The 19th century was a remarkably prolific period for sculpture: the triumphant middle-class and the political powers eagerly appropriated this art form, the former to decorate its homes and proclaim its social status and the latter to inscribe the ideals and beliefs of the period in stone and bronze. There was huge demand for sculpture which, because of its cost, depended almost entirely on commissions. But from 1945, the art world turned away from the works produced in this period, regarded as too official, and many works vanished into the store rooms for a season in purgatory that lasted for several decades. Only a few major "modern" figures, such as Rodin, escaped from the general disenchantment.
The Musée du Luxembourg was set up in 1818, during the reign of Louis XVIII, to exhibit the works of living artists, most of which were bought by the State during the Salons. The Musée du Luxembourg played the role of a modern art museum but for many years refused avant-garde painting, accepting only artists recognised by the official authorities.
In 1887, the Musée du Luxembourg owned over a hundred sculptures and had begun to open its doors to more modern artists. The first Rodin, The Age of Bronze, was bought in 1881. 1891 saw the purchase of Daumier's Ratapoil, although the committee still hesitated to exhibit this "interesting figure but one whose particular merits in no way correspond to the aesthetic character of the Musée the Luxembourg". In 1905, it was Bourdelle's turn to enter the museum, with a head of Beethoven. Space became an increasingly pressing problem as years went by, although in 1886 the number of works by the same artist that could be accepted by the museum was theoretically limited to three.
For many years foreign artists were ignored by the Musée du Luxembourg and the collections of the Musée d'Orsay still suffer from this short-sightedness.
In the 1860s, Philippe de Chennevières, the curator of the museum, had nonetheless struggled in vain against this situation. In 1879, Etienne Arago, his successor, admitted the weakness of the foreign collections although he pointed out that "the exhibition of 1878 shows that dazzling progress has been made". It was not until 1890 that two works by a foreigner, the Belgian Constantin Meunier, were bought at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Works less visible to the public were often easier to obtain: Goethe by David d'Angers was at the top of a tower in the city of Saumur; Gérôme's Gladiators were in the Mont Valérien fort; Schoenewerk's Young Tarantine had been forgotten in the old kitchens of the Château de Compiègne. One of the most famous examples was the Six Continents. Now presented on the esplanade in front of the museum, these sculptures designed for the Trocadero Palace of the Universal Exhibition of 1878 had been lying in a public rubbish dump in Nantes since 1963. The Musée d'Orsay secured them in exchange for a painting by Sisley for the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.