History of the Louvre
Part 1 of 5: Art in Context

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Excerpted from the book
The Louvre

by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren

The Musée du Louvre--that is, the museum that inhabits the Louvre Palace--has existed for over two hundred years, though it has occupied the palace exclusively for a fraction of that time. During the long aristocratic centuries, the great collections of fine and decorative art housed in the Louvre were the property of its royal residents, the concept of a museum where the public might view such treasures not even dreamed of. The story of the museum is a complex one, which embraces the story of the palace: of the kings, queens, and commoners who built it; were conceived, lived, conspired, and died in it; fled it and decorated it. The story of the Louvre is also the story of Paris, and of France itself.

The world's largest museum, the Musée du Louvre is also one of the world's most exciting places, its buildings offering a journey through time, while its galleries display works that arouse the full range of human responses, from admiration and wonder, to curiosity, lust, and anger. The profusion and variety of objects tell us about the times, about social, class, sexual, and religious feelings and beliefs. But there is more than history within this space, represented perhaps most perfectly by the ubiquitously imitated but never replicated Mona Lisa. Leonardo's portrait (thought by some to be a self-portrait) transcendentally transforms paint on canvas into an impression of deep stillness as elemental as the enigmatic landscape behind the sitter, her hand on an equally mysterious sill. This painting, which has evoked every human and artistic emotion from frustration, envy, and contempt to violent rage, has come to stand for the enduring force of art.

Since its beginnings, the Louvre has conferred legitimacy on those who claimed it--for the brief period of a human lifetime--and as such it has been central to the history of its city and nation, even before there was a nation. It has been a wartime castle, and, rarely, a peacetime palace; it has witnessed faith, bloodshed, grandeur, and spectacle, despair, terror, and resolve that we in our time can only imagine--or reconstruct from the gilded traces left to us. The Louvre drew on the greatest talents of Europe, and was built at the cost of the misery of anonymous millions. Its construction vied with wars, revolutions, and the fall of kings, the rise of republics, and the loss of empires.

The museum's story is also the history of all museums and embraces the very notion of what we call art: the process by which the guardian lion of a Mesopotamian temple ends up in a glass cage bathed in French sunlight--or the picture of a self-possessed Florentine lady hangs behind a vertical, glass-fronted bunker.

"A Romanesque crucifix was not originally a sculpture, Cimabue's Madonna was not originally a painting, even Phidias' Athena was not originally a statue." So begins Le Musée Imaginaire, by André Malraux, novelist and, as French minister of cultural affairs, overseer of the Louvre from 1958 to 1969. We become curators of the Imaginary Museum when we restore something of the artwork's original qualities, evoking them in situ, in masonry museums. For example, the Louvre's palatial halls, literally teeming with visionary manifestations of talent, and of faith, fear, and the hope of Heaven, elicit curiosity, admiration, and the awe of viewers. Such profound feelings can overshadow the recollection that each of these works was made for specific surroundings, a context that endowed it with significance, whether church or throne room.

Our imaginations are stirred by the sea-green patina of ancient bronzes, the ethereal whiteness of ancient marbles, European and Asian, and the romantic signs on The Victory of Samothrace and The Venus de Milo of the passage of time, as another French writer, and great sculptor, Marguerite Yourcenar, wrote. If we free our imaginations, we can see in those bronzes once more the warm browns of human skin, see those marbles painted in colors that, bleached by the centuries, the statues themselves have taught us to perceive as garish (it was Michelangelo and the Renaissance that mistook, then perpetuated the absence of color). These, and their Christian successors in incense-scented chapel and church, contained divinity or grace, and if we look for these works in museums and galleries today, it is because they still contain their antique power.

Space and time alter artworks, and so does photography, by taking an object out of all context except for the frame of the single picture--or of the book that contains the photographs. In a book, photography can have a leveling effect, making all objects of similar size, simply because they are on pages of the same size. Here, too, viewers become curators when they reimagine the work not only in its original surroundings, but also in its original dimensions. There is more: like people, some artworks are more photogenic than others. Photographs can lighten varnish-darkened paintings, and drawings too light-sensitive to be exhibited can be viewed at leisure. By the same token, however, the magic of some works does not survive the translation into a photograph. The delicate, tender light that glows from medieval teenage Madonnas and their babies fades in the flattening light of photography. (Paradoxically, the bad black-and-white photographs of scholarly illustrations can do these sculptures more justice, because more imagination is required of the viewer.)

We can somewhat restore works to the Imaginary Museum because the receiving of art, like the making of it, is a process of pursuing what is true, of surrendering to the object's mystery. We can label that mystery "art" or "talent" or "genius"--or necessity: the masons who cut and laid the blocks of Paris limestone for Philip Augustus's Great Tower were certainly placing beauty second, after the security of a firmly planted structure. (Eight centuries later, stability would be one of Pei Ieoh Ming's guiding architectural values as well, leading him to raise pyramids within the Louvre's grounds.)

Continue to Part 2:
The Louvre in the Middle Ages --->

Return to The Louvre (the book),
or to the HLLA Reference Library.

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