Navigating the Louvre

The Louvre in Paris is probably the single greatest art museum in the world. It is certainly the largest (652,300 square feet) and has the largest collection (more than 300,000 pieces, of which only about 10 percent are displayed). We recognize that it has some of the most important masterpieces in the history of Western art. We recognize that we should spend at least an entire day in the museum every time we visit Paris. But to tell you the truth, we are so intimidated by the museum’s size, layout and multiple eras that it covers that we don’t often re-visit it. Just as importantly, the eras, the regions and the artistic styles represented are not among our favorites.

This trip, we committed to spending a day in the museum. But we needed help both in helping us to understand how to navigate the huge space, and also, quite frankly, to understand why we should care about art that we have never really been able to appreciate.

So, we committed to a day in the museum: beginning with a few hours with a guide who could explain and demystify the museum’s layout and to explain what we are missing and why the pieces that are considered to so important really are important. In other words: someone to show us what we are missing and help us appreciate the Louvre’s treasures—not just the ones that the hords of tourists rush to and push aside everyone else so that they can have their picture taken in front of a well-known piece before making a mad dash to the next conquest—but some of the lesser-known pieces that are important to the evolution of art.

We chose a tour that was highly recommended by a friend: An Introduction to the Treasures of the Louvre by Paris Muse, a company that employs more than 30 typically Master’s and PhD-level art and history graduates to guide small private tours of some of the city’s great museums and most historic neighborhoods (as well as have a “study” program, visiting museums in other cities where museum curators host the tours). Under full disclosure, Paris Muse comped us for the tour. However, our remarks are our own opinion.

Paris Muse Tour

We met our guide Inge at the entrance to I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid where we learned about the 800-year history of the structure, from a fortress to protect the city, to a royal palace that was first established in the14th century, and continually expanded, to when it was ransacked during the revolution, though 1792, when it was first established as the Napoleon Museum; and to 1989, when French President Mitterrand approved the appointment of I.M. Pei to modernize, open up and add more exhibition space to the museum.

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We then began a tour of the art: Not as an attempt to cover the entire museum, but to focus on the most important pieces to understand their importance, and just as importantly, to view them within the context of other similar and complementary works so that we could understand common themes, the evolution of treatment of similar subjects and how different works can be appreciated within the context of their unique time and place.

From Middle Eastern Antiquity

Our tour began 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia with what is probably the most important piece in the museum—Hammurabi’s Code—the stone that, after showing the Babylonian King receiving instructions from God, laid out the first detailed set of laws and the punishments that would be meted out to those violating them. We moved onto the 8th century BC Assyria to the palace of King Sargon, whose palace’s carvings also relied upon an image of the Gods to validate his rule. But by the time we reached 6th-Century BC Persia, King Darius’ perfectly preserved palace décor which portrayed a much more secular claim to authority—walls lined with carved images of armed soldiers, overseen by a large carved capital image that stood seven stories above the palace floor.

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Then, before moving into the time of Christ, one additional stop at the oldest image possessed (on long-term loan from Jordan) by the Louvre—the 9,000 year-old Ain Ghazal figure, as stunning image of a man. Now that’s old…and amazing.

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We then down to the bowels of the museum’s Sully Wing to the oldest remaining part of the museum—the 12th-century foundations of the fortress, around which visitors now walk on a sidewalk over what used to be the moat.

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We then moved back up to ground level were we learned about the extensive 19th-century renovations of floors, walls and moldings, the rooms the Germans used to catalog and store the booty that they planned to bring to Berlin, and the magnificent, 17th-century Baroque ceilings of the Queen’s (Anne of Austria’s) apartments.

