How the Louvre Works


Image Gallery: Music Festivals Duran Duran performs inside the Louvre's pyramid entrance in 2008. See pictures of music festivals.
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If you'd been standing outside the lighted glass pyramid that juts from the lower galleries of the Musée du Louvre 60 feet (18.3 meters) above the sidewalk on the evening of June 10, 2008, you may have caught strains of the '80s pop classic, "Girls on Film," streaming through the glass. If you'd strained a little more, you would've also heard about 300 people cheering a live Duran Duran concert inside the museum's hallowed salles.

This was a relatively atypical night for the Louvre, the museum that houses 70,000 pieces of the world's greatest art and artifacts. However, the museum is taking chances again under the leadership of current director Henri Loyrette. The Louvre displays contemporary art like Jan Fabre's "Self-portrait as the World's Biggest Worm," juxtaposed against oils of the Last Supper painted by Renaissance masters. In 2008, artist Cy Twombly became one of only a handful of painters (and the first American) to create a work on the Louvre's permanent interior. In addition, the museum has become an actual franchise: The Louvre Abu Dhabi will open in 2013 and a new, modern Islamic art wing is under construction in a classical courtyard of the Louvre in Paris. And, of course, let's not forget that Duran Duran concert.

Some critics believe that Loyrette's sweeping changes gamble with France's reputation and identity. Others consider the moves part of the evolution of artistic thought. Beneath the surface of both arguments lies a common point: The Louvre is the leading symbol of art in the world, and the choices made by its curators help determine what art is.

Over the past three centuries, the Louvre has become the heart of French culture, a place where esoteric ideas like the definition of true beauty have been discussed and decided. The museum is home to some of the most famous and most appreciated works of art on Earth. It's been the site of death, theft, revolution, collusion and reinvention. Throughout its trials, the Louvre has managed to navigate not only the changes in the world of art, but geopolitical changes as well.

It's also dealt with changes of its own: The museum has grown from a medieval fortress to 650,000 square feet (60,387 square meters) of gallery space, employing more than 2,000 people and accepting 8.5 million visitors in 2008 [sources: Brooks, New York Times].

In this article we'll look at how the Louvre has evolved. On the next page, we'll begin with its earliest history.

History of the Louvre: Early History

A Flemish captive is taken to the medieval fortress of the Louvre for imprisonment in 1214.
A Flemish captive is taken to the medieval fortress of the Louvre for imprisonment in 1214.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Louvre began its storied history as a defensive fort on the western edge of medieval Paris. In 1190, the Capetian ruler of France, Philippe Auguste, had the fort constructed to standards of the time -- complete with a moat. Within a century and half, however, the Louvre no longer stood at the edge of the city; Paris had grown around and beyond the fortress. As the Hundred Years War between the English and French began in 1336, a rampart was constructed around the city, enclosing the Louvre far inside its walls.

It wasn't long before the former fortress began to attract the attention of members of the royal court. In the 14th century, the Louvre entered its second function -- that of royal residence. Charles V was the first French monarch to take up residence in the Louvre, which was suitably remodeled and expanded to make it fit for a king. The tradition of maintaining the Louvre as a residence was continued by Charles VI, but fell out of fashion after his death and successive monarchs constructed their own palaces elsewhere in the region.

The Louvre sat unused for 100 years, until François I reinstated Paris as the official seat of the kingdom. This began nearly a century of work on what would become a sprawling series of magnificent buildings, including the famed Palais des Tuileries [source: The Louvre]. Royals began to tap premier architects in France and elsewhere in Europe to oversee new wings and buildings and remodeling of old ones. That tradition has continued throughout the Louvre's existence and continues today, although architects from around the world now put their stamp on the museum with the same measure of honor their predecessors felt.

In the hands of Kings Louis XIII and XIV, the Louvre entered arguably its most magnificent phase of development as a palace residence to the French monarchs. Sumptuous halls and apartments were added, some of which remain today. After the completion of palace at Versailles in 1672, however, royals abandoned the Louvre for the new residence, leaving the museum unfinished. For a century, parts of the buildings sat without roofs, exposed to the weather. Before the end of the 17th century, however, the Louvre would begin the transition to its last and final incarnation -- that of home to the highest cultural accomplishments.

