History of the Louvre
Part 4 of 5: The Revolution

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Excerpted from the book
The Louvre

by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren

Unlike his father and grandfather, Louis XIII died a natural death. Tradition has it that France owes the very existence of his heir, Louis XIV, the Sun King, to the Louvre: when a sudden rainstorm kept the king from returning to Versailles one night, Louis and his virtually estranged queen renewed relations, and the dauphin was the result.

Louis XIV was born in 1638 into a home racked by political tensions, primarily between his father and his father's mother. Having ascended the throne in 1643, while still a child, he was caught amid the armed upheavals of the Fronde, a popular uprising, which in 1648 flared into a parliamentary rebellion similar to England's. The court was forced to leave Paris more than once, and when Charles I of England was beheaded, in 1649, the boy Louis became well aware of what could be the fate of kings. In the end, it was not the nobility, and certainly not the semi-starving common people, but the Paris bourgeoisie who turned the tide, allowing Louis and his mother, the regent, to return to the capital.

One of Anne of Austria's first domestic actions upon returning home to the Louvre was to have her summer apartments in the Petite Galerie decorated. Calling on popular Italian and French artists for the stuccowork and frescoes, she entrusted her bathroom, an affair of gold, gilded bronze, and marble columns, to the court painter Simon Vouet and to Eustache Le Sueur. In typically aristocratic style, Anne left the carpenters' bills "unpaid for forty years," a later observer noted.

When he came to rule in his own right, Louis XIV proved himself far more his mother's than his father's son, both in his assumption of absolute authority and in his sumptuary politics. The king appreciated spectacle not only as policy but as participant: in 1662, dressed as an ancient Roman, he led a two-day "Carrousel," or tilting-match, that left its name in the complex of today's Louvre. A procession of quadrilles defiled, costumed--besides as Romans--as Persians, Indians, and Americans. More than a thousand members of the nobility paraded as dancers and acrobats where today the smaller of Napoleon's arches rises.

The nobility had provided the muscle behind the Frondists, and Louis was aware that he must keep them in sight and dependent, preferably deep in debt. Soon, the country aristocracy was moving to Paris to protect their position and seek wealth by currying the king's favor. To achieve the daily opulence that attendance at court required, the aristocracy called on armies of servants, artisans, and merchants: the capital, with well over half a million inhabitants, was once more the largest city in Europe. Meanwhile, outside the city, the neglected estates became the scene of ever-deepening misery.

It was clear before very long that the old Louvre was hopelessly inadequate to its new burden, and in 1659, the king's architect, Louis Le Vau, took on Henry IV's Grand Plan. The Cour Carrée was quadrupled, and following a devastating fire in 1661, Le Vau restored the Petite Galerie and created the second-story Galerie d'Apollon. The reference to the Greek and Roman god of the sun and of the arts was an obvious tribute to the Sun King, the monarch who is said to have declared to Parliament during the tumult of the Fronde, "L'état c'est moi"--"I am the state."

Louis's reign--the longest of any European ruler--made France the most prestigious nation in the world. The king's missionaries and merchants established a French presence in Africa, India, and the Americas, including the Louisiana Territory and Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, which soon became a source of fabulous wealth. France itself exported grain, and Louis developed manufacturing and commerce, going so far as to have Venetian lace-makers kidnapped when his industrial spies were unable to discover their trade secrets. At the same time, the nation was at war, on sea and land, for all of Louis XIV's reign, which created a hemorrhaging of the country's great wealth. The taxes levied to support the wars, the export of grain, and regulations that prohibited the flow of food from one French region to another, all converged to keep the French peasants on the edge of famine. One bad winter could produce widespread starvation, and there was more than one bad winter during the king's long reign.

The largely urban bourgeoisie that had supported his regime when he was a child profited from the king's economic policies, many of which were formulated and pursued by his minister, the fascinating and complex Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Colbert, formerly in the employ of Cardinal Mazarin (hence of the Queen Mother's coterie), was made controller general of finance in 1665 and secretary of state for the king's household in 1669; as pragmatic as his patrons, he was breathtakingly effective. It was he, under the king's aegis, who in the 1660s founded the academies of letters, sciences, and architecture, all of which were housed in the Louvre.

Salon Carree
Guiseppe Castiglione. The Salon Carrée at the Musée du Louvre. 1861. Oil on canvas. 27 1/8 X 40 1/2 in. (69 x 103 cm).