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We were then off to ancient (1st-century BC) Greece for one of the most popular images in the museum, the Venus de Milo, who, we learned, is actually Aphrodite of the island of Milo (since Aphrodite is the Greek name of the God the Romans called Venus). We observed how Hellenistic sculptors studied the detailed anatomy of body movements to reflect much more naturalistic poses than were previously portrayed; the details of different muscles and body features; and how they learned to subtlety tease the viewer with a robe that appeared about to slip off the goddesses hip. Then, speaking of Greek goddesses, we climbed a flight of stairs to reach Nike (the goddess of victory at sea) in the guise of the 2nd-century BC Winged Victory of Samucriach, poised on the prow of ship, wings outstretched and muscles flexed against the wind that is blowing her robe tight against here stomach and around the sides of her body.

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Through the Italian Middle Ages and Renaissance

We then reached the Salon Café, the beautiful blue-carved ceiling room in which the established artists of the French Salon showed the work that was accepted by His Majesty’s Academy.

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This room is now home to two works that our guide used as examples of some of the primary differences between the ways in which Medieval and Renaissance Italian artists portrayed one particularly popular image–Madonna and Child surrounded by angels.

  • The Medieval painting, by Cimabue (the teacher of Giotto), portrayed very artificial looking faces and body images, which no discernable expressions, surrounded by golden orbs that accentuated the otherworldly nature of the subjects. Angels, meanwhile, were painted alongside and above Mary and Jesus, with all images appearing on a single, flat plane.
  • Zippe’s Renaissance image, in contract, shows much more life-like images wearing more realistically-colored clothes that fall and wrinkle as if they are actually being worn. They appear more humanistic, like they belong to our world, rather than existing in some universe that is different from our own. More importantly, the Renaissance image demonstrates depth perspective—with different figures and different parts of a body appearing three-dimensional, rather flat images on a flat piece of wood (before the use of canvases).

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We then entered the Demon Wing’s long Grand Gallery, a corridor that at one time, linked the Louvre to another adjacent palace, to enter Renaissance Florence during an era in which rich bankers and merchants had the money required to commission their own works of art thus providing artists with secular subjects, in addition to those sponsored by the church and by royalty.

This stop allowed us to compare two secular portraits, one by a master artist, and one by his student; each with its own mysteries. The first portrait was a posthumous image of a wealthy banker. The second of the wife of a wealthy silk trader.

  • The first, by the teacher, Ghirandaio, is from the mid-15th century. It is a very literal portrayal of a recently deceased elderly banker (warts and all, especially with his bulbous nose covered with wart-like growths), and wearing a rich red, fur-lined coat that a man of his wealth may well own. The literalness of the rest of the image, however, is subject to question. The man is shown playing lovingly with an idyllically pretty young child, against the background of a landscape that looks more like a Chinese karst formation than it does anyplace around Florence. Although the imperfect image of the man is certainly realistic, the time of painting (of the subject after the subject’s death) makes one question whether the child and the scenery were intended to represent reality, or some type of allegory, such as for death and rebirth.
  • The second, by the student, was DaVinci’s Mona Lisa (actually, her name was Lisa Gherardini)–probably the most admired enigmatic portrait in history. This is also a very literal representation of the subject; but a very unusual one. Unlike portraits of many wealthy women of the day, this silk merchant’s wife wears a very plain, inexpensive brown dress, wears her hair undressed and is not adorned by a single piece of jewelry. Moreover, while most such portraits show the subject looking off at some unseen object, Lisa is famously gazing directly at the viewer. The background, meanwhile, is also unusual. Although it may well have been the Florence area, it is of a generic forested area, with no indication of where. Moreover, the landscapes to the left and right of Lisa’s head are different, including with unaligned horizon lines. What is this about? Given the incredible care and subtlety with which DaVinci portrays her hands, her eyes and even her character, it is hardly likely to have been a mistake, And to add to the mystery, the painting was never delivered to the family that commissioned it. DaVinci kept it until giving it as a gift to France’s King Francis I. Did the family reject the unconventional portrait? Did the artist not want to part with it at the time? No one knows.

