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  • Laurie Seban

Musee du Louvre: Paintings

Overview: Tour of Louvre's collection of European painting (Italian, Spanish and French), highlighting key artworks as examples of 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. 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 Lisa1 How can you find her and what else can you see in a short time?

*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 sign of the Mona Lisa onto 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 from Italian churches and villas. 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 classical architectural settings.

Botticelli was an early 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. Voluminous robes swirl around the elegant, elongated women. While there is no trace of classical columns, you can still see the influence of classicism in the flow of the robes, as well as an interest in 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.

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 monastaries 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, the patron saint of the convent as well as Fra Angelico’s Dominican order, prays at the foot of Christ. 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.

Botticelli, Venus & the 3 Graces Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with St. Dominic

*The frescoes will lead you to the Grande Galerie, which is not your typical gallery.

Once used as a playground by Louis XIII, the Galerie has displayed paintings since the 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 the human figures both sacred and secular, a rediscovery of classicism, and a mixing with other traditions, particularly Eastern.

Late Gothic/early altarpieces (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. 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, Maesta 1280

Cimabue was the Florentine master of religious paintings. His Maesta: Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels is a superlative example of this type of work. Mother and son are slightly larger than the 6 angels surrounding them, conforming to the idea of hieratic scale (most important figures are the largest). The angels with their 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 painting that predominated Italy and the east at this time. Actual gold flakes were used for the gilt, 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 her 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. 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 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 1400’s, you start to see an evolving 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, note the emotion, motion, and interaction between figures. Because the Church was the largest patron of the arts, the majority are religious scenes.

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, haloes intact. Filippo Lippi painted the Barbadori Altarpiece, a tour de force of Classicism. Various figures (saints, angels, even Lippi himself, dressed as a monk) crowd around the oversized Virgin and Child. The classical architecture and ornate details, from the marble inlay to the Oriental carpets, give a sense of the grandeur of the early Renaissance, as does the clear lighting, and clearly outlined figures. Another Renaissance innovation: the patron (Barbadori) himself, kneeling in red robes before the Virgin as a symbol of his devotion.

Angelico, Martyrdom of St. Cosimo and Damian Lippi, Barbadori Altarpiece

One of the reasons you can tempera. These framed works are tempera painted on wood panels. Tempera, a paint mixed with essentially egg yolk, created rich, opaque colors that could be laid down over time, 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 the Madonna’s face, her transluscent veil and evanescent halo all show Bottcellli’s careful attention to detail. Even the type of roses in the rose garden can be identified by botanical historians! 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.

Botticelli: Madonna & Child 1468, Portrait of a Young Man 1485 & 1475

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 the leader in greater physical and emotional naturalism, and the Louvre has the largest collection of Da Vincis in the world.. In the late 1400’s, oil paints were introduced from Northern Europe, and 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 with Christ and John the Baptist with real bodies in a real space, a rocky grotto with a waterfall. Da Vinci built his forms using the technique of chiaroscuro (“drawing with light”) in which forms are not outlined but merely suggested through subtle shading of forms. The background has a tangible atmosphere, a sfumato (“smoky”) effect achieved through a careful layering of oil glazes. 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 characteristic 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. There is a psychological interaction and visual sophistication that 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.

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

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.

Like La Ferroniere, it is a 3/4 portrait. So 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. According to some contemporaries, he liked the way he completed the hands. And according to many artists, 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. For whatever reason, it 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.

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. 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, Wedding at Cana 1563

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 the master of the big 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 the other Venetians that followed in Da Vinci’s footsteps. The first nudes in a landscape recline in a Pastoral Concert by Giorgione, 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.

But his assistant Titian continued, and the Louvre has 13 Titian works 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 sfumato effect by using upwards of 100 layers of glaze to suggest the forms and flesh of his luscious nudes.

The coloring and idealized beauty of his subject was a model for 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).

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

*The gift shop is (of course) the next stop. But if you 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!

*Exit past Veronese and complete your tour of the Grand Galerie (712).

OR view the massive masterpieces of the French collection on either side of the gift shop (700 & 702)

Some masterpieces to look for? Raphael’s La Belle Jardinere (1505-1509). 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 painting are always suffused with sunshine—fitting, considering that Vasari said he had a sunny personality himself.