Louis was indeed the sun where the arts were concerned. Racine, Corneille, and Molière wrote plays that were produced in the Salle des Machines, the theater Louis built in the Tuileries. Beginning in 1672 the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture held exhibitions of works by its members in Richelieu's Palais Royal, one of his bequests to the Crown. In 1699, the exhibitions moved to the Grande Galerie, and after 1725 to the Salon Carrée (which is not, in fact, square), which gave its name to the influential, often controversial shows that would be held until 1914.

The last of the medieval Louvre was torn down, leaving only the (unsanitary) moat where a crazed Henry III had sought to cut down his demons. Louis planned a colonnade, a grand entrance to dignify the east wing of the palace, and who better to design such an architectural expression than Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the sculptor who at midcentury had ideated and built the colonnade of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome? In fact, Bernini was only one of the contestants, albeit the most famous, but the king rejected his proposal for a sinuous and imposing façade, because, in the end, it was not French enough. During his brief, embattled sojourn in Paris, Bernini also suggested that the king present a permanent public exhibition of art from the royal collections. Claude Perrault, a physician and founding member of the Academy of Sciences, won the plum architectural commission. (His brother Charles, a member of the Académie Française, was famous for his Contes de ma mère l'oye, or Tales of Mother Goose.)

In 1678, all work on the Louvre ceased, and all resources were diverted to Versailles, where his father's retreat would become the king's palace. Louis built his own hunting lodge nearby, at Marly-le-Roi; a number of the park's sculptures today disport themselves in the court of that name, part of the Grand Louvre renovation. By the time the king and his court moved there in 1682, Versailles had consumed more than two hundred lives and the equivalent of more than $300 million dollars. In Paris, the roof of Perrault's handsome Colonnade was left unfinished.

Versailles is celebraed for its interior decoration and objets d'art, but it also became home to the royal art collection, while the Louvre served as storage space: Henry II's Salle des Caryatides had served as a Salle des Antiques under Henry IV; now it did so again, with André Félibien as its first curator. The Louvre still sheltered the academicians as well as the academies. The academies were active and engaged: their classicism in art, and an equivalent rigor in intellectual matters, created a French style of thought that endures today. The scholars and their scientific collections attracted foreign guests, in the flux of intellectual exchanges that would give rise to the Enlightenment, and in the end, ironically, the endeavors of the Crown-sponsored academicians would eventually nurture the Revolution itself.

Under the guidance of Colbert and Charles Lebrun, first painter to the king, history became the most prestigious artistic content of the day, reflecting the time-honored view of the human tale as being determined by the actions of great men. History painting, at which the French Academy artists excelled, reinforced Louis's deliberate cult of personality. The king, however, had a soft, if shallow, spot for his more humble subjects, and a sort of pendant to history painting soon emerged. So-called genre painting captured portraits of the usually rural, nameless poor, such as farmers and blacksmiths, and spotlighted their homes and work. Other popular if less noble topics, inspired by Caravaggio, included the people of the urban streets, such as fortune tellers, often shorthand for rogues and prostitutes. Art was no longer solely devotional, decorative, or hagiographic.

These complementary subjects--the epochal and the transitory, not to say disposable--mirrored a shift in the existential understanding of time and history, including art history. No longer were ancient scenes presented in contemporary dress to make the narratives more immediate to the viewer; time was no longer a visually continuous present, but an evolving dimension. Francis I and Henry IV had acquired the classical statuary admired by contemporary painters and sculptors; Louis XIV, advised by Colbert and Lebrun, purhased classical and contemporary art for Versailles as well, but also works from what we call the Renaissance on. The inventory made of the king's Cabinet of Paintings toward the end of his reign gave a total of 1,478 pictures, making it one of the most ample collections of the time. (French works numbered 930, Italian 369, and northern European, 179.)

The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture drew on the royal collection for its conférences, the regular lectures at which senior academicians analyzed a single painting, most often by an Old Master, pointing out to students its strengths and weaknesses in the specific formal areas of color, composition, and drawing. Portions of the collections of the Crown were on display in one or another salle of the Louvre or Tuileries palace, where paintings were exhibited in the fashion of the cabinets, crowding the room's walls. In the high-ceilinged rooms of the royal palaces, larger paintings were hung from dadoes, the moldings just below the ceiling, at an angle that facilitated viewing by the privileged visitors, while smaller works filled the spaces below. Similarly, sculptures were warehoused, but on view, in the Louvre's Salle des Antiques, where distinctions were not always drawn between ancient works and statuary in the ancient manner.

The conventional exhibition of museum collections that we are accustomed to today, ordered by geography and chronology, is only one of a number of approaches. In an eighteenth-century amateur's cabinet, pictures might be organized on either side of a suggested central vertical axis, for example, to produce a harmoniously arranged wall, rather than to show the individual paintings to their best advantage.

