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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Seban

Louvre Museum: French Painting

Updated: Apr 1

Tour of the Louvre's collection of French painting from Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, and Romantic periods.

The Musee du Louvre is the most visited museum in the world (with an average of 9.2 million visitors per year), and the Paintings Department is by far the most visited department of the Louvre.

Since the Louvre collection originates with the French monarchy, royal portraits reign in innumerable galleries. And royal patronage paid for many of the thousands of artworks in the Louvre collection. The tour of French paintings will give you a good sense of European history of art, in (slightly) less crowded galleries.

Our tour begins in 835, with the first named portrait (in Europe at least), of the French king Jean II le Bon. School of Paris, Jean II le Bon 1350

The profile portrait is strikingly detailed; you can see not just the wrinkles of the king’s face, but also each individual eyelash and hair of the eyebrows! That is definitely the hallmark of Northern European influence.

During the 13th-15th centuries, French power extended into modern day Belgium, and northern countries like Flanders were important trading partners. Flemish, Dutch and German (collectively referred to as Northern European) artists were often employed at the French court; they were well known for their work on miniatures and manuscripts in addition to painting. French artists merged a Northern interest in meticulous detail (textiles, accessories) and linear realism with the naturalism and religious drama of Italian works. Each French painter is a unique combination of those influences.

Fouquet, King Charles VII 1450

Jean Fouquet’s 15th century portrait of Charles VII (820) draws the curtains back to show a devout king, hands clasped together. Above and below an inscription reads “the very victorious king of France…King Charles the 7th.” Fouquet is one of those artists who worked as an illuminator (illustrator) of manuscripts and also as a miniaturist. You can see that background in the precise details of Charles’ face and clothing. Everything is clearly outlined, almost as if sculpted. There are more details than the eye naturally takes in—that is the influence of Northern painting. But there is also a subtle play of light and shadow that shows the painter is also looking at Italian painting and the chiaroscuro of Da Vinci. Clouet King Francis I 1535

In fact, King Francis I was the patron of both Da Vinci and Jean Clouet, the artist who depicted the king in the gallery here (822). Francis is in almost exactly the same position as Charles, but Clouet focuses on the grandeur of the king’s satin and brocade tunic, the velvet, feathers and pearls on his hat, his gold chain and medallion, the scepter in his hand. His facial features are clearly delineated and he seems quite smug in his splendor, as his torso and billowing sleeves swell beyond the frame. There is a growing sense of naturalism in the suggested form and play of light and shadow, but Clouet’s portrait does not have the atmosphere of Da Vinci’s portraits—or even Fouquet’s.

A few rooms down (824) is another portrait, not of the king, but his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrees and her Sister. Its unusual subject seems out of place for the 16th century: two young women in the bath, one pinching the other’s nipple. Context is key here. Gabrielle was the beloved mistress of Henry IV, who accompanied him even when he went to battle (and long before he married Marie de Medicis, his later queen.

Anonymous court painter, Gabrielle d’Estrees and her Sister 1575-1600

This was painted by a court artist for the king, and the pinching seems to be a reference to Gabrielle’s pregnancy (she had 3 children by the king). The servant in the background seems to be preparing baby clothes for a 4th child. She died in April 1599 from pre-eclampsia; this might have been done immediately before or after her death, as the king gave her his coronation ring (which she holds in her hand) as a promise of marriage just one month before her death.

17th century French Baroque artists continued to show the exquisite realism of Northern European artists, combined with the drama of Italian Baroque artists. And for Baroque artists across Europe, natural light heightened the drama and highlighted details of clothing and jewelry.

Georges De la Tour (912)

The wondrous work of Georges de la Tour is the epitome of French Baroque style. The Cheaters (912) shows the drama of a dishonest card game in progress. A young aristocrat at the edge of the frame, resplendent in rich attire, plays against a young woman and man. He is so resplendent in his wealth and attire, he seems to be unaware that the game is rigged...

De la Tour, The Cheaters

Look for the ace hidden on the left, and the knowing look the haughty young woman gives her partner. According to the rules of dress at the time, the young woman is a prostitute (her neckline, feathers, and pearls), and the aristocrat is over his head. De la Tour is a perfect synthesis of the Northern and Italian Baroque. He tells a Biblical story, the Prodigal Son in the process of losing his shirt, embellished with lustrous details of pearls, jewels, brocade, all sparkling in the sharp light. But the darkened background deliberately recalls Caravaggio’s tenebrism, with light raking across the faces of the players—here only the cheater is in the shadows.

De la Tour’s work is divided into “day” and “night” paintings. The smaller “night” paintings adjacent to The Cheaters are even more masterful, with a spirituality that animates all of de la Tour’s subjects. All three are religious works and again use the dramatic tenebrism of Italian Baroque paintings, though like most Northern paintings, they are set in an everyday world. The Education of the Virgin shows a young girl reading by candlelight. The only hint that this is the Virgin is the calm perfection of her face.

De la Tour: Education of the Virgin 1650, Adoration of the Shepherds 1645, Magdalen with Flame 1650

In The Adoration of the Shepherds, Joseph’s aged face reveals the wear and tear of Christ’s birth, in contrast to the wonder of the young boy as he gazes upon the sacred scene. Magdalen with Flame shows a young woman looking at a candle. She is shrouded in darkness, her face lit only by the flame. It could be any woman, except for the title and the sacred space which de la Tour so deftly creates. We can feel the weight of her thoughts as she contemplates her future. The figures are Pixaresque in their precision—3 centuries before the invention of animation!

During the 17th century, painters like Claude Lorrain (827) and Nicolas Poussin (833) paved the way for landscapes to be considered subjects worthy of painting in their own right. You’ll see both painters in their respective rooms still have classical references: Lorrain shows the architecture of Rome as Cleopatra arrives in triumph, and Poussin paints the wood nymph Daphne being turned into a tree rather than becoming (yet one more) lover of Apollo. The stories vary, but in each, 9/10 of the canvases are a rendering of nature, with an emphasis on atmospheric effects.

Lorrain, Cleopatra’s Arrival 1642 Poussin, Apollo and Daphne 1664

Poussin, Spring (The Earthly Paradise) 1660

Poussin’s Spring, part of a cycle of the Four Seasons, is the last of his paintings, done while Poussin was suffering from hand tremors. It’s a reflection n the passage of life as represented by each of the four seasons. Spring is shown here, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (God in the clouds above). Summer, fall and winter continue the metaphorical narrative, culminating with winter and the destruction of the Biblical flood.

As the art market expanded to include wealthy middle-class patrons in the 17th century, smaller paintings that could be bought and sold became more and more popular. Landscapes were one such category; portraits, still lifes, and genre scenes of everyday life were also in high demand across Europe, but especially in Northern Europe, where the shipping trade distributed great wealth across the middle class. The Le Nain brothers (Antoine, Louis, Mathieu) specialized in genre scenes similar to those found in Northern Europe. This is realism in the modern sense of the word, with an exacting attention to the details of poverty. At the same time, though, you can still see how the Baroque use of light heightens the drama of the scenes.

Le Nain brothers, Peasant Family 1642

Family of Peasants shows one such family, each with a different reaction to their impoverished circumstances: the devotion of the girl, questioning of the man, challenge of the mother and resignation of the boy are piercing.

Jean Chardin (902-922)

Look for paintings by Jean Chardin, France’s own Vermeer, in galleries 920-922.

Chardin was adept at three different genres of painting: still lifes, portraits, and genre scenes. In each category, he took a quintessential Northern subject and made it uniquely his own.

Dutch still lifes tend to be portraits of wealthy middle class, with an array of items (porcelain, flowers, citrus, spices) shipped from all corners of the globe.

Chardin’s Still Lifes are portraits of peasant life--the simple beauty of eggs, basketry, stone, all beautifully rendered, gleaming in the natural light. There are images after the hunt, with expressions so lifelike, you feel the game is still alive. But none are so striking as The Ray—a gutted skate and several fish, arrayed on the table. Even the cat is surprised to find it there!

His portraits are also distinct individuals—middle-class children exploring the world, like the Young Boy with Spinning Top. It's a charming scene, and technically

exquisite. Look how the typical Baroque light picks up every strand of hair, the blush of the child's cheeks, the velvet and lace, and the gleaming grains of wood.

Chardin: Still Life with Pears & Walnuts 1768,

The Ray 1728

Boy with SpinningTop 1738

Louis XIV ascended the throne as a boy in 1643 and ruled until 1715, the longest ruling monarch in European history. His long reign left a lasting mark on all aspects of French culture, as he was the “sun king” around which the entire French world revolved.

Hyacinthe Rigaud’s Louis XIV, in an Instagram ready pose, wears silk stockings which showed off his well muscled legs (back then, a symbol of good horsemanship) and French emblems of kingship: the ermine cape, scepter, and royal crown.

Today, that portrait is at Versailles, also designed by Le Brun and Le Vau. With its Apollo Salon, Hall of Mirrors and acres of formal gardens, Versailles set the standard for European palaces. And Louis set the standard for monarchs with absolute authority, ruling with a velvet gloved iron fist, directing ballets and pieces de theatres in the garden at Versailles, and turning every event of his day, from bed to bath, into a royal event attended by aristocratic courtiers.

The renovations of the Louvre, including the opulent galleries with their illusionistic ceilings, took place during his reign. It was he who commissioned the architects Le Vau and Le Brun to redo the façade of the Louvre, and he also established the French Academie of Beaux-Arts, which trained (through the Ecole des Beuax-Arts) and controlled (through its annual Salon exhibition) the entire ecosystem of French artists for the next 200 years. Le Brun later took the helm of the Academy, painting a series of portraits featured in 913. The Academy was based at the Louvre, and from the 18th century on, French artists had the benefit of studio, lodging and study of portions of the royal collection.

Antoine Watteau (923)

Louis XIV is an important pivot point in French arts. After his death, courtiers returned to their own residences in Paris, adapting the elaborate style of Versailles to their own tastes. Antoine Watteau’s Voyage to Cythera is the beginning of the Rococo period and the beginning of the extensive Rococo galleries (923).

When exhibited at the French Salon, Voyage to Cythera was renamed “Fete Galante,” a fitting name for all the works in this gallery. An aristocratic group of men and women step off a boat to Cythera, the mythical island of love. Couples interact across the foreground, meeting, sitting, courting, in sunlit landscapes filled with foliage and flowers.

Watteau, Voyage to Cythera, Diana at her Bath

Call it Baroque Light: lighter in palette with fresh pastel colors highlighted with white and gold.

In the Rococo room, you’ll see all of Watteau’s best (he died quite young). Including his Diana at the Bath, a chance to “clothe” beautiful young women in classical mythology (in this case it is the huntress Diana).

All the paintings in these galleries focus on the lives, loves, and leisures of the aristocracy. Beautiful men and women, in even more beautiful clothing (or none at all), are rendered in feathery brushstrokes that seem to skim across the canvas. Art historians might call this style frivolous--but it dominated the 18th century, and remains as one of the most popular styles today

The painter Francois Boucher, a student of Watteau, dominated the 17th century with his painting of beautiful nudes (he also had a studio in the Louvre). The Forges of Vulcan (927) shows Venus as the goddess of love, pleading with Vulcan, her husband to create armor for her mortal son Aeneas. Vulcan is clearly smitten with his wife; Cupid with his quiver of arrows reinforces that. But Venus, of course, loves many others; Aeneas, who would go on to found the city of Rome, is evidence of that.

Boucher, Forges of Vulcan 1740; Fragonard: The Bathers 1765

Jean Fragonard, a student of Boucher, closes out the century of Rococo romance. His Bathers in 923 is a frothy mix of luscious nudes that doesn’t even pretend to be couched in classicism.

One final work: Boucher’s The Forest, which is a little more sober than his other works. Fitting, as this is one of the hundreds of works confiscated by the Nazis during the Occupation of World War Two, then "held" by the Louvre until the rightful owners could be found. Until very recently, little was done to find those rightful owners, but after a public investigation, the Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés at the Louvre has been tasked with returning the stolen artworks. Boucher, The Forest

The Rococo galleries are quintessentially French, seemingly all flowers and fluff. But it’s not all flowers and fluff. This so-called “feminine” style was a period in which women also wielded real power—on the throne, beside it, or behind it. Look at the portraits of women like Marie-Anne Eleonore, the Countess of Graves, one of many women who hosted salons for all the intelligentsia of Paris to gather.

Fragonard, Countess of Graves (1769); Elisabeth Labille-Guillard , Francois-Andre Vincent 1795

It’s at salons like these where Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and others formulated the ideas that led to the French Enlightenment. It’s also the first time that female painters like Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (featured in the Neo-Classical 702) and Elisabeth Labille-Guillard were admitted to the French Academy. Labille-Guillard painted a portrait of her friend, mentor (and 5 years later her second husband), shown with brushes and palette. He seems to be just turning to take a look in his awkwardly placed spectacles (933).

How many female artists are on display in the Louvre? Vigee-Lebrun was one of the first female artists inducted into the French Academy of Arts. Read below to find out the shocking number of female artists in the Louvre.

Despite (or because of?) the excesses of the aristocracy, the French economy was increasingly bleak in the 1770s , and a new sobriety in subject and style appeared. At the Louvre, it appears in room 902. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who focused on "family values" of the middle-class, was one of the most popular painters of the period. His Father’s Curse: the Ungrateful Son is a dramatic rendering of anguished parents pleading for their son to stay, as he is led away by a young woman. The Punished Son shows the result of such folly: he lies dying, surrounded by this grieving family. Works like these were meant to show the virtues of family and duty, as well as the folly of straying from a righteous path.

Greuze: Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son, Dying Son 1777

The visual style is also in stark contrast to the Rococo style. Each painting is like a stage set, with the clearly delineated figures posed to heighten the drama of the moment. The light and exaggerated expressions heighten the drama even more. And though the clothes are contemporary, they are draped like ancient togas: this new Neo-Classical style is deliberately meant to reflect that of ancient Rome and Greece.

Throughout this gallery and the next, you'll see other examples of the Neo-Classical style, especially as the austerity mirrored growing unrest in France. Greuze himself lost the fortune he made painting, and died penniless in the Louvre studio.

*The quintessential Neo-Classical painter was Jacques-Louis David: his massive paintings are in the David Hall (702), at the end of the tour of French painting.


Because the bulk of the Louvre's historic collection of Neo-Classical paintings are in the David Hall, you won’t see much direct evidence of the 1789 French Revolution. But you will see the artistic changes. The Revolution overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and established a French republic modelled after the Roman Republic. By the end of the Reign of Terror, in which thousands of artistocrats were killed (including the King and Queen), churches were transformed into temples (the Pantheon is the best example of that), a new Julian calendar (with Latin names for each month) was established—and Roman dress was all the rage. The new elite, a mix of Royalist aristocrats and revolutionaries celebrated their status with portraits done in the Roman style, draped in robes and on couches.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist was part of a Royalist family who believed in education for women. She trained under Jacques-Louis David and made a living painting portraits of the new Republican aristocracy. During the Republic and in the first years of Napoleon’s reign, women did have more freedom on many fronts. Benoist was able to take advantage of that, building a successful career as a portrait painter despite the fact that her family had been loyal to the monarchy.

Her Portrait of Madeleine is striking in that it shows the change in status for women artists, but also women of color—then and today. Madeleine is dressed a la Roman, similar to many members of the French aristocracy at the time, though the choice of white against her dark skin provides a dramatic contrast. The background is simple and she seems to the reclining on a Roman couch draped in blue silk. The fact that her robe reveals one breast is also striking: while breasts are sprinkled throughout the gallery on Greek goddesses and even Marianne, the personification of France, but rarely is such décolletage seen on real-life people.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of a Black Woman/Madeleine 1800

And the subject, too is striking. She stares directly at us with a realism that suggests individual identity, not allegory. Recent scholarship has revealed that she is most likely Madeleine, a servant born in Guadeloupe. Slaves in the French colonies were freed by decree in 1794, and she accompanied the artist’s brother-in-law to France at some point after. The painting was shown in the Salon (at the Louvre) for the first time in 1800. Was the portrait, simply titled Portrait of a Black Woman, meant to be a symbol of that newfound freedom? She could be—note the blue, white and red of the French flag.

If she is a symbol of French liberty, it was short-lived. Soon thereafter, Napoleon re-established slavery to fuel his military machine. And though recent scholarship has revealed the sitter’s identity, she still inhabits the gallery as an anonymous “black woman,” a symbol of the evolving status of people of color over the centuries. Perhaps that’s why she looks at us with such grave dignity today.

Jean-Dominique Ingres (940)

Jean-Dominique Ingres is one of the few artists who are represented in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay—here you can see why. Ingres was a prolific artist whose career spanned the first half of the 19th century. He, too, has a crisp Neo-classical style that is used to limn scores of portraits and nudes, and even in the series of saints that line the upper walls in room 940. Look at his collection of bathers to see how he was able to transform classical style into something both exotic and erotic. Similar to his Grande Odalisque in the Romantic gallery, his nudes here are purely an object of fantasy.

Ingres: Valpincon Bather 1808, Turkish Bath 1862

Those seemingly extra vertebrae are also present in Ingres' other nudes, along with a lush expanse of perfect European flesh. His Valpincon Bather turns modestly away so you can enjoy the beauty of her torso, exoticized with head scarf and silks. 54 years later, at the age of 82, Ingres continued to play on this theme in the Turkish Bath. The Valpincon Bather returns, surrounded by other harem women in a variety of different poses, each one meant to highlight the desirability of the female body. The painting taxes logic in so many ways—the amount of women, the blondeness of the women, even the perspective of the women. But as an aging painter’s dream, it is superb.

Eugene Delacroix was an even more prolific artist. His paintings dominate the Romantic gallery, fill the Delacroix Museum in Paris, and fill this room (950) with energy. You can see the stark difference between his work and that of Ingres: while Ingres employed minute brushstrokes to achieve a smooth “licked” surface, Delacroix’s brushstrokes are quick, frenzied and dynamic to reflect the emotion of the subject, almost three dimensional. As the quintessential Romantic painter, his subjects ranged from historical events to fictions, portraits to animal studies. Tempestuous women, rearing horses, wild lions; throughout, his interest in the dramatic moment is preeminent. Ingres’ Odalisques look smooth and sanitized in comparison to Delacroix’s, Odalisque, which seems to beckon from the shadows, her jewelry and hookah glittering in the soft light.

Delacroix: Woman with White Socks, Woman of Algiers, Smoking Turk

In the 1830’s Delacroix actually travelled to Algeria, which was a French colony at the time. Can you see the difference in the paintings done before and after his visit? Compare Smoking Turk in this room to Death of Sardanapulus, for example. Or Woman of Algiers (not on display) to his earlier Odalisque. The exotic details remain, but here, more dignity, respect and realism given to the subjects that actually sat for him, instead of those which populated his imagination.


*The last galleries in the French wing are a precursor to the French Modernism found at the Musee d’Orsay and L’Orangerie.

In the early 1800’s, landscapes became a source of Romantic inspiration, as artists sought respite from the city in the countryside. An earlier gallery displays some of those landscapes (944), but the last galleries in this wing (948-952) are the ones that set painters on the path to modernism.

The Barbizon painters were a loose group of Parisian painters influenced by the classicizing landscapes of predecessors like Poussin and Lorrain. Rather than painting mythological subjects, though, they chose to paint nature alone, creating a new plein-air style based on outdoor sketches that were then finished in the studio. Because they gathered (or lived) in the small village of Barbizon, they are often called the Barbizon School. Alfred Sensier, a friend of the painters, recalls “The proud majesty of the old trees, the virgin state of rocks and heath… all these intoxicated them {the painters}with their beauty and their smell. They were, in truth, possessed” by the beauty of nature.

Camille Corot was the pre-eminent painter of the Barbizon School, with hundreds of his works at the Louvre (and even more at the Musee d’Orsay). In 948-49, you’ll see his work as an Academy painter: landscapes of Italy, paintings of nymphs, nudes and assorted individuals. Working around Barbizon, however, peasants replaced his nymphs.

Corot: Souvenir of Castelgandolfo and Souvenir of Montefortaine 1864

And while the canvases were painted from life, they are titled as memories, souvenirs of a past way of life. Souvenir of Castelgandolfo and Souvenir of Montefortaine both show the painters dependence on natural light, using soft colors and brushstrokes to show the idyllic beauty of nature. While there are always subjects in his works, the real subject is nature itself. Those hints of pristine white lend a sparkling air to his landscapes that are unlike any others. Corot’s genius was to use pure lead white paint (which was actually toxic) directly on the canvas.

Corot was successful as a painter and member of the French Academy, and legendary in his support of the poor—and poor painters. His philosophy of painting from nature was hugely influential on the next generation of French Impressionists; Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and especially Camille Pissarro counted him as teacher and friend--that is why you’ll also find his works at the Musee d’Orsay.

Jean Millet too, makes his mark here and at the Orsay. While he was also a member of the Barbizon painters, his focus was on the figures in the countryside. His Weed-Burner and Winnower(951) are imbued with a sense of dignity that captures the splendor of the Northern Baroque he studied in the Louvre.

Milet: Weed-Burner, Winnower, Maternal Caution

And sometimes the comedy, as in Maternal Caution, in which a mother helps her toddler relieve himself out the door. He awkwardly extends his tiny body forward as his older sister patiently watches. Some things are not historic or modern, but universal….

Be sure to view the masterpieces of Corot and Millet at the Musee d'Orsay, just across the Seine, as the first stop on the road to modernism.

(click image to jump to Musee d'Orsay)

*At the end of the French galleries, the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Denon stairway leads you to the apex of 19th century French art in the "Red Rooms," two massive halls (702 and 700) adjacent to the Mona Lisa in 711. The fact that the Mona Lisa crowds flow into these rooms is by design, as they contain some of the most celebrated and influential masterpieces by French artists.

The heroism and self-sacrifice celebrated in French Neo-Classicism and Romanticism is on full display here, in rooms painted red to heighten the drama even more.

That drama begins with the economic, political, and social upheaval of the late 18th century. By the 1770s, the absolute authority (and incredible wealth) of European monarchs was being challenged—and not just in America. In France, a series of weather crises and crop failures led to increasing economic stability and civic unrest. Even the artistocracy knew it—observe how Marie Vigee-Lebrun, favorite portrait artist of Marie, portrays herself and her daughter in 1786 and 1789.

Vigee-Lebrun, Self-Portraits with Daughter 1786 and 1789

In the first Self-Portrait with Daughter, the focus is soft, as a richly dressed Vigee-Lebrun leans back, her daughter in her lap. She is the quintessential "happy mother" of the Rococo aristocracy. Three years later, the adoration remains, but the tone of the painting, in color and clothing, is much more restrained and sober. She is now dressed like Roman nobility, which was the height of fashion for French nobility at the time.

This is one of only 22 works by female artists in the entire Louvre collection!! Gives a sense of the obstacles female artists faced for most of human history, in terms of access to education, art education, patronage, and publicity (all controlled by men at the time). Female artists are represented in slightly higher percentages at the Orangerie, Orsay, and Museums of Modern art in Paris.

Jacques-Louis David (702) David Hall

Jacques-Louis David, France's premier Neo-Classical painter dominates this massive room. David, who came up through the Academy of Beaux Arts, was a product of the turn towards a more severe, classical style. David spent 2 years painting in Rome, and classical Rome became a touchstone in his work. The hall, also called the David Hall, contains most of David’s most iconic works, including the Oath of the Horatii, a massive canvas from 1782. It shows the story of the Horatii brothers of classical Rome. The painting is so large, and so precise in its details, it’s as if the viewer could step into an ancient room.

David, Oath of the Horatii (1782)

Rome was at war with neighboring Alba, so the leaders decided to avoid bloodshed by appointing 3 men from each city to fight to the death. In the painting, the Horatii brothers swear an oath to their father to come back victorious or dead. Their sisters and wives in the background are sobbing because either way, they lose: they are either the sisters or wives of the Curiatii brothers of Alba. When the Horatii come back victorious and the women mourn their brothers and husband, the surviving Horatii, in a rage, kills the grieving women.

David defined the new Neo-Classical style: crisply sculpted figures in a classical setting, with vivid colors used to heighten the drama. Interestingly, it was Louis XVI who bought this work, just before he and his wife were swept up in the French Revolution.

David, Lictors Bringing the Bodies of his Sons to Brutus (1789)

David's Lictors Bring to Brutus the Body of his Sons was unveiled at the height of the Revolution, in 1789. It is another story of the Roman Republic in which Brutus, head of the Republic, must vote to condemn his sons to death for their role in an insurrection. He sits stoic, his duty to the state foremost, while his family weeps in the shadows behind him. The message of duty to the state above all else was not lost on its audience, and it sparked controversy when it was shown, just at the point the Reign of Terror was beginning.

David became THE painter of the French Revolution, working to create parades and plays for his comrades. As a member of the Committee on General Security, he voted to execute the king and queen, along with countless other artistocrats. His Death of Marat is meant as a monument to those revolutionaries: Marat, a friend and fellow revolutionary, was assassinated by a young woman who visited him while he was working in his bath. It is done in the same dramatic, Neo-classical style, including his signature, signed “to Marat.”

David, Death of Marat 1793

The Intervention of the Sabine Women is also from Roman history. Rome had invaded Germany, ruled by the Sabines. Eventually, Roman soldiers settled down to marry the Sabine women and create families. When Sabine men returned to retake their land, the Sabine women (who once again, would lose no matter who won) intervened to establish a truce. Once again, David’s sculpted figures form a frieze across the classical backdrop, the women as rigid as sculptures as they block the German warriors from attacking their families.

David, Intervention of the Sabine Women 1799, Leonidas at Thermopylae 1814

And fans of the movie 300 might recognize Leonidas at Thermopylae, which illustrates another story of sacrifice—that of the 300 Spartan soldiers that martyred themselves against the Persians in 490 BCE. The king sits impassively as his soldiers prepare for death around him.

Considering David’s devotion to the French Revolution, it’s ironic he later became court painter to Napoleon. The massive Coronation of Napoleon from 1805 still contains the precise, linear, sculpted style characteristic of David's Neo-classicism. But now, the canvas is filled with the European royalty who attended the pope’s coronation of Napoleon as emperor at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This painting is massive: when Napoleon viewed the finished work, he exclaimed that he could actually walk through it!

David, Coronation of Napoleon 1805

Apparently, Napoleon became impatient with the pope and seized the crown from Pope Pius VII, in effect crowning himself. David shows the moment after, when Napoleon, at the height of his imperial power, turned to crown his wife Josephine as empress. If you'd like to see the crown close up, it can actually be seen in the nearby Galerie d'Apollon (705).

Jean-Antoine Gros was a student of David. His painting of Napoleon Visiting a Plague House was meant to heroize Napoleon’s self-sacrifice for his troops during his Egyptian campaign. Gros, who traveled with Napoleon's troops (and picked the war spoils to send to the Louvre) depicts the leader standing erect in the center, his uniform a contrast to the tattered cloth of his soldiers. While his assistant covers his mouth, Napoleon is fearless in his concern for his troops, despite the risk to himself. Immediately after the visit, however, he ordered all the soldiers poisoned so the plague wouldn’t spread. Today, it’s a classic example of Napoleonic imagery (and an unsettling reminder of our own pandemic).

Gros, Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa

French military forays (and colonialism) in the Middle East and Africa led to a new topic: the exotic peoples who lived there. Artists like Jean-Dominique Ingres, a student of David, used the Neo-Classical style to create fantasy images of exotic subjects. His Grande Odalisque is a window into that world. Ingres’ neo-classical style is so crisp and perfect, the surface of the canvas so smooth (or “licked”), it is almost like a photograph. The almost lifesize woman gazes at us from her rumpled bed. Has she been busy? Decide for yourself—her bejeweled chastity belt is unlocked beside her. Is this real? It was certainly taken as a window into an exotic world, and Ingres carefully details the textures of satin sheets, feather fan, silk headscarf, woven tapestry that it looks like a photograph.

Keep in mind Ingres himself never visited these areas; he based his painting on writings and his own imagination. The woman is European in appearance, with such a long torso that critics suggested Ingres’ women had extra vertebrae—but all the more to look at, and fantasize.

Ingres, Odalisque

*Odalisque leads us into the Romantic gallery of the Louvre (700), showing all the varieties of human emotion and excess.

Romanticism is not about romance. It is about the human drama: the triumphs and failures, fantasies and horrors of individual artists. It developed at a time when people turned away from institutions like the monarchy, and turned inwards, towards emotions, dreams and nightmares. The Romantic period is when monsters were created, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And when monsters were revealed, as in the genocides and massacres that took place across Europe, and publicized in newspapers.

Theodore Gericault (700)

The Raft of the Medusa is a depiction of a real life event that horrified the French public. In July 1816, a French captain and his crew capsized their ship, the Medusa. Because they didn’t have enough lifeboats, they made a raft from the ship for 150 passengers and crew, but when the raft began to drag down the captain’s lifeboat, the officers cut the line and abandoned the passengers. By the time they were rescued 13 days later, only 15 passengers remained. The rest had died from exposure, dehydration, and starvation, and stories of cannibalism circulated.

Gericault, Raft of the Medusa 1818

Gericault was so taken by the story that he created a lifesize model to paint his work, which shows the moment they saw a ship on the horizon. The agitated brushstrokes (you can actually see the brushstrokes now) add to the emotion. The twisting pyramidal composition peaks with the young boy’s cloth as he waves towards the rescue ship which can just barely be seen on the horizon, while bodies still slip into the water. Look how the raft is tipped in the corner to invite the viewer on to experience the horror. Perhaps for that reason, this gigantic work (16 x 23 ½ feet) was a source of controversy when it was first exhibited—many felt it was too uncomfortable, too true—to be painted. Nevertheless, it is one of the most instagrammed works in the museum today.

Look down the gallery and you’ll see a huge variety of subjects. But there is a definite uniformity of style and theme--human drama with heightened emotions, expression and color is key to all Romantic works, no matter the subject.

Eugene Delacroix (700)

Delacroix, Massacre at Chios 1824

Eugene Delacroix started as an assistant to Gericault, and served as the model for the corpse slipping into the water on the lower right of Sardanapulus. Massacre at Chios is his tribute to tragedy: the 1812 Ottoman massacre of 20,000 on the Greek island of Chios. Soldiers on horseback rear up behind a group of Greek prisoners as they sit in an apocalyptic battlefield. Those prisoners were eventually sold into slavery or imprisoned. Delacroix shows them haggard and suffering as they await their fate, with dramatic colors and details to elicit sympathy for the Greeks. Look to the right to see the baby trying to nurse from a corpse. The work has such an emotional impact, even today, that it was removed from view in 2009 at the request of the Turkish government—and eventually put back on display after protests from the Greek government.

Delacroix’s interest in eastern (Oriental) subjects is also Romanticism. For European artists, areas like the Middle East and North Africa served as a blank canvas upon which they could project their own imaginations and desires. In The Death of Sardanapulus, Delacroix shows the (fictional) story of an Assyrian ruler who, when told enemies have breached his palace, orders all his most important possessions to be destroyed before he himself dies.

Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapulus 1827

Delacroix shows the moment when servants set about to kill the women and horses of Sardanapulus as the ruler sits impassively watching the death and violence below him. Everything, including the brushstrokes, is a swirl of action. The terror in the expressions of the women and even the horses is palpable. The scene was so brutal, chaotic and erotic (especially with the blood red setting), that it was taken from public display. It was critiqued as the antithesis of classicism—which of course, is what Romanticism is.

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People 1830

Delacroix went on to dominate French arts from the 1820’s through the 1850’s, in works that displayed the drama of French history in all its forms. The poet Baudelaire remarked that “he is passionately in love with passion!” and passion is definitely the touchstone for all his works. A fitting last image is Liberty Leading the People, in which Delacroix heroizes the French people in their 1834 revolution against the tyranny of the French government—the same revolution memorialized by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables. The movie actually replicates Delacroix’s scene, in which masses of people from all classes of society (a bourgeoisie with a top hat, a peasant, and a young boy) all work together in yet another human pyramid to overthrow a tyrannical government. They are led by Marianne, the personification of France, holding the flag. She is losing her clothes in the frenzy of the moment, but stands triumphant with the people.

*Return back to the Denon Stairwell, where the Galerie d'Apollon (705) shows Delacroix’s work for a different patron: the King of France.

The Salon was renovated under Louis XIV and served as a model for the Hall of Mirrors (and another Apollo Salon) at Versailles. Sumptuous gilt carvings and elaborate ceiling frescoes show the sun god in the act of vanquishing enemies as the gods of Olympus look on, symbolizing the power of the French kings.

Delacroix’s contribution is Apollo Slaying the Python. Here, his characteristic swirls of color and activity are put in service of the monarchy, and it’s fitting that directly beneath are the crown jewels of France.

Apollo Salon with Delacroix's Apollo Slaying the Python

Although most of the French Crown Jewels were sold after the Revolution, the crowns of Louis XV, Napoleon, and Empress Eugenie remain.

Crown of Louis XV, Napoleon, Empress Eugenie

You can recognize Napoleon’s crown by the references to classical Rome, in the form of cameo posts of famous Roman leaders (you can find lifesize versions of those same leaders in the Roman Gallery!). Other royal accessories, including the Hortensia, Regent and Sancy diamonds, as well as various swords and scepters, are also on display.

*Or treat yourself like royalty with a stop at the Cafe Mollien, just beyond Delacroix and the Romantic Gallery (700).

The best view at the museum is the Café Mollien, with tables beneath the gilt colonnades that overlook the Tuileries, and a patio overlooking the pyramids in the Court Carree. The chocolate pyramid cake is equally worthwhile!

Websites on the Louvre:

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