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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Seban

Louvre Museum: the Mona Lisa and Other European Paintings

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Tour of the Louvre's collection of European painting from the 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. That is due to one woman: the Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, as they call her in France). 6 out of 10 visitors to the Louvre will stand in line for a selfie with her. Then they leave--it's estimated 40% of the visitors only visit the Mona Lisa! So how can you find her and what else can you see along the way?

*The best path from the entrance to the painting is through the Italian painting galleries (the same path taken by Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code).

The museum is one of the earliest (and best) state collections of European and ancient arts, so take advantage of the view on the way to the Mona Lisa. In the 1400s, as European monarchs sought to establish themselves as global powers, many of them, French kings included, assiduously collected works (and artists) from across Europe. Francis I, for example, hosted Da Vinci and employed Italian Mannerist artists like Benvenuto Cellini, Rosso Fiorentino, Primataccio, and Giulio Romano. Walking through the galleries is a crash course in the development of painting from the Renaissance onwards.

In the 17th century, Louis XIV hired Bernini to renovate the Louvre and sculpt (Bernini’s portraits of Louis still inhabit Versailles). Later kings added the aristocratic pleasures of the Rococo painters, and even many Neo-Classical masterpieces until the French Revolution stopped their buying spree. After the Revolution, Napoleon’s armies marched across Europe and Africa in the early 19th century and sent back thousands of artworks for the museum collection. Louvre holdings continued to increase under successive regimes. During the Second Empire, Napoleon III went on a buying spree, adding over 20,000 items (and hundreds of paintings). Over time, individual donors have also added to the collection, which today stands at over 7,500 paintings.

*To see the best of the painting collection, follow the Mona Lisa sign from the 1st floor of the Denon Wing. Key works and artists found along the way are featured in boldface, along with their room number (though the room numbers seem to have changed over the last year).

The earliest works, as you follow the "Sens de la Visite" into the Italian painting galleries, are Renaissance frescoes. Renaissance means rebirth—the rebirth of classicism, to be precise. In the 15th century, Italian artists looked to the Roman past that surrounded them as a model for representation, creating more naturalistic life-like figures in ancient temple settings.

Sandro Botticelli was an early Renaissance master, with willowy draped figures gracefully stepping across a landscape. His frescoes from the Villa Lemmi reference Roman mythology. In Venus and the Three Graces, the goddess of love, accompanied by the trio of muses, greets a young woman. Classicism is seen in the voluminous robes swirl around the elegant, elongated women, as well as the interaction—the dance, almost—of the 3 figures. You should be able to recognize Botticelli’s style in the coming galleries; several paintings of the Virgin and Child as well his portraits grace the walls of the Grande Galerie.

Botticelli, Venus & the 3 Graces

If the colors seem different, it’s because 15th-century images like these were done in fresco—pigment mixed into wet plaster. As the pigment dried, it became a permanent part of the wall, which is why so many of these 15th century images have been preserved in place. But they had to be quickly painted, before the plaster dried. Because of the technique, frescoes are generally outlined and then filled in fairly quickly, before the plaster dried.

Fra Angelico’s Christ on the Cross with St. Dominic (707) was taken from the wall of the convent of San Domenico. Fra means “Father,” as Angelico was a monk, like many early painters. Many early frescoes can still be found in churches and monasteries scattered across Italy, though some, like these, have been removed to museums. Religious themes predominate, since the Catholic Church was the primary patron of artists at this time.

Against a dark background. Christ leans towards his mother, who turns away in sorrow. St. John the Baptist prays on the other side, while St. Dominic, patron saint of the convent and Angelico’s Dominican order, prays at the foot of Christ.

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with St. Dominic

Images like these were painted in churches and convents as objects of religious devotion and reflection (this was removed in the Napoleonic era). The figures are beautifully rendered in delicate lines and pale colors, and you get a sense of their physical form: the strained muscles of Christ and the legs beneath the robes.

*The frescoes will lead into the Grande Galerie...

Once used as a playground by Louis XIII, the Galerie has displayed paintings since the French Revolution. As one of the largest spaces in the museum, it is a fitting entry into the Italian collection.

The first works are the link between Gothic and Renaissance periods. Gothic used to be called the “Dark Ages,” implying a darkness or unskilled period prior to the “rebirth” of naturalism in the Renaissance. But the Gothic is much more than that, a period of experimentation with human figures, a rediscovery of classicism, and a synthesis with other traditions, particularly Eastern.