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To Semi-Modern France

We then jumped ahead 350 years to mid-19th-century France to visit a few French Large Format paintings. We began with a brief discussion of the wall-sized representation of Napoleon’s coronation—the original of the copy that was displayed in and discussed in some detail in our tour of Versailles blog. We also had a chance to see some of the differences that our Versailles guide explained that existed between the original and the reproduction, such as the color of a dress that the reproducing artist chose to accentuate.

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Next was Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, a dramatically idealized rendering of a recent event in which survivors of a ship that was sunk in a storm were rescued after surviving days floating on raft. The painting, which was unusual and controversial in that such large-scale works were typically reserved for important historical, religious or mythological events (rather than current events), is straight out of the Romanticist tradition. The dramatic, emotion-laden image, the contrasts between light and dark, the dramatically contrasting emotions of the men, from the actual cadavers and the others lying on the floor of the raft who are convinced that they too will soon die, to the hope of the people atop of the picture who are waving hopefully at a ship they see on the horizon. Then there is the classic use of a triangle, in this case the pyramidal structure that draws the eye toward the focal point of the narrative—the anticipated rescue.

Then to one other grand Romanticist painting—this one, Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People, a dramatic 1831 rendering of an important (albeit also recent) historical event—the revolution of 1830. It portrays a larger than life, fully rendered, and idealized half-naked woman (an allegory for liberty) flying a brightly colored tri-color flag as the apex of the focal triangle. With the Notre Dame Cathedral as the backdrop, she mobilizes the citizens of France to overthrow the ruling monarchy for a second time. This image too is intended to spur deep emotion, hope and pride, as by demonstrating virtually universal support (by young and old, rich and poor) of a hard fought-after ideal in which the underdog citizens must overcome great odds by resorting to prying cobbles from the streets as weapons against much better armed soldiers.

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Ending at Perfection

The final stop of our Paris Muse tour took us back to the Italian Renaissance, this time in the form of two Michelangelo sculptures. Although called “The Slaves”, the actual intent of the sculpture was unknown. These, we learned, were the first figures sculpted for what was to have been a funerary monument for Pope Julius II. The Pope, however, later changed his mind (and trying to maximize the money he had to spend), commissioned the artist to devote his energies to a more important project—designing and painting the Sistine Chapel. The world, meanwhile, was left with these two figures (plus a number of similar, albeit less fully rendered ones in Florence’s Accademia Gallery) and no explanation of what they were intended to represent. Since each was bound (one struggling to break his bonds, one seemingly resigned to them), they were inferred to have been slaves (perhaps slaves to man’s own mortality?). Whatever the intent, the figures represent Michelangelo’s lifelong quest to understand the human body (especially the male body): Its structure, proportions, muscles, its movements, and how to represent them as faithfully as possible in stone and in pant.

These figures, especially the one who is struggling, portray the strength and tension of the arm and shoulder muscles. While the body, in which the artist is attempting to demonstrate the contraction and definition of the muscles, is fully finished and polished, the neck and face are more roughly hewn. The base, meanwhile, had been left unfinished, as in a number of Michelangelo’s works, possibly to demonstrate his believe that the image was always in the stone; just waiting to be set free.

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Independent Louvre Wanderings

Although we would have loved to have had the opportunity to spend an entire day with the same type of explanations and comparisons of the Louvre’s other more important collections, our time with our Inge had unfortunately ended. She, however, left us with a list of the other must-see galleries, such as Islamic Art, Northern European Paintings, Egyptian Art, French Sculptures and the Napoleon III Apartments. This guidance helped us to thread a compromise between a mad and fruitless dash through every corridor and gallery, and a dutiful pilgrimage to a few dozen of the museum’s most popular, most highly praised masterpieces.

The Extravagance of the Palace and its Furnishings

One would hope, that Inge’s wonderful lessons in interpreting art—at least combined with our guidebook and the museum’s audioguide–would have helped us to more critically analyze and more fully appreciate the subtlety of some of the other are we viewed on our own. Not necessarily. But it did help us begin to develop a greater appreciation for many types of works—especially 17th– and 18th-century French, Dutch and Flemish paintings.

