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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Musée du Louvre in Paris

What is the Musée du Louvre?

Musée du Louvre, also known as the Louvre Museum or The Louvre in English, is the world’s largest art museum located in the grand surroundings of a French Renaissance palace in Paris.

Musée du Louvre

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Musée du Louvre History

The Musée du Louvre holds one of the most lavish art and antiquity collections in existence. There are over 38,000 artworks on display, and the museum’s painting collection encompasses every European school from the 13th century all the way up to 1848. Wander down grand corridors lined with the masterworks of countless Renaissance and Baroque painters, including Veronese, Raphael, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Stand in awe in front of the enormous history paintings of Eugène Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David, the official painter of Napoleon Bonaparte. Don’t miss his Coronation of Napoleon, a depiction of this spectacular event and a visual personification of an attempt at ultimate imperial power. Never shy of feeding his sizeable ego, Napoleon actually renamed the Louvre as the Musée Napoléon in 1802.

Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is another highlight. Those of a sensitive disposition should steer clear of this dramatic 19th-century depiction of a shipwreck: the artist is said to have studied severed cadavers in his studio. And of course, we can’t forget Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, without doubt the most famous work of art in the Louvre, if not the world. It depicts Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine merchant who commissioned the work (Mona is a variant of mia donna, or ‘my lady’ in Italian). It was certainly a favourite of Napoleon, who requisitioned her for his bedroom. She probably didn’t mind: 300 years previously she’d spent a good part of her life in the royal bathroom of French King Francis I. Though the Mona Lisa has remained mostly in one place ever since, she was stolen in 1911, and only rediscovered when the thief, an Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia, attempted to sell her on.

The Louvre Interior

The museum’s collection of priceless sculpture includes the graceful Venus de Milo and the imposing Winged Victory of Samothrace, as well as two of Michelangelo’s sensuous Slaves.

The first building on the site of today’s Louvre was a fortress built in the 12th century by Philip II. Throughout the Middle Ages the Louvre underwent several alterations, but it was Francis I who, in the 16th century, redesigned it in the style of the French Renaissance and acquired the works of art which would eventually comprise the heart of the Louvre’s artistic holdings. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly declared that the Louvre would be ‘a place for bringing together monuments of all the sciences and arts’, and in 1793 the Louvre was opened to the public free of charge three days a week. Widespread and free-of-charge admission to museums was unheard of in Europe at the time. Especially in comparison to the UK, whose major museums only became free in 1998.

The Louvre’s architecture continues to evolve. ‘An architectural joke, an eyesore, an anachronistic intrusion of Egyptian death symbolism in the middle of Paris, and a megalomaniacal folly...’: this was the New York Times’ summary in 1985 of the unveiled design for the pyramid, now iconic, that serves as the Louvre’s main entrance. No building in the history of French architecture has been so immediately reviled, with the exception of a certain tower designed by Gustave Eiffel. Yet these two structures have become the most iconic of contemporary Paris. Both the Parisian skyline, and your visit to Paris, would be incomplete without them.

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