History of the Louvre
Part 5 of 5: Bonaparte through Modern Times

Skip to:

Excerpted from the book
The Louvre

by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren

About the time the Muséum Central des Arts was opening its doors, a young officer with a mixed record in the Revolutionary Army was languishing in prison, following the fall of Robespierre, whose star he had followed. Soon freed, Napoleon Bonaparte was offered, and declined, the opportunity to head a brigade of infantry. After considering going over to the service of the Turkish sultan, Bonaparte opted instead to join the royalist forces in 1795. He was among the defenders of the Tuileries, leading his artillery in driving off the "Parisian mob," and for his effectiveness and fervor was set at the head of the army in Italy the following year. A few days before leaving Paris, Bonaparte married Josephine de Beauharnais, the widow of a guillotined nobleman and general.

Josephine, too, had known the inside of a prison cell, after the fall of her husband, the vicomte, but she rallied to become a leader of Parisian society as one of the brilliant and influential salonnières. And here one of the most important figures in the destiny of the museum in the Louvre makes his entrance.

Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon, whom events made D'Angiviller's post-Revolutionary spiritual heir, was born in 1747 to a family of landed gentry, whose vineyards in Burgundy allowed him to pursue his artistic training as an engraver and his vocation as a lover. Vivant Denon was in many ways the epitome of the Enlightenment dilettante, a word today debased, but once meaning a person who exhibits creditable competence in several fields. His passionate curiosity and his instinctive and cultivated taste, combined with early travels and a political agility that enabled him to survive his country's tumultuous changes in regime, together made him the right--quite possibly the only--person in the right place at the right time.

Denon had spent two long sojourns in Italy; on his return from his first voyage, he sold some 540 ancient vases to Louis XVI, jump-starting an interest in classicism that would sweep artistic expression in every field from clothing and the decorative arts to architecture. (References to the democracies of ancient Greece and Rome also fueled revolutionary governments seekingn the aegis of historical precedent.)

Denon genuinely liked women: for the rest of his long life--he would die in 1825--he corresponded with a Venetian woman of letters with whom he had enjoyed a passionate affair while in his thirties and forties. He adapted a medieval reliquary to hold, among other "relics," a lock of the hair of Agnès Sorel, the famously beautiful mistress of Charles V. His attraction to the salon of Josephine de Beauharnais, however, was probably prompted by ambition as much as by pleasure in good conversation, and in 1798 Vivant Denon was off to Egypt with Bonaparte.

Though the Egyptian campaign was not a great military success, Denon was thrilled to discover artifacts that he was among the first to identify as preceding and inspiring Greek, hence Roman, hence European culture. As with the art of ancient Italy, his taste and fervor--not to mention crates and crates of mummies, canopic jars, statuettes, winding cloths, and so on--found their way back to Paris. Denon also wrote and illustrated what became a turn-of-the-century bestseller about the expedition: published in France in 1802, it appeared that same year in the English translation of Francis Blagdon as Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt in Company with Several Divisions of the French Army under the Command of General Bonaparte.

Vivant Denon's dedication in Travels says much about him as a courtier (although his language was not excessive for the period), but more about his concern for historic preservation:

To Bonaparte
To combine the Lustre of your Name with the splendor of the Monuments of Egypt, is to associate the glorious annals of our own age with the fabulous epocha of antiquity; and to reanimate the dust of Sesostris and Mendes, who like you were Conquerors, and like you Benefactors.

In 1802, Bonaparte was acclaimed consul for life, a step closer to the "Cesarization" Robespierre had pessimistically foretold. The new consul named Denon director of what was now the Musée Central de la République; the following year, Denon, displaying some foresight himself, renamed the galleries the Musée Napoléon. The regal first-name appellation proved prophetic: in 1804, Bonaparte crowned himself emperor at Paris.

Denon's goal was to make the Louvre "the world's most beautiful institution," and he succeeded. Called "Napoleon's eye," he traveled in person, or sent emissaries with shopping lists, in the wake of Napoleon's military victories and diplomatic treaties. Denon's imperial forces plundered Italy especially, in keeping with the French art establishment's grudging acknowledgement that it was that country that had produced Europe's greatest artists. Now, however, French artists would have the home advantage. During Napoleon's reign, over five hundred paintings were taken from the Vatican alone; among the Pope's sculptures, was the celebrated Laocoön, an ancient Greek marble that had been unearthed in Rome in 1506. Denon was the first public person to value painters such as Cimabue, Giotto, and other "primitives," as the artists preceding Raphael were called, and he proceeded with a specific pedagogic program in mind: to illustrate not only the lineage of the masters--what they learned from their masters--but the recognizable spark of genius that is independent of any academic, transmittable skill.

The indefatigable baron also directed the Sèvres and Gobelins factories and the manufactory of medallions known as the Monnaie, hiring the most prominent French artists of their day, among them, Antoine-Jean Gros, Jacques-Louis David, François Gérard, and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. Through these directorships, Denon was influential in shaping the Empire style in the decorative arts.

Denon was a gifted and enthusiastic propagandist, but Napoleon was aware himself of the value of public display. Taking a leaf from his imperial Roman predecessors, he choreographed triumphs, covtory processions in which the greatest works of art of conquered Europe were paraded before the people. Newly designed services of Sèvres china showed these processions, illustrating for example, the Laocoön drawn in a chariot, a captive of the French emperor and his "eye."

