determination of Napoleon to place France highest in art among the nations, did not rest here. The design of combining in one single series, five hundred and twenty-two line engravings from the finest paintings and antique statues in the world, was a conception worthy of his genius and foresight, and by its execution he conferred a lasting favor not only on the artistic, but the civilized world, for the originals were subsequently restored by the Allies to their rightful owners and only about three hundred and fifty pieces remained of that splendid collection. "These works" (the Musée Français, and the Musée Royal), says a distinguished connoisseur, "are unquestionably the greatest production of modern times. They exhibit a series of exquisite engravings by the most distinguished artists, of such a magnificent collection of painting and of sculpture as can never be again united." These works were intended as a great treasury of art, from which not only artists, but the whole world might derive instruction and profit. To secure the utmost perfection in every department, no expense was spared. The drawings for the engravers to engrave from, were executed by the most distinguished artists, in order to ensure that every peculiarity, perfection, and imperfection in the originals should be exactly copied, and these are pointed out in the accompanying criticisms. These drawings alone cost the French government 400,000 francs.

The engravings were executed by the most distinguished engravers of Europe, without regard to country, among whom it is sufficient to mention Raffaelle Morghen, the Chevalier von Müller, and his son C. F. von Müller, Bervic, Richomme, Rosaspina, Bartolozzi, Gandolfi, Schiavonetti, the elder and younger Laurent, Massard, Girardet, Lignon, Chatillon, Audouin, Forster, Claessens, etc. Stanley says that proof impressions of Bervic's masterpiece, the Laocoön, have been sold in London for thirty guineas each. There are many prints in these works not less celebrated, and which are regarded by connoisseurs as masterpieces of the art.

Nor was this all. Napoleon summoned Visconti, the famous antiquary, archæologist, and connoisseur, from Rome to Paris, to assist in getting up the admirable descriptions and criticisms, particularly of the ancient statues. This department was confided to Visconti, Guizot, Clarac, and the elder Duchesne. The supervision of the engraving and publishing department was entrusted to the Messrs. Robilliard, Peronville, and Laurent. These works were published in numbers of four plates, atlas folio, at the price of 96 francs each for the proofs before the letter, and 48 francs for the prints. The first number of the Musée Français was issued in 1803, and the last in 1811; but the Musée Royal, which was intended to supply the deficiencies of the Musée Français, was not completed till 1819; nevertheless, it was Napoleon's work, though consummated in the reign of Louis XVIII.

The Musée Français was originally published in five volumes, and contains, besides the descriptions and criticisms on the plates, admirable essays—1st. on the History of Painting, from its origin in ancient times down to the time of Cimabue; 2d. on the History of Painting in the German, Dutch, Flemish, and French schools; 3d. on the History of Engraving; 4th. on the History of Ancient Sculpture. The Musée Royal was published in two volumes. A second edition of the Musée Français was published by the Messrs. Galignani, in four volumes, with an English and French letter-press, but both greatly abridged. The letter-press of the Musée Royal has never been rendered into English. The plates were sold by the French government in 1836, since which time a small edition has been printed from both works.