Most are religious, made for the Christian churches that began to cloak Europe after the 11th century. Altarpieces were large freestanding pieces, displayed on church altars (and hinged so they could be folded when not on display) of the 12-14th century have golden gilt backgrounds and stylized forms that emphasize the otherworldliness of the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Christ). At this time, figures weren't meant to look human. But you can see the nascent interest in the human figure and emotional expression in standard scenes like the Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary (always in a blue robe) being visited by the Angel Gabriel and told she will give birth to the son of God. Others show Christ’s birth and scenes from His life, or the Maesta, with the Christ Child enthroned on his mother’s lap, surrounded by saints and angels. Cimabue's Maesta: Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels is a late Gothic masterpiece that points the way towards the Renaissance.

Cimabue, Maesta 1280

Typical of the period, Mary and her son (the Madonna and Child)are slightly larger than the angels surrounding them, which highlights their importance. Angels with multicolored wings are vertically stacked on either side of the pair against a gilt background. These are otherworldly figures in an otherworldly space, just like the Byzantine style that predominated Italy and Eastern Europe at this time. Actual gold flakes were used for the gilt background, to show the importance of the subject. Another convention is Mary’s blue robe. The lapis lazuli used in blue was the second most expensive material, which is why Mary's importance is almost always signified with a blue robe.

At this point, there is no perspective or modeling to suggest an actual chair, or even actual bodies. But look at the feet and the hands of all the figures. In some cases, they are drawn as a pattern (look at some of those fingers!), but Christ’s feet seem to show some real effort at actually depicting feet. You can see shading to suggest the straight noses of each character, but their faces are all ovoid, with large eyes: Cimabue was not drawing from real life, but painting figure types instead. And even though you can see folds in the robes, with areas that suggest the bend of a knee, the overall placement is not always lifelike—look at Mary’s feet!

Compare Cimabue's Maesta to Giotto’s St. Francis 1299

According to Giorgio Vasari, who documented the “Lives of the Artists” in the 16th century, Giotto started as a shepherd, in the late 13th century. Cimabue came across him in the mountains, drawing pictures of sheep with a piece of charcoal, and made the young Giotto his assistant. Whether the story is true or not, Giotto’s genius is undisputed—he was the first to put Christ’s feet on the ground, using emotion, motion and interaction between figures to bring a new sense of reality to his paintings. You should be able to pick out his St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1299). On a gilt background, you’ll find the beginning of a real landscape, with Francis sitting at the foot of a hill, drawing back to receive the stigmata (wounds) that are beamed from Christ’s chest. Okay, it may look pretty unrealistic to you, but appreciate the shocked expression of Francis, and the way his torso draws back with the weight of his knee on the ground. The three panels below show three scenes from the life of Francis: the dream of Pope Innocent III, the Pope authorizing Francis to found the Franciscan order, and Francis preaching to the birds. Look at the expression of Francis as he leans towards the birds. Giotto was such an outlier that other Italian artists would not replicate his innovations for another 100 years!

In the Early Renaissance of 1400s, there is a growing interest in the humanity of Christ—his feet and his form in this world, as well as the drama that accompanies his life, death, and resurrection. There are too many to go through individually, but in any of the paintings you pass, you will see more motion, more emotion, and more interaction between figures. Angelico, Martyrdom of St. Cosimo & Damian

The Martyrdom of St. Cosimo and Damian, also by Fra Angelico, shows clearly individual faces and expressions, as spectators watch the decapitated heads of Cosimo and Damian fall, their haloes still intact. Notice how the gilt background has been replaced by the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside, along with contemporary Florentine architecture and citizens.

Lippi, Barbadori Altarpiece

Filippo Lippi painted the Barbadori Altarpiece, even more complex in its visual design. Various figures (saints, angels, even Lippi himself, dressed as a monk) crowd around the oversized Virgin and Child. Now, Mary and her son have real weight (and muscle), while the classical columns and arches, marble inlay and Oriental carpets, give a sense of the grandeur of the early Renaissance. Another Renaissance innovation: the patron (Barbadori) himself, kneeling in red robes before the Virgin as a symbol of his devotion.

One of the reasons you can see more details is tempera paint. Tempera, a pigment mixed with essentially egg yolk, created rich, opaque colors that could be laid down over time on wooden panels, creating the possibility for much more visual description than frescoes.