History of the Louvre: The Birth of a Museum

The sacking of the Tuileries Palace at the Louvre during the revolution on July 12, 1789.
The sacking of the Tuileries Palace at the Louvre during the revolution on July 12, 1789.
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By the mid-17th century, France had become aware of its burgeoning cultural legacy. As a result, the country established academies that served as governing bodies to nurture and guide French artistic pursuits. The Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture, which governed the visual arts; the Académie Française, the official body of the French language; and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, which nurtured humanities like history and philosophy, were all founded to further French culture.

When the French royal family left the Louvre vacant in favor of Versailles, the three academies moved into the buildings, establishing the Louvre as the seat of culture in France. The academies established the salons -- what we would compare to modern exhibits -- of cultural artifacts and works of its members. The salons added a vital aspect to what would become a lasting legacy of the Louvre: the sharing of art and culture with the French public. No longer were artistic troves solely for the enjoyment of the monarch and his court. The early salons drew immense crowds.

The concept of art belonging to all continued to be nurtured by the egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution, which lasted from 1787 to 1799. Under pressure from the Assemblée Nationale, the powerful French National Assembly organized in 1789, Louis XVI agreed to share the Palais des Tuileries and the Louvre with the French people as a "place for gathering together all the monuments of the sciences and arts" [source: The Louvre].

The Assemblée Nationale's mandate was clear: The Louvre's custodians and tenants must assemble a great museum within its walls. The Louvre opened as the French national museum (first as the Musée Français and then the Musée Central des Arts) in 1793, with admission free to all. Following the toppling of the monarchy, there would be a comparatively brief struggle for the museum after Napoleon came to power; he considered it his museum, even renaming it the Musée Napoléon [source: Melikian]. After the emperor's reign ended in exile in 1815, the museum was given its current name, the Musée du Louvre.

This egalitarian sentiment continues. Today, the Louvre admits the public free of charge on the first Sunday of each month and on the anniversary of the French Revolution, July 14. As ever, artists and students are offered free admission every day [source: The Louvre].

History of the Louvre: Modern History

Under the Nazi occupation of France, the Louvre served as a clearinghouse for looted art.
Under the Nazi occupation of France, the Louvre served as a clearinghouse for looted art.

The Louvre grew in reputation and fame in the 19th century. Many of the great painters of the Impressionist movement spent time studying and practicing at the Louvre, including Edgar Degas, who was licensed to create copies of the museum's paintings. Leaders of the Impressionist movement grew in popularity elsewhere in Europe, although the Louvre's governors largely ignored them until the 20th century, when the museum began acquiring and accepting donations of Impressionist works.

The pieces by the Impressionists and other movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would hang in the Louvre only until 1986, when the Musée d'Orsay opened across the River Seine. The Louvre divided its collection, sending all work created after 1848 to the d'Orsay and maintaining its collections of Renaissance, Hellenic, Egyptian, Asian, and Roman art and antiquities. Eventually these collections would be expanded to include cultural artifacts from indigenous peoples from the Americas and Oceania as well.

The Louvre suffered two major strains during the modern era. In 1871, the Paris Commune, a revived socialist group seeking to protect the rights of workers, revolted and turned its ire against the Palais des Tuileries, which had long served as residence for the monarchy. The palace burned completely, along with its contents.

World War II posed another challenge to the museum's directors. As the Nazi armies invaded Paris, the Louvre was emptied of its contents, except for the heaviest pieces. The Louvre's collections were secretly distributed among wealthy French citizens, who hid pieces in their châteaux around the country. Eventually, the Louvre reopened under Nazi occupation. It served as a clearing center for art looted by the Nazis, called the Louvre sequestration, both from conquered territories and from the collections of Jews and other groups executed by the Nazi war machine [source: The Louvre].

The Louvre closed from 1945 to 1947 following the liberation of France. Once again, it entered a period of revitalization. In 1989, the glass pyramid entrance designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei opened to the public. It has become a symbol of the modern Louvre, but trails back to the origins of the building. During excavation for the project, the moat and a keep from the first medieval incarnation of the building was uncovered and is preserved for display for visitors today.

The Louvre: Acquiring Art

Napoleon Bonaparte was responsible for early expansion of the Louvre's collections through his conquests.
Napoleon Bonaparte was responsible for early expansion of the Louvre's collections through his conquests.

When the monarchy's power began to dissolve, the royal art collections were nationalized. The earliest acquisitions of the Louvre came from the monarch's own collections.

