Louvre Museum History

The Louvre
Photo by: Alvesgaspar Creative Commons

The Louvre Museum is also called the Musée du Louvre, and it is located on the Right Bank of the beautiful Seine river in Paris, France. The Louvre is not only one of the world’s largest museums, but it is also considered a very historic monument. Over thirty-five thousand items, that date from prehistory to the nineteenth century, are displayed in the museum which covers over sixty thousand square meters.

The museum is situated in the Palais du Louvre or the Louvre Palace, which started out as a fortress that was constructed in the late twelfth century when Philip II ruled France. The original structure was built on the western edge of the city, and gradually the building was surrounded as Paris grew. Today, remnants of this fortress can be seen in the museum’s basement.

The Early Years

The Louvre Palace changed frequently during the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, Charles V transformed the building into his residence and Francis I, in 1546, redesigned the site so it reflected the French Renaissance style. During his lifetime, Francis obtained most of the Louvre’s assets, which included Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait, the Mona Lisa. In 1682, Louis XIV selected Versailles as his private residence so renovations on the Louvre slowed, but many artists were allowed to use the Louvre as their residence.

By the mid-eighteenth century there had been a large number of proposals to make a public gallery so the royal collection could be displayed. On October 14, 1750, Louis XV agreed to exhibit ninety-six pieces of the royal collection. A hall was opened so the general public could view the Tableaux du Roy which contained works by Andrea del Sarto, Raphael, Veronese, Titian Veronese, Poussin, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt until it closed in 1780.

The royal museum, under Louis XVI, became more important. Many renovation proposals were considered for the Louvre’s transformation into a larger museum, yet, none were agreed upon. The museum remained unfinished until the start of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution

The Louvre was turned into a public museum while the French Revolution was being fought. Louis XVI was arrested and imprisoned on August 10, 1792, and this resulted in the Louvre’s royal collection becoming national property. Because theft or vandalism was feared, the National Assembly pronounced on August 10th that the museum’s preparation was very urgent. By October of that year, a committee began putting together the royal collection for public display.

The Louvre Museum Opens To The Public

Crowd in front of the Mona Lisa.
Photo by: Pueri Jason Scott Creative Commons

The museum opened on August 10, 1793, one year after the monarchy’s demise. The general public was given access three days each week at no charge. The collection exhibited over five hundred paintings and almost two hundred objects of art. To organize the collection, the Republic committed one hundred thousand livres per year to expand and maintain the artwork.

In 1794, France’s armies had begun to bring items back from Northern Europe. After the 1797 Treaty of Tolentino, they brought pieces back from the Vatican, including the Apollo Belvedere, which established the Louvre as an important museum.

The early days of the museum were chaotic because privileged artists still lived there and many paintings were unlabeled and disorganized. The building had to be closed in May of 1796, because of structural problems. The Louvre reopened on July 14, 1801, with new columns and lighting, along with the art work arranged chronologically.

The Napoleon I Years

During this time the northern wing that paralleled the Grande Galérie was constructed and the museum’s collection continued to grow due to many successful military campaigns. After the Egyptian campaign, which lasted from 1798 to 1801, Napoléon appointed the Louvre’s first director. In tribute, in 1803, the Louvre museum changed its name to the “Musée Napoléon,” and many Spanish, Dutch, Austrian and Italian acquisitions were made during this time period.

After France was defeated at Waterloo, many of those acquisitions were sought by the previous owners. The Louvre’s administrators did not want to send them back so they hid many pieces in their own private collections. Because of this, many nations sent emissaries to Great Britain seeking assistance which resulted in many items being returned. Later, Louis XVIII worked out agreements with Italy so they could exchange pieces.

Restoration and the Second Empire

The Louvre suffered during this time as did most of Paris. When Louis XVIII reigned, the very famous Venus de Milo was added to the museum’s collection. Throughout the Restoration period, from 1814 to 1830, over one hundred pieces were added to the new Egyptian antiquities department.

In 1848, when the Second Republic was created, over two million francs were allocated to make repairs and also to complete the Grande Galérie, Galerie d’Apollon, and the Salon Carré. In 1861, when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte ruled, over eleven thousand pieces of art were purchased. This included over six hundred paintings, Campana antiquities and Greek gold.

In the Second French Empire, the French economy experienced excellent growth. By 1870 the Louvre added twenty thousand new pieces while the Grande Galérie and Pavillon de Flore were remodeled by architects Hector Lefuel and Louis Visconti.

Third Republic and the Two World Wars

Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived
Photo by: Jastrow Creative Commons

In the French Third Republic, many new pieces, mostly from gifts and donations, were added to the collection. In 1863, an archaeological expedition discovered the Winged Victory of Samothrace sculpture in the Aegean Sea. Although, the piece was heavily damaged, it has been exhibited in the museum since 1884.

The museum’s expansion slowed after World War I ended. The collection did not obtain many new important works, except for the Saint Thomas work by Georges de La Tour and the pieces donated by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild estate in 1935.

During the Second World War the Louvre removed and hid most of their valuable pieces. In August of 1939, truck convoys left Paris and by the end of December, the Louvre had removed most of their valuable items, with the exception of pieces that were extremely heavy. These items were put into the basement.

After Germany took control of the Sudetenland, numerous important works of art, like the Mona Lisa, ended up being relocated for protection at the Château de Chambord. After war was formally declared, the majority of the museum’s paintings were also sent there. Some sculptures like the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace were transferred to the Château de Valençay. After France was liberated, the artworks were brought back to the museum.

Louvre Pyramid

The Louvre Palace had attained its present form by 1874. It is, for the most part, a rectangular structure. It also has the Sully Wing which contains the square-shaped Cour Carrée. Two other wings wrap around the Cour Napoléon, the Denon Wing that borders the Seine, and the Richelieu Wing on the north side.

In 1983, President François Mitterrand recommended the Grand Louvre plan that would move the Finance Ministry, and remodel the building so it could display art pieces too. The project was awarded to I. M. Pei, who proposed that a glass pyramid be built over the new entrance that went into the main court area called the Cour Napoléon.

On October 15, 1988, the pyramid was inaugurated. The Grand Louvre’s second phase, the Inverted Pyramid or the La Pyramide Inversée, was finished in 1993. Since 2002, attendance has doubled and every year, over eight million guests visit the Louvre. This makes it the most visited museum in the world.

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