Meanwhile, the Louvre was lively with far more than the life of the mind. The artisans still occupied the bottom floors; with the king away, the palace became a sort of grand lodging house, soon taking in courtiers, squatters, and, in time, a stable of ducal horses--and their hayloft.

Louis XIV, who died in 1715, was a tough act to follow, in several respects. He had undoubtedly created a great nation and the most brilliant court in Europe, but his achievements had been at the expense of that same nation, especially the long-suffering poor, represented with such dignity and cleanliness by painters such as the Le Nain brothers. The Sun King's great-grandson and successor, Louis XV, only sometimes known as "The Well-Beloved," inherited a barbarously neglected and exploited people who were becoming increasingly desperate. Louis XV, however, had neither his ancestor's broad ambition nor his intransigence.

Madame de Pompadour, who lived at Versailles as Louis XV's maîtresse en titre for nearly two decades, beginning in 1745, and who strongly influenced the king in political, commercial, and artistic matters, sponsored architectural and literary projects, and hosted his soirées. She was a patron of Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, and painters. She founded the Sèvres porcelain factories, and employed skilled artisans, such as the furniture makers who produced some of the finest pieces in Europe. The look of the mid-eighteenth century, named for Louis XV, owes its style to her.

Perhaps inspired by the receptions of the great salonnières, including the king's mistress, amateurs held regular social gatherings dedicated to discussions of art, and the absence of the royal collection from Paris increasingly began to be felt. It may also have been due to La Pompadour's sway that in 1750 the first public exhibition of the king's paintings would be held. And it would take place not at the Louvre, by now all but abandoned to its motley population, but at the Luxembourg.

The Luxembourg project brought the question of restoration frankly to the fore. At Versailles, even the king's favorite works were subjected to the perils of direct sunlight, heat, and cold. Many more paintings and statues were in storage there, or at the Louvre, where paintings were often stacked haphazardly, prey to extremes of temperature and the attentions of vermin; at the Luxembourg, the famous Rubens cycle was exposed to the damaging light and heat of the sun. It was no coincidence that recent years had seen developments in the science of restoration, including the transferral of paintings from wood supports to canvas. One of the most important pictures in the royal collections, Raphael's Saint Michael, painted for Francis I and once hung over Louis XIV's throne at the Tuileries, was saved from destruction through this process, although the problems resulting from the metod are only just becoming apparent. The techniques of restoration resonated as well with the enthusiastic, educated aristocracy that was fielding the scientists of the day, while conveniently masking the king's refusal to send major works from his collection at Versailles.

Even as the Luxembourg exhibition opened, there was much politicking behind the scenes in favor of giving permanent space in the Louvre to a museum. The Salon, the show of contemporary art by members of the Royal Academy, had been open to the public since its inception in 1672. Perhaps by extension, since it abutted in the Salon Carrée, the Grande Galerie was, almost from the beginning, the focus of the movement for a national museum in the royal palace. It is interesting that this movement, supported by the king himself, was taking place when the balance of power between the monarch and the people was increasingly in question, with the king attempting to maintain the absolutism reaffirmed by his predecessors. Discussions of restoration suggested that, more than the reigning king's personal possessions, the royal collections were a national patrimony. At the same time, restoration of the paintings in the royal collections, made public in the course of the preparation for the exhibition in the Luxembourg Gallery, had metaphoric weight, implying prudent stewardship generally, and hence good government--in a period when both were in short supply.

Other reasons prompted a permanent public exhibition: a vocal current of criticism argued that French painting had declined since the days of the old king, Louis XIV. In the second quarter of the 1700s, the quality of the applicants for the Prix de Rome--which sent French students to the Eternal City to study with living masters and learn by copying the masterpieces of the greats--was so abysmal that the prize was not awarded at all for several years. Exposing the "protected" students of the Academy to great models in Paris would give them a head start; it would also "prevent the kind of infatuation that is so common among the young following their arrival in Rome," as the painter Jean-Baptiste Pierre wrote in a letter of 1775. Between the lines, he was suggesting that they learn from the great French as well as Italian examples. Nor was France the only state to recognize the didactic value of public exhibitions: when Pope Benedict XIV acquired a group of paintings in 1748, he was moved to place them on public display, in part "to provide instructive examples for the young people who are inclined to the study of the Liberal Art."

The organizers of the Luxembourg exhibition were following contemporary art and art education theory when they juxtaposed the paintings of the great European masters so as to allow burgeoning artists to compare their forebears' strengths and weaknesses, and so improve their own work. For three hours on Wednesdays and again on Saturdays, the public could peruse works such as Rubens's Marie de Médicis cycle, once reserved for nobler eyes. The galleries were open mornings in the shorter winter days, and in the afternoon in summer.