Raphael La Belle Jardiniere

Mannerist works, also from the 1500's, 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 right)

Caravaggio (Grande Galerie)

By the 1600’s, 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 Gentilischi, Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt

Caravaggio had a genius for making the ordinary extraordinary. In his Death of the Virgin (1604-06), 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. Caravaggio 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 are called the caravaggisti. 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 down the corridor, but worth it to see El Greco’s Crucifixion against an otherworldly background of stormy clouds and majestic mountains (718). There are also 5 Goya portraits (719), including that of 2 year old Luis Marina de Cistue y Martinez with his puppy, all sparkling lace, shimmering satin and velvet.

El Greco, Crucifixion Goya, Luis Marina de Cistue y Martinez 1791

*Retrace your steps back through to the Grande Galerie and return to the Richelieu stairwell, overseen by the Victory of Samothrace. You can follow the trajectory of French art in the Richelieu and Sully wings (with highlights like portraits of Francis I and Louis XIV) which will also bring you back to Victory and the climax of French art in Salles 702 and 700.

In Salle 702, duty and self-sacrifice are celebrated in French Neo-Classicism. By the 1770’s 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. In the first Self-Portrait with Daughter, she portrays herself as a privileged member of the aristocracy, clearly adoring her daughter. Three years later, the adoration remains, but the tone of the painting, in color and clothing, is much more restrained and sober.

Marie Vigee-Lebrun, Self-Portrait with Daughter 1786 and 1789

Jacques-Louis David (702)

702 is called the David Hall, after Jacques-Louis David. By the mid 1780s, a more severe style was adopted by most artists, in keeping with the increasing austerity of the time. David, who came up through the Academy of Beaux Arts, was a product of that. 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 city 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. Liinear, sculpture-like figures in a classical setting with dramatic colors emphasize the drama and duty to the state. The painting is so large, and so precise in its details, it’s as if the viewer could step into an ancient room. Interestingly, it was Louis XVI who bought this work, just before he and his wife were swept up in the French Revolution.

David's Lictors Bring to Brutus the Body of his Sons was unveiled at the height of the Revolution, in 1789. It is a 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, Oath of the Horatii (1782), Lictors Bringing the Bodies of his Sons to Brutus (1789)

David was not only swept up, he 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. 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.”

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: Death of Marat 1793, Intervention of the Sabine Women 1799, Leonidas at Thermopylae 1814

And fans of the movie 300 might recognize Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), 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.

David, Coronation of Napoleon 1805

Considering David’s devotion to the 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 European royalty arrayed at Notre Dame, who attended the pope’s coronation of Napoleon as emperor in (1806). According to history, 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.

Jean-Antoine Gros was a student of David. His painting was meant to reinforce the idea of Napoleon’s self-sacrifice for his troops, though immediately after the visit to his soldiers, he ordered all of the killed 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 failures and triumphs, fantasies and nightmares of individual artists and events. It comes about at a time when people turn away from institutions like the monarchy, and turn inwards, towards emotions, fantasies and nightmares. The Romantic period is when monsters were created, like Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula. And when monsters were revealed, as in the genocides and massacres that took place across Europe, and publicized in newspapers.

Gericault (700)

Like the Medusa wreck. The Raft of the Medusa (1818) 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 was so taken by the story that he created a lifesize model to paint his work, which shows the moment they say 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.

Gericault, Raft of the Medusa 1818

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 coloris key to all Romantic works, no matter the subject.

Eugene Delacroix (700)

Eugene Delacroix started as an assistant to Gericault, and served as the model for the corpse slipping into the water on the lower right. 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, Massacre at Chios 1824 Death of Sardanapulus 1827

Delacroix’s interest in eastern subjects is also part of the Romantic period—unknown areas like the Middle East and North Africa served as a blank canvas upon which artists could project their own imaginations and desires. In the case of 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. Delacroix shows the moment when servants set about to kill the harem 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 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.

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People 1830

Given Delacroix’s clear political leanings, it’s ironic that is was he who painted the Apollo Slaying the Python in the Apollo Salon just a few rooms away (705). There, his ceiling of the Sun god in the act of vanquishing enemies, surrounded by the other gods of Olympus has a different message entirely, but very similar in style.

Apollo Salon with Delacroix's Apollo Slaying the Python

*It's logical, of course, that French artists would comprise 2/3 of Louvre paintings—they are now arrayed in an area spanning the 2nd level of Richelieu and Sully. Start in Richelieu, which is the beginning of both the Northern European paintings and French paintings. You can take several hours to examine individual painters, or look at a selection of the key French works by the century, which parallel developments across Europe.

Take a quick jaunt through the Northern Paintings first if you can, to understand how Northern innovations influenced French painters (currently under renovation at the Louvre)

Since the Louvre collection originates with the French monarchy, royal portraits abound. Our tour begins with the first named portrait (in Europe at least), that of the French king, Jean II le Bon, in 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 tended to combine the Northern interest in meticulous details (of textiles, accessories) and linear realism with the naturalism and religious drama of Italian works. Each French painter is a unique combination of those influences.

School of Paris, Jean II le Bon 1350 Fouquet, King Charles VII 1450 Clouet King Francis I 1535

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.

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 pearl 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. 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.

Anonymous court painter, Gabrielle d’Estrees and her Sister

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 exemplifies that (912). The Cheaters shows 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: 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 moral story, the Prodigal Son in the process of losing his shirt, and the story is embellished with lustrous details of pearls, jewels, brocade, all sparkling in the sharp light. But the darkened background deliberately recalls Carravaggio’s tenebrism, with light raking across the faces of the players—here only the cheater is in the shadows.

De la Tour, The Cheaters

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. 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!

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

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’s arrives in triumph, and Poussin paints the Romans kidnapping Sabine women. But 9/10 of their canvases are a rendering of nature, with an emphasis on atmospheric effects. 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 of the passage of life, from spring, with Adam and Even in the garden of Eden (God in the clouds above), summer, fall and winter, which represents the destruction of the Biblical flood.

Lorrain, Cleopatra’s Arrival,1642 Poussin, Spring (The Earthly Paradise) 1660

As the art market expanded to include wealthy middle-class patrons, 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. 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.

Le Nain brothers, Peasant Family 1642

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. Or 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 adolescents exploring the world, like the Young Boy with Spinning Top.

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 (Queen Elizabeth will surpass him in 2024). 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, it set the standard for European palaces. 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 palaces and hotels in Paris, adapting the Baroque style of Versailles to their own tastes. Antoine Watteau’s Voyage to Cythera is the beginning of that Rococo period, and the beginning of the extensive Rococo galleries (923). When exhibited at the French Salon, it was renamed “Fete Galante,” a fitting name for works like this. 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. 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).

Watteau, Diana at her Bath, Voyage to Cythera/Fete Galante

All the paintings in these galleries are lighter in tone, with images of 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. 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, The Forest 1740; Fragonard: The Bathers 1765

And 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. But the Rococo had its dark side: The Luncheon shows an aristocratic, seemingly happy family gathered for a meal. Chinese porcelain, crisp silks, and lavish decorations, however, can’t cover the spot of syphilis on the young mother’s face.

One final work: Boucher’s The Forest, which is a little more sober than his other works. There is good reason—this is one of the works held by the Louvre until its rightful owner can be found. The Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés at the Louvre has been tasked with returning hundreds of works confiscated by the Nazis during the Occupation of World War Two.

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. It’s at salons like these where Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and others formulated the ideas that led to the 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).

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

By the last quarter of the 18th century, Jacques-Louis David's Neo-Classicism reigned, and an air of seriousness and morality returned to painting. We've already seen some of those paintiner is the "David Hall," but the rest of the collection is found here (932).(. Jean-Antoine Greuze celebrated “family values”, and was one of the most popular painters of his time. 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 folly of straying from a righteous path, and Greuze, right at the cusp of political upheaval reflected a new (neo-classical) emphasis on family values. He himself lost the fortune he made painting, though, and he died penniless in the Louvre studio.

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

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 continued the crisp Neoclassical style of his teacher, David in 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. But rather than painting mythological subjects, they chose to paint directly from nature, creating a new plein-air style based on outdoor sketches taken from the Forest of Fontainebleau just outside Paris. 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. Ironically, the painters were trying to capture a pristine nature which was disappearing, as factories and cities began to swallow the countryside.

Camille Corot was the pre-eminent painter of Barbizon, 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 in Fontainebleau, however, peasants replaced his nymphs. 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: Souvenir of Castelgandolfo and Souvenir of Montefortaine 1864

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.

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 country side. 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. 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….

Milet: Weed-Burner, Winnower, Maternal Caution

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.

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