You can clearly see the difference when Botticelli appears again, with a Madonna and Child who nuzzle against each other as St. John the Baptist looks on, in an elegant, delicate style similar to Lippi. The strands of hair and textures of the robes, the subtle shading of Mary’s face, her transluscent veil and evanescent halo all show Bottcellli’s careful attention to detail. Even the roses in the garden can be identified by botanical historians! Botticelli: Madonna & Child 1468

Portraits of a Young Man 1485 & 1475

His two Portraits of a Young Man --the center subject maybe a self-portrait of the artist himself--look out at the crowds with an air of bemused resignation.

As markets expanded within and beyond Europe, a growing middle class (not peasants, not nobles, so in the middle) also took an interest in the arts, so portraits, historical events or classical subjects become more common. Artists might have specialized in specific subjects, and known for their specific styles, but they all trended towards greater physical and emotional naturalism.

Leonardo Da Vinci (Grande Galerie)

Leonardo Da Vinci was a key innovator in greater physical and emotional naturalism, and the Louvre has the largest collection of Da Vincis in the world. Da Vinci loved to experiment. He was an auto-didact interested in everything—not just human anatomy but geology, geography, physics, engineering and even aeronautics. All of those interests make their way into his painting. The Grande Galerie showcases several of his early works on the way to the Mona Lisa. You only have 30 seconds to look at the Mona Lisa, so spend time as you need here to really appreciate why Da Vinci was so innovative

The Virgin of the Rocks is one of his earlier works. The large work (almost 6 feet high, so you can’t miss it) shows the Virgin (another name for Mary/Madonna) with Christ and John the Baptist with real bodies in a real space, a rocky grotto with a waterfall. By the late 1400’s, oil paints were introduced from Northern Europe, and you can see how effectively the artist used this new medium.

Da Vinci built his forms using the technique of chiaroscuro, in which forms are not outlined, but suggested with the subtle shading of forms. This was only possible through the meticulous application of thin glazes of oil paint. The almost tangible, smoky atmosphere (called sfumato) was also achieved through the same thin glazes of oil paint.

And though the landscape itself is not real, it is based on his real-life study of geological features. The three figures are not independent, but intertwined in a pyramidal composition that is typical of the artist (and his admirers). The Virgin gazes adoringly at her Child, a protective arm around his back. He looks at his cousin John the Baptist (always shown in animal skin because he lived in the wilderness), while John and the angel Uriel point to him. The psychological interaction and visual sophistication is inimitably da Vinci. Da Vinci: Virgin of the Rocks (1483)

La Belle Ferroniere (1485)

La Belle Ferroniere was made just a few years later and exhibits even more innovations. The ¾ view with the sitter turning towards the viewer (so prevalent in photos today) was first done by Da Vinci, to give a sense of depth and space. The chiaroscuro is still present, but every detail of her clothing and jewelry is meticulously presented. The background here is a dark ruby, and if you look closely, you might see one of the artist’s fingerprints, as he often spread colors with his hands.

And while we know this is from the hand of Da Vinci, we don’t know who the woman is: La Belle Ferroniere is a reference to the “beautiful headpiece” she wears.

*Turn right into the Salle des Etats (711) that houses the Mona Lisa--you can't miss the crowds!

King Francis I avidly collected Italian works (which is why there are so many in this gallery!) and eventually arranged to have Leonardo da Vinci work for him. From the chateau at Chambord that he reportedly designed, Da Vinci tinkered with a variety of projects. He died in France in 1519, which is why the Mona Lisa (La Joconde in French, La Gioconda in Italian) became part of the French state collection, and now smiles bemusedly at her throngs of tourists.

What makes the Mona Lisa so special? First, its mystique: although the painting of a wealthy baker’s wife was done in 1505, Da Vinci was never satisfied with it—it was one of the few paintings he kept in his possession. Like La Ferroniere, it is a 3/4 portrait. But according to some contemporaries, Da Vinci especially liked the way he completed the hands. And hands are one of the most difficult parts of the body to render.

You can see the chiaroscuro modelling of Mona Lisa’s face, as well as her slight smile (Giaconda means “laughing one”). The air of mystery is amplified by the sfumato effects, and the detailed landscape behind.

The Mona Lisa has always been one of the most visited works in the collection—even before it was stolen by an Italian painter who wanted to repatriate it back to Italy, and before it became Duchamp’s Dada masterpiece, the touchstone of the Da Vinci Code, or the subject of millions of memes. Today, it sits behind 5 inches of bulletproof glass in a wooden frame. The piece of cake that recently hit it just needed to be windexed off. Only those who have actually seen it will say that it is actually much smaller than its aura—but you have to see it yourself to believe it.