Louis XV died in 1774. Four years later, Louis XVI gave the Luxembourg Place to his brother, the future Louis XVIII, and the gallery was closed the following year. Although during the quarter century of the Luxembourg exhibition various forces had converged toward installing permanent public galleries within the Louvre--with judiciously placed rumors sampling and rousing support--any movement toward making the Louvre the home of the royal exhibition spaces was ultimately frustrated by the condition of the buildings. The north and east wings of the Cour Carrée were floorless and roofless shells; chance-planted urban saplings were growing on the unfinished roof of Perrault's Colonnade.

The halls of the great edifice that had run with music and singing now echoed with the orotund tones of artistic and scientific discourse. Where the menageries of monarchs had stalked, squawked, and crawled, now a stuffed camel, elephant skeleton, and pickled body parts fueled scientific debate. In particular, the Grande Galerie was given over to scale models of French towns, of primary importance for military use. Every part of the royal palace was either occupied or uninhabitable.

Besides the academics, artists, and squatters in the royal halls, a shantytown had gradually grown up in the Cour Carrée. In 1754, so shameful was the appearance of the royal palace of Paris, that the outraged people of the city demanded that the king address the Louvre's shocking state. Money was tight, but in response to the strong, perhaps already menacing expression of popular discontent, Louis XV had the courtyard vacated, some of the façades restored, and a narrow esplanade cleared in front of the Colonnade. However, with little space available in front of it for the grand landscaping its scale requires--the Colonnade is across from the venerable, immovable royal parish church of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, whose façade was classicized in 1754--Louis XIV's grandiose would-be entrance reads as an architectural afterthought, an irrelevant side door.

Work on the Grande Galerie was set to begin in 1773, but with the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, Charles-Claude de Flahaut, Comte de la Billarderie d'Angiviller became the king's director general of royal buildings, a position of vast scope. Although his background was in the military, not remotely the arts, the comte d'Angiviller in 1776 made the creation of a museum in the Louvre his personal project, taking on the best in their fields as consultants. Despite a general consensus that France would be well served by a museum--however that would be defined--the logistics, and the finances, were something else again. Once the Grande Galerie was selected, two major problems were immediately obvious: what to do about Poussin's painted ceilings, left unfinished when the artist had returned in a huff to Rome in the early 1640s, and how to light the gallery.

At first, the king gave generously to the project, enabling D'Angiviller to pursue his acquisition program of buying not only some of the most important European masterpieces that came on the market, but also significant works by lesser artists. The count's plan was to fill in gaps in the national schools in the royal Old Master collections, while boosting the presence of French artists. In addition, D'Angiviller's conservation standards were high, and his subsidy of restorers promoted major improvements in restoration techniques. After much debate, Poussin's wooden ceilings, which represented a serious fire hazard, were torn down. It was France's support of the American Revolution from 1778 to 1781 that abruptly cut off the count's inspired buying spree.

By early 1789, desperate economic conditions and the king's stubborn wavering on accepting a constitution had brought tensions in Paris to an explosive point. In July, the people took arms from the Hôtel des Invalides and cannon from Charles V's Bastille. On October 6, 1789, insurrectionists broke into Versailles, cut down the king's guard, and almost breached the royal apartments. Fearing for his life and his family's, Louis took General Lafayette's advice and returned through a furious, screaming press to Paris and the Tuileries. The Constituent Assembly took over the nearby Salle du Manège, the royal riding school.

During the years of the Revolution, the debates concerning the makeup of a national museum continued, even as the new nation itself took shape, in the tensions created by its own emerging identity, and increasingly under attack at its borders. Revolutionary politicians and theoreticians proposed a universal research institution embracing the arts and sciences, modeled upon the famous musaeum of ancient Alexandria; this concept eventually went by the board, outweighed by the educational value of an art museum to French artists.

In particular, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, like the Academy of Science, was organically bound to the Ancien Régime, not only because it was supported by the king, but because the themes that it passed down to its students were perceived as reflecting and serving a privileged elite, and restricting the education available to artists. The idea of creating an inferential system of education, whereby artists drew logical lessons from great works themselves, as well as from classes, was, like the Revolution itself, an outgrowth of two contemporary related intellectual currents: Enlightenment discussions of "nature" and Romantic emphasis on the individual. In one respect, the art-educational revolution went further than its political counterpart: where the progressive waves of enfranchisement concerned only males, several of Hubert Robert's drawings and paintings of the Louvre project prominently feature women drawing after the masterpieces in the Grande Galerie.

