The Louvre is imposing and vast, so it’s not surprising that visitors might approach the museum with a certain amount of trepidation. It takes much energy and time trying to make sense of the miles upon miles of galleries and the Louvre’s estimated 35,000 objects and paintings on display. To make it a more enjoyable visit, we include all the historical facts in our short guide, which takes in some of the key artworks as witness to the Louvre’s transformation from medieval fortress to royal palace, to a national museum for the people. It has been said that to know the Louvre, its history and the works found within its walls, is to know the history of France.
Medieval history of the Louvre
The creation of the Louvre dates back 800 years. Taking one of its oldest paintings, La Crucifiction du Parlement de Paris (circa 1450) will give us a clue about the museum’s origins. The painting depicts a gruesome crucifixion and features Saint-Denis (one of Paris’ patron Saints and first Christian martyrs) holding his freshly decapitated head in his hands. It was hung in the main chamber of the Parlement de Paris as a reminder to lawmakers to show humility in the face of divine justice. Importantly, in the left-hand corner is a depiction of what the Louvre would have looked like to the eyes of Medieval Parisians. It was a large, imposing fortress, a citadel of military power, built strategically close to the river Seine. 30 years ago excavations at the Louvre uncovered the original medieval foundations and what remains of the thick strong walls that protected the Capetian and Valois kings. They are testament to just how forbidding the structure must have been. It’s no surprise, then, that the origins of the word Louvre is thought to have come from the word louver, which means stronghold or fortress. These foundations have been conserved and can be seen in the galleries below the present day Louvre.
Renaissance at the Louvre
When the Renaissance came to France in the 16th Century the Louvre became a royal palace of great style and culture. A portrait of the man who undertook this transformation can be found in the museum. Painted by Jean Clouet in 1530, the portrait of Francois I is depicted as the Renaissance man that he was. Dressed in fine clothing he was every inch a man à la mode. He was a great lover of culture and architecture. Influenced by the palazzo’s he had seen in Italy, he transformed the Louvre from a dark medieval structure into a Renaissance palace known as La Cour Carrée. La Cour Carrée formed the cornerstone of the palace we see today. In 1516 Francois I persuaded the elderly Leonardo da Vinci to move to France. Leonardo brought with him the Mona Lisa, which was the first artwork to enter into the royal art collection.
Henri IV and the Louvre
Henri IV, famous for his conversion to Catholicism to become King - “Paris vaut bien une messe” he is alleged to have said - was assassinated on a Parisian street by a religious radical in 1610. Before his untimely death he had La Grande Galerie built at the Louvre, which is a one mile-long wing linking La Cour Carrée to the then Palais des Tuileries. It still exists today and houses the Italian painting section. During the power struggle that ensued after the death of Henri IV, his second wife Marie de Medici took the reins as regent. As regent the queen had many enemies. In order to legitimise her power she turned to art, employing the greatest painter of the day, Peter Paul Rubens to paint a whole series of paintings, the largest of which depicts her coronation. These huge baroque paintings can be seen in the Rubens room of the museum and illustrate how persuasive a strong image (particularly these astonishing paintings full of impressive theatricality) could legitimize and cement power. They are assembled today in the Galerie Médicis in the Richelieu wing of the museum.
Louis XIV at the Louvre
Marie de Medici’s grandson Louis XIV inherited her understanding of art’s ability to project an image of power that would impress and subjugate. His large portrait painted in 1701 and found today in the Louvre is a case in point. It depicts a corpulent man lavishly dressed with a large ostentatious wig, and the most extraordinary clothing. This devotion to luxury and excess would dictate the outcome of the next phase of building projects at the Louvre. Louis XIV quadrupled the size of the Cour Carrée in order to make the Louvre bigger and more imposing. He employed the architect Louis Le Vau to design the Galerie d’Apollon. This large hall, with its rich stuccowork and gold trimmings is literally the personification of the Sun King himself. Louis XIV also had a huge appetite for collecting art and the royal collection was enlarged substantially under his direction. In 1670 Louis XIV left the Louvre for his new palace at Versailles. Much of the building work at the Louvre remained unfinished and throughout the 18th century the Louvre lost much of its glamour. The grand gallery, dispossessed of its royalty and aristocracy, became a centre for commerce and services, such as engraving, fine hat making and furniture making. According to royal edict, artists were allowed to live in the Louvre. Many set up home there and spent their days copying the paintings that lined its walls or making art inspired by the works on display. It was during this period that the Royal Academy for Painting and Sculpture was established in the former king’s chambers. The Royal Academy established a hugely popular annual Salon in which new works by artists of the day were presented to the public.