Venetian Painting

While standing in line for the Mona Lisa, take the time to look at Paolo Veronese’s Wedding at Cana, the largest painting (almost 22 x 33 ft!) in the Louvre. Even from a distance, you can appreciate the details and the story. It was painted in Venice for the San Maggiore Monastery rectory; some kind of feast or meal was typical for the room in which monks ate, so this first miracle of Christ, when he turned water into wine at a wedding in Galilee, was an appropriate subject. The complexity of Da Vinci’s compositions and nuances of his glazes were taken up by Venetian artists, who were some of the first to use oils.

Veronese, Wedding at Cana 1563

The sea air sparkles in the open air banquet hall lined with a colonnade of Roman arches. Christ sits serenely at the center, as activity swirls around him and neat rows of figures lead into the distance.

Veronese’s contract stipulated as many figures as possible, so he filled it in with a Who’s Who of Late Renaissance Europe: Emperor Charles V, Francis 1 of France, Eleanor of Austria, Mary 1 of England, and Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Fellow Venetian painters Titian, Tintoretto are musicians playing the violone and viola, while Veronese himself, dressed all in white, plays the viola. Amidst all the figures, look for children playing, dogs looking for scraps, and servants pouring pitchers of wine. Even back then, Venetian glass was famous—you can see glass balls almost floating like bubbles, strewn around the attendants. This painting too was taken back to France by Napoleon’s army (maybe that is why he is still such a hero to France—where would the Louvre be without him?).

Veronese was master of the grand gesture: glancing around the room as you continue to wait for the Mona Lisa, you’ll see Christ at Emmaus, where once again, Christ is surrounded by throngs of people, including children, puppies, and even a lop-eared rabbit! Even He seems to be wondering at the crowd of people surrounding him. Christ at Emmaus, Veronese

Directly behind the Mona Lisa are other Venetians that followed in Da Vinci’s footsteps. Pastoral Concert by Giorgione is one of the first to show female nudes in a contemporary setting. One sits languidly with a flute in her hand as another young girl draws water from a well, all while a musician plays. Giorgione was the first to specialize in fetes champetres (“parties in the country”) like this.

Giorgione & Titian, Pastoral Concert 1505; Titian, Girl with Mirror 1550

Giorgione's assistant Titian became one of the most prolific painters of the late Renaissance, and the Louvre has 13 Titians in the collection. On the adjacent wall, Girl with Mirror glows with an inner light as she thoughtfully brushes her hair. Titian achieved an extraordinary chiaroscuro and sfumato effects by using upwards of 100 layers of oil glaze to suggest the forms and flesh of his luscious nudes.

Titian's coloring and idealized beauties were copied by later artists—check out Manet’s version of the Madonna with Rabbit to see which is the 17th and which is the 19th century version (hint: Manet is the one who makes deliberate mistakes, but you have to go to the Musee d’Orsay to really see that).

Titian & Manet, Madonna with Rabbit

*You can exit out of the gallery into the gift shop. From there you have several choices:

The café: turn to the left and pass through the Romantic gallery. 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!

A brief tour through the "Red Rooms," the French Neo-Classical and Romantic rooms (700 & 702), a highlight of any Louvre visit:

If you have the time, continue with your tour of European painting: return through the Mona Lisa gallery (711) and exit past Veronese to complete your tour of the Grand Galerie (712).

Other Italian masterpieces in the Grande Galerie? Raphael’s La Belle Jardinere. Raphael, famous and with followers himself, was an ardent admirer of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. You can see that admiration in the way he uses the same pyramidal composition as DaVinci, this time with Virgin, Child, and John. Christ stands with a childish pose, reaching across his mother’s lap while she gazes adoringly at him. John completes the triangle, leaning into Mary while looking at Christ. All the same components are present, but Raphael’s paintings are always suffused with sunshine—fitting, considering that Vasari said he had a sunny personality himself.

Raphael La Belle Jardiniere 1502-1509

Raphael was also known for his portraits of Italian elite clientele, and Balthazar Castiglione is one of his best. Castiglione wrote The Courtier, an influential treatise on proper etiquette: the roles and responsibilities of the ideal Italian gentlemen and ladies of the day. Raphael’s incisive portrayals were equally influential. Here, he captures Castiglione in the 3/4 pose borrowed from Da Vinci. The writer is dressed in his best, at the height of his career, but with a subtle questioning air. Perhaps he is questioning why so many visitors are rushing out after seeing the Mona Lisa?