At the other extreme, little in terms of subtlety is required to appreciate the over-the-top majesty of the Napoleon III rooms. These rooms, which were occupied by the Emperor’s Minister of State, rather than by the Emperor himself, are so named for its eclectic Napoleon III style (a combination of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque) rather than for the Emperor himself. The reception rooms—especially the Grand Salon and the Dining Hall are jaw-dropping incredible, although the Minister’s actual living quarters are a bit more restrained.

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Remnants of the Louvre’s past regal elegance and excess are in evidence in other parts of the museums as well. These include the furnishings of the King’s apartments (Louis XVIII and Charles V), the grandeur of some of the grands stairways and the mural-clad, gilt-framed ceilings of the Large Format French Painting and the Greco-Roman sculpture rooms (the Salles de Emperors).

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Some of the incredible objects housed in this and other palaces and mansions though the country are contained in the museum’s Decorative Arts galleries. These include furniture and personal belongings from Marie Antoinette’s apartments, to huge silver tureens, beautiful porcelain, jewel-encrusted boxes and a room filled with some of the most amazing clocks (especially the 1754 silver and gold World Clock) we have seen since the Clock Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

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Sculpture through Cultures and Centuries

The museum displays dozens of types of sculptures, from the pre-historical (from the 9,000 year-old mage of a man we saw on our tour), through the 4,000 year-old Mesopotamian palace and the almost contemporary Renaissance Michelangelo sculptures we saw on our tour. Our quasi-directed independent post-tour rambles took us through many different styles and eras. These included:

  • Ancient Egyptian, through sculptures and images of 3,000 years of dynastic rule, from wooden rafts that would symbolically carry nobles into the afterlife, to grand sphinxes and temple sculptures, and to the intent gaze of the incredibly detailed and expressive Seated Scribe (another of the museum’s masterpieces).
  • Then, through the Etruscan galleries (especially for the sarcophagus of an apparently loving couple) and the glorious mythological sculptures (including another peek at Venus De Milo) and delicately-painted pottery of the ancient Greeks, the powerful, robust portrayals of the Romans and finally, French sculpture, from the Renaissance into the early 19th century. These included everything from the eerie skeletal remains of St. Innocent, to the high-relief Alexander and Diogenes and the massive, powerful, yet touching portrayals of The Captives whose postures and expressions ranged from defiant to dejected.

IAs mentioned, we particularly enjoyed some of the 16th and 17th Northern European paintings. Some of the French works we enjoyed included the Jacgues-Louis David’s very idealized portrayal of Marat’s assassination what was such a powerful symbol during the Revolution. Museum-designated masterpieces (not all of which we really understood) included Ingres’ “Turkish Bath”, which seemed to use a harem scene as a pretext for combining all the painter’s vision of naked female beauty into a single frame; and de La Tour’s “The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds”, which appears to be a moralistic warning of the evils of gambling, alcohol, womanizing and prostitution in the form of a prodigal young man.

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We tended to have a greater appreciation for some of the works by the 17th and 18th century Dutch and Flemish works. These included the play of light and shadows in many of Rembrandt’s portraits, the subtlety and perspective of Vermeer’s “Lacemaker”, and the pained expression in van Ruysdael’s picture of the married Bathsheeba, after reading a note “inviting” her to an unwanted affair with King David (a relationship that turned our badly for both Bathsheeba and her husband. Among the Flemish paintings we most appreciated were Ruben’s “Adoration of the Magi and Valckenborgh’s, impressive “Battle Scene”, elephants and all.

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We ended our excursion with a brief stop at the smallish Islamic Art Gallery, with its Islamic glass (which we have always loved) and a watercolor of one of the mosaics from the 8th-century Mosque of Damascus, which have been so badly damaged by earthquakes and floods.

A wonderful re-exposure to this amazing and intimidating museum, with a much greater appreciation than in our previous visits.

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