On August 10, 1792, the people took the Tuileries, forcing the royal family to seek refuge in the keep of the Temple, which was, in the round way of history, built during the reign of Saint Louis. On that same day, Louis XVI was jailed and stripped of the executive powers briefly granted him by the new constitution. The right to vote, in an earlier stage tied to property ownership, now became "universal," that is, extended to all freeborn males. The feudal lords in effect lost their hereditary rights, and the National Assembly pushed the previous years' anticlerical reforms further, exiling more than thirty thousand clergy who had refused to swear a loyalty oath. When the convents were closed, and the religious orders and congregations dissolved, their property went to the state; this transfer would have profound consequences for the new national museum.

The monarchy was formally abolished on September 21, 1792, and the Republic declared the following day, which would become the first day of the Revolutionary calendar, but these cool legalisms merely formalized the heated events of August. The following January, the former king was tried, found guilty of treason, and executed; Marie-Antoinette, his queen, would follow him to the guillotine in October. In between, on the very deliberately chosen date of August 10, 1793 (23 Thermidor, Year I), what was now called the Muséum Central des Arts opened the doors of the Grande Galerie to the public, fulfilling the decree of the National Convention.

The first exhibition, held alongside the annual Salon exhibition of works by living artists, displayed 538 paintings and other objects from the former royal collections. Both exhibitions were temporary, and closed on September 30. The Galerie du Muséum Central des Arts opened permanently on the following November 18. The galleries were open to artists on the first five days of every décade--the ten-day week of the Revolutionary calendar--while the last three days were accessible to the general public. The two days in between were dedicated to cleaning and other maintenance tasks.

Even as the thirteen-hundred-year-old French monarchy tumbled in the blood lust of the Terror, the Louvre retained its legitimizing power. Hundreds of thousands of livres the new regime could scarcely afford went to roof the last buildings of the Cour Carrée and restore the great paintings of the royal collections, in one of the most conscious and urgent--but also most idealistic--public relations efforts of all time. D'Angiviller had sent the military models to the Invalides, so the Grande Galerie could be prepared for the exhibition that would welcome the people into the palace that now belonged to the nation. There, they would see objects that had once been the privileged possessions of the ruling class but that now belonged to them. According to the July 27, 1793, decree of the Convention, the museum would house not only paintings and sculpture, but also "vases" and "painted furniture." (In this, the Revolution was following in the traces of the royal plans, which had called for setting smaller works upon fine furniture.) The museum's administrators, although for political, rather than class considerations, followed the direction of the Ancien Régime in the matter of taste as well, disdaining to hang in the Louvre the more accessible works, particuarly landscapes and genre scenes, that were popular with the less instructed audiences that visited the Salons, but would hardly inspire them with Revolutionary zeal.

The rigorously secular Revolutionary government was concerned about displaying religous works, but concluded that decontextualizing them removed the taint of religiosity. More problematic were the masterworks that exalted the monarchy, but whose quality demanded that they be shown. The Marie de Médicis cycle was an obvious case in point. The Treaty of Angoulême was chosen, because it celebrated an event in French history with allegory; traces of the monarchy were discreetly painted out.

Initially, the paintings--hung from ceiling to floor, after the style in the aristocratic cabinets--were organized following the same didactic principles as in the Luxembourg, that is, grouping works in such a way as to highlight specific formalist categories. However, within a year the scientific model prevailed, and works were rearranged chronologically and by national school, the organization most museums have had ever since. This taxonomy, besides mirroring the organization by genus and species, implied an evolution that in effect exalted the French school, the latest paintings in the exhibition. The works on display were not only from the former royal collections, but confiscated from religious institutions and from the aristocratic émigrés who had fled the country. The walls crowded with paintings were not universally admired--the poet and critic Paul Valéry wrote in 1923, "Only a civilization without a sense of pleasure or reason could have set up this house of incoherence." Today, this tiered hang, though modified, still obtains in the Grande Galerie and elsewhere, in part precisely because a number of paintings were composed to be viewed from below.

Everything that museum-goers take for granted today had to be invented: for example, within a few years of the opening of the museum it became clear that what was self-evident to the highly educated leaders of the Revolutionary museum was less so to the general public. The directors of the museum had seen to it that wall labels identified the émigrés to whom the works had once belonged; the idea was to let viewers see that the Revolution had transferred these items to the people. The people, however, lacking a classical education, "mistook the nobility's busts of Plato and Alexander the Great for the Duc de Brissac and the Prince de Condé," the busts' previous owners.

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