Raphael, Balthazar Castiglione 1514-15

Mannerist works from the 1500s are similarly bright, but somehow unsettling. Notice how figures are exquisitely rendered, with perfectly oval faces--but limbs are eerily enlarged. In Jacopo Pontormo's Virgin and Child with St. Anne (the largest below), Saint Sebastian and the Good Thief seem more interested in showing off their pectorals than the sacred scene, while Peter looks taken aback, and the monk Benedict throws up his hands

Pontormo, Virgin and Child with St. Anne 1529 (upper left)

Caravaggio (Grande Galerie)

By the 1600s, Renaissance classicism had evolved from the exaggeration of Mannerism into the drama of Baroque. Those changes were a direct result of the changing religious atmosphere.

Martin Luther’s 1519 critique of the excesses of the Church and Pope in Rome instigated the Reformation, in which thousands of religious groups broke from the Catholic Church to create their own interpretations of the Bible. The resulting religious wars killed thousands (by one estimate, 25% of all Germans), and pitted countries against one another. As a result, Northern Europe turned away from overtly religious subjects and patrons, leading to an explosion of Northern Baroque genres (you can find these in the Richelieu Wing).

After the 1545 Council of Trent, which examined what the Church should do in response to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation began: an embrace and celebration of all that was, well, Catholic: saints and martyrs, sacrifice and sinners, in twisting, multi-media works that were meant to sweep up the viewer in the mysteries of the Church. Religious works that emphasized the ordinary person in extraordinary moments were preferred.

Caravaggio Death of the Virgin 1606

Caravaggio had a genius for making the ordinary extraordinary. In his Death of the Virgin, a dramatic light rakes down from one side to illuminate the two men lowering the Virgin into her tomb. Caravaggio took the solemn event and surprised the viewer with the rear and feet of the beloved Virgin right in the viewer’s face. It shouldn’t be hard to find that painting—only Caravaggio could create such surprising compositions, with an emphasis on everyday details like the dirty feet of the Virgin which so upset the Church parish that commissioned the work, they rejected it. The artist himself lived ruggedly and was quite short lived—he was murdered while on the run for killing someone in a knife fight. But his innovations are long-lived, and his followers called caravaggisti. The most famous caravaggisti were Orazio Gentilischi and his daughter Artemesia.

Gentilischi, Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt

A few paintings down, you’ll find Orazio Gentilischi’s The Holy Family on their Flight into Egypt. Gentilischi’s work does not have the same dramatic lighting, but you’ll never find a more exhausted Joseph in a painting from this period! And there is no Baroque female painter more brilliant than his daughter, Artemesia (but you’ll have to go to another museum to find any of her works).

As the world expanded in the 1600’s, so did the arts, and art styles. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons is part portrait, part still-life. His series of 4 profile heads made up entirely of seasonal fruits, vegetables and trees testify to the artist’s skill and humor. Arcimboldo was the court painter to the Emperor Maxmilian and specialized in portraits made of other things (elements, books, etc); this series was created for the Duke of Saxony. See how many fruits and vegetables you can find!

*Italian paintings in the Grande Galerie segue into the Spanish.

It’s a long trip to the end of Galerie, but worth it to see El Greco’s Crucifixion against an otherworldly background of stormy clouds and majestic mountains (718). El Greco is the first Spanish painter (though not the last) to use black and white to such dramatic effect, with Christ’s pale body almost glowing against the stormy sky. The two witnesses looking on are not saints, but the men who paid for the painting to be placed in the Hieronymite monastery of Toledo, El Greco’s hometown. The figure on the left is thought to be Dionisio Melgar, the head of that monastery. He looks at the anonymous nobleman, who looks up in horror at the Crucifixion scene.

El Greco Christ on the Cross Adored by Two Donors, 1590

Goya, Luis Marina de Cistue y Martinez 1791

Goya is one of the preeminent artists of late 18th century Europe, and served as the court painter for King Charles IV of Spain. His deft portraits of the Spanish artistocracy show his skill in deftly defining the details of wealth as well as the character of his subjects. There are 5 Goya portraits in 719, including that of 2 year old Luis Marina de Cistue y Martinez with his puppy, all sparkling lace, shimmering satin and velvet.

Goya also happened to be one of the sharpest critics of the French invasion of Spain (under Napoleon) in 1807, which is why there are a few of his later painting in the Louvre.

*Continuing your tour of European painting requires some fancy footwork here. Retrace your steps back through the Grande Galerie to Richelieu Level 2.

*If you have been able to find your way to 800, which begins the tour of Northern European painting, you will be rewarded, as the Northern Baroque treasures here sparkle with a precision and light unlike any other region. Coming soon: discussion of Rubens, Vermeer and more...

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