Some of Europe's most magnificent works of art were pouring into Paris, and straight into the Louvre, no longer a national museum, but an imperial one. As in Egypt, Napoleon was not just a conqueror, but a benefactor, or so the party line went, and not without justification. France's--and thus the world's--greatest restorers took on the hundreds of paintings that arrived over more than a decade and a half, and there is little doubt that a number of works would have eventually disintegrated, had their destiny not made them spoils of war.

Meanwhile, Napoleon, too, sought to claim the Louvre, although he lived in the Tuileries. In 1809, he divorced Josephine and when, for reasons of state and procreation, he married the archduchess Maria Louisa of Austria the next year, it was down the quarter mile of the Grande Galerie that he processed with his second, more imperial, and, he hoped, more fertile bride to the Salon Carrée, temporarily transformed into a wedding chapel.

In 1806, Napoleon had evicted the last of the academicians, including David and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. His favorite architects, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, replaced the roofs of the Cour Carrée, and restored and completed its façades, more or less in keeping with Pierre Lescot's Italianate Renaissance flavor and Jean Goujon's strong and sinuous caryatids. At long last, the overhead skylights that D'Angiviller's committees had recommended were set into the roof of the Grande Galerie, and an intensive program of interior decoration carried out. A wing was begun from the Tuileries parallel to the Grande Galerie, and another piece from the north side of the Cour Carrée. An avenue was plowed through the Paris quarter that still occupied the ground between the two palaces, to allow the emperor to move more regally between his residence in the Tuileries and his imperial palace. A triumphal arch erected on the Carrousel and modeled on that of Septimus Severus in Rome was the occasion for testing Napoleon's ability to absorb hero-worship: Denon had an immense lead statue of the emperor set atop the arch, but an embarrassed Napoleon ordered it taken down immediately after the statue's inauguration. It was replaced with the four horses from Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Napoleon's downfall in 1814-15 had cataclysmic results for the museum that bore his name. When the victorious allies demanded their art back, the restitutions concerned some five thousand works of art; the imperial collections were effectively disassembled. Estimates of just how much of the art was returned vary from about 80 to 95 percent (about half of the Vatican's paintings remained in France, and a handful of pieces fell between the bureaucratic cracks). The disintegration of his beloved museum was too much even for the resilient Denon. In October 1815, he wrote a correspondent: "Amazing circumstances raised an immense monument; circumstances no less extraordinary have just toppled it. It took the conquest of Europe to create this trophy of war; all of Europe had to unite to destroy it."

But the museum was far from destroyed; it now had a destiny of its own, independent of any regime. Paintings, drawings, and decorative objects; southwest Asian, Egyptian, and Greek, Roman, and Etruscan sculpture; and Renaissance and contemporary statuary occupied the Cour Carrée, the Grande Galerie, and the Petite Galerie. When the Musée des Monuments Français--whose director, Antoine Lenoir, risked his life to save a selection of his nation's great sculpture during the Terror--closed in 1816, its treasures went to the Louvre. The Enlightenment's passion for classical Greece, now become the science of archeology, was bringing the splendors of those centuries into the Louvre: the Venus de Milo entered the collection in 1821, revitalizing the Department of Antiques. In 1826, under Charles X, the Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the hieroglyphs, founded the Egyptian division and was named its curator. The "Assyrian museum" was created in 1847. Over the next three-quarters of a century, as France expanded its colonial presence, the nation became a birthplace of explorers, who in many cases brought their spoils to Paris and the museum in the Louvre.

Throughout the nineteenth century's convulsive, often bloody succession of regimes, monarchs and republicans alike continued Henry IV's Grand Plan. Louis XVIII, a brother of the executed king, continued Napoleon's north wing, and sponsored interior decoration and renovation projects. The Second Republic, instituted in 1848, reorganized and restored the interior of "The People's Palace," to keep up with the flood of acquisitions and gifts. The rooms of the Grande Galerie were designed to guide viewers through the installations--one of the first museological initiatives. The republican administration also established a museum of "ethnography"--African and Asian works--in the Cour Carrée, which housed a naval museum as well. The complex of exhibition spaces was christened the Musée du Louvre.

The president of the Second Republic, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, had been elected in 1848 for a ten-year term. Three years later, he engineered a coup d'état, and in 1852 proclaimed himself the emperor Napoléon III. That same year, he turned his energies to the "Nouveau Louvre"; over the next decade and a half, he would raze the last city structures within the Louvre-Tuileries precincts and finish the north gallery, thus enclosing the Tuileries gardens and the Carrousel.

In addition, the imperial architects, Louis Visconti, then Hector Lefuel, doubled the wings of what are now the Cour Napoléon, in order to adjust for the axis of the wings between the Cour Carrée and the Tuileries. This created the small courtyards that today house sculpture from several epochs. In the Denon Pavilion, where once the Prince Imperial took his riding lessons, the handsome brick vaults shelter antique marbles--but in a small, yet-to-be restored courtyard, a viewer may see the shallow, curving stairs up which the emperor's horses were led into the Salle du Manège. The emperor's initial, within a garland of laurel, crowns the roofs of the pavilions facing the Cour Napoléon. Although the State Department and other administrative offices, including the Office of Finance, would later occupy them, Napoléon built private apartments in the north wing of the Richelieu Pavilion. In 1870, with the empress Eugénie and their son, he moved in, the first ruler to live in the Louvre since Louis XIV had abandoned the palace, the heart of the city he feared and hated.

The Grand Salon of the emperor's apartment