François I in particular was an ardent admirer of art and, though unbeknownst to him at the time, would serve as its first great acquisitionist. The king's taste for art, combined with the wealth of the royal treasury, generated a collection so extensive that it wasn't fully cataloged until 1996 [source: Joost-Gaugier]. Francis I collected works by Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci and other contemporary Renaissance artists. In some cases, as with Michelangelo's statue, "The Slave," the king received the piece from the artist himself. Once the royal collection was secured, two more avenues of acquisition opened up: traditional purchases and war profits.

Napoleon Bonaparte contributed many of the acquisitions of the Louvre. Napoleon's conquests elsewhere in Europe -- Italy in particular -- would yield troves of artwork as spoils of war. Under the direction of Dominique Vivant Denon, the Louvre's collections expanded tremendously. In many cases, Denon traveled to regions newly conquered by Napoleon's armies to select the art that would be removed. Within many of the treaties signed by nations like Germany, Austria and Spain, which had submitted to Napoleon's rule, were lines giving full control over artwork to the French [source: Brooks]. These works would find their home in the Louvre.

Napoleon paid for at least one collection: The Borghese Collection, consisting of 695 pieces from Greek and Roman antiquity, cost France 12 million francs, but yielded an enormous expansion of additional art for the museum [source: Melikian].

Plunder also expanded the Louvre's collections. As the field of Egyptology grew, the Louvre dispatched archaeologists to the country to conduct digs and bring antiquities back to the museum. The Louvre -- along with just about every other museum operating at the time -- removed thousands of artifacts that lay buried beneath the sands of Egypt for millennia. Egypt has recently demanded the return of its national treasures from museums around the world. In 2009, the Louvre returned four mosaics the Egyptian government requested. It has also returned much of the thousands of pieces of Holocaust art -- pieces looted by the Nazis that France was accused of holding in the late 1990s [source: Doborzynski].

The Louvre's collections are also enriched by donated pieces from private collectors and their heirs; the Louvre's Curator Committee decides whether to accept the pieces. The museum also maintains an acquisition budget of 20 percent of the annual revenue from its admission fees. In 2009 that amounted to a reserve of about 7.9 million euros ($10.6 million) for new works [source: New York Times].

Famous Artwork in the Louvre

The Venus de Milo in the Louvre.
The Venus de Milo in the Louvre.
Grant Faint/Getty Images

Without question, the most famous work of art stored in the Louvre is Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Also known as La Joconda, it's long been the most popular work at the museum. The Mona Lisa receives mail at its own box at the Louvre, and the painting has become a symbol of national pride and heartache. In 1910, a man whose fiancée had jilted him shot himself in front of the painting [source: Garnier]. The following year, a custodian at the museum stole the painting, leading to an international outpouring of grief at the loss -- and anger at the Louvre's directors for not protecting it more carefully. The Mona Lisa has also been the target of anger: Several visitors to the painting have thrown acid and stones at the image and sprayed red paint on it.

The Venus de Milo, the 2nd-century B.C. Greek statue of Aphrodite now famously missing her arms, isn't far behind the Mona Lisa in fame. The statue was found on the island of Melos in 1820 by a farmer and two French naval officers among the buried ruins of an ancient amphitheater. The statue quickly made her way to France and into the Louvre, where it remains as a centerpiece of the museum today.

Another statue, found 60 years after the Venus de Milo, was discovered in what the museum considers "countless" pieces on the island of Samothrace in 1950. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, a colossal, headless statue of the winged Greek goddess Nike, is believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake sometime in the millennia following her creation around 190 B.C. [source: The Louvre]. Originally, the statue stood poised atop a hill overlooking the Aegean before it was removed to the Louvre, where it was restored. In 1950, the statue's right arm was discovered, leading to the last phase of restoration.

Dating even further back in antiquity is the Code of Hammurabi. This seven-foot (2-meter) basalt monolith is topped with the recognizable bas relief of King Hammurabi, ruler of Babylon in the 18th century B.C., and the god Shamash, with whom the king consults. The pillar was unearthed in 1901 and serves as the basis for eye-for-an-eye legal thought.

There are, of course, too many worthy artworks to list here, from Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, to Theodore Gericault's The Raft of Medusa. You must see the art in the Louvre yourself to fully appreciate the museum's worthiness as seat of the art world.

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