Revolution at the Louvre
One artist who was celebrated at the Salon for his painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784) was Jacques-Louis David. Louis XIV had commissioned David to paint this work and like most artists of the time he was the beneficiary of the king’s patronage, living as he did in the Louvre. It was a painting, however, that would be a subtle game changer for the King. Its subject looked back to antiquity in order to seek moral instruction for the warrants during the bloody event known as The Reign of Terror, would later find himself imprisoned by the revolutionary government. A self-portrait from that time hangs in the same room of the Louvre as the Oath of the Horatii. It captures him at this turbulent moment in his life, down on his luck and wearing an ambiguous look of either fear or present. It tells the tale of three brothers sworn to defend Rome. In the painting we see their outstretched hands reaching out to their father who holds weapons in his hand. The style is simple, austere and direct. The painting had various interpretations, but everyone agreed that it was patriotic. What did it mean for the failing monarch at the time? Some saw in the painting a call to arms against him. In less than 10 years after the painting was completed the King was dead - sent to the guillotine on the nearby Place de la Concorde. David had joined the revolutionaries and his painting had been reinterpreted as having revolutionary virtue. David, who signed many peoples’ death anger.
The Louvre becomes a Museum
Taking inspiration from the philosopher Denis Diderot, the revolutionary government proclaimed the Louvre a museum for the people, in which art, once belonging to the nobles, would be displayed for the first time to the public. In a radical gesture, all art in France was nationalised, it no longer belonged to the rich, but was there instead to serve the people. During this period the revolutionary government waged war on much of Europe and the spoils of their victories, particularly those objects plundered from Italy, were displayed at the Louvre. Such precious objects as Michelangelo’s The Slaves, or the huge The Wedding at Cana by Veronese were procured during these early campaigns.
Napoleon and the Louvre
By 1789 the Revolution had run out of steam and there was a risk the country would collapse into anarchy. The young general, Napoleon Bonaparte seized his chance and proclaimed himself Emperor. Once he had power he wasted no time in using the Louvre as a place of self-promotion. He had an arch built in the courtyard of the Louvre to celebrate his military triumphs. On top he placed bronze horses taken from St. Mark’s square in Venice. He placed the Mona Lisa in his bedroom in the Tuileries and employed Jacques-Louis David as his chronicler. He commissioned Jacques-Louis David to paint the enormous The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), which can be found today in the French painting section of the Louvre. Napoleon considerably added to the collections of the Louvre, thanks in no small part to his campaigns, one of which helped create the extraordinary Egyptian department.
After the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Louvre saw the restoration of the monarchy and three successive kings. Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis Philippe all followed in a relatively quick turnover. The man however, who would really transform the Louvre, completing the grand project that had been envisaged by previous generations, was Napoleon’s nephew: Napoleon III. Napoleon III who ruled as Emperor from 1848 to 1871, built a large wing along rue de Rivoli that essentially closed off the Louvre from the surrounding city. He was known for his lavish, extravagant style and the Napoleonic apartments in the Louvre attest to this Empire Style of brash bling - a style not dissimilar to that of Louis XIV. With the invasion of the Prussian army in 1871, Napoleon III fled Paris for England. The commune de Paris, a revolutionary uprising of the people, took power and demanded the establishment of a Republic. They burnt down many public buildings in Paris that were seen as symbols of the oppressive Napoleonic regime. This included the Tuileries Palace of the Louvre.
The Louvre Today- The Louvre Pyramid
Building at the Louvre has never ceased and one of its most recent additions is its most radical yet: the Louvre Pyramid (1989), a monumental glass and steel structure designed by the American architect I.M. Pei. The pyramid successfully unites the museum through the creation of a central courtyard that sits below. It has become a striking symbol of the modernity of France. Other new additions are the beautiful Islamic Arts Department (2012), an undulating steel and glass structure, which stands in an interior courtyard of the Palace.