The Louvre is one of the most iconic museums in the world. A recent worker strike was blamed on overcrowded conditions, including an aggressive and impatient public, jostling crowds, and inadequate emergency evacuation measures, as reported by NPR. Why do tourists from around the globe continue to endure packed crowds and unpleasant conditions?
The Louvre is the world’s first public art museum. It opened shortly after the French Revolution for a public eager to see the collections of art cultivated by French royalty and the Church. After the crowning of Napoleon, it even played host to priceless works of art from countries he conquered, becoming so great a museum it has yet to be surpassed. In 1815, shortly after Napoleon’s fall, thousands of its pieces were returned to their nations of origin. Today, it remains an epicenter of culture with a remarkable history.
From Palace to Public Space
The Louvre may have first opened its doors to the public after the French Revolution, but it was constructed centuries earlier. “The Louvre itself began as a fortified palace, which was constructed by an early French king named Phillipe Auguste,” said Dr. Richard Brettell, the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at The University of Texas at Dallas. “On the outskirts of the city of Paris, it was a fortified palace because it was the first building that one would see coming up the Seine on a boat towards the city of Paris. It was completely fortified, surrounded by a moat, a huge wall system, and a large interior courtyard.”
The Louvre features a walking gallery built by Catherine de Medici, Queen of France and wife of Henry II. “She also built, quite far away from the Louvre itself, another palace,” Dr. Brettell said. “It was called the Tuileries Palace, and ‘tuileries’ means ‘place of tiles.’ It had large gardens, which were called the Tuileries Gardens, which still exist today as the great gardens of the Louvre Museum.” Dr. Brettell said the Tuileries Gardens were built in the mid-16th century, and Henry IV had a connection built between the Tuileries Palace and the Louvre Palace in the form of the Grand Galerie—a long walking gallery for aristocrats.
Surrounding this connection, as many as 6,000 people lived in small, irregular houses and buildings until after the downfall of Napoleon. “In 1871, a sort of mob of Parisians who hated the Second Empire and hated Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugenie, destroyed the Tuileries Palace,” Dr. Brettell said. When it was torn down, it became what visitors see today: the two long, arm-like structures of the Louvre.
Some of the most historic sculptures can be found at the museum. One is a bust of Amenhotep IV. Dr. Brettell explained that it’s the largest bust of Amenhotep IV outside of Egypt and “reminds us that Napoleon conquered Egypt and created Western Egyptology,” bringing one of the greatest collections of Egyptian art to the West. Also present is the Venus de Milo, the legendary armless figure of Etruscan art that has been studied and copied for centuries. And, the Louvre houses two of Michelangelo’s Bound Slaves from the tomb of Julius II are some of the finest Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy.
The Mona Lisa is likely the world’s most famous painting, and it hangs at the Louvre. However, Dr. Brettell recommends avoiding the crowds around the Mona Lisa and instead admiring the Winged Victory of Samothrace as the symbol of the whole museum. A Hellenistic sculpture of a majestic winged figure, it is the first great work of art that visitors see, ascending the staircase at the museum’s entrance.
Why does Winged Victory of Samothrace strike Dr. Brettell so? In his words, “There’s the sense of optimism, and victory, and clarity, and sort of stridency of purpose that one sees, and of the greatness of the human past.”
Dr. Richard Brettell contributed to this article. Dr. Brettell is the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at The University of Texas at Dallas. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Yale University. Prior to joining The University of Texas at Dallas, he taught at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Yale University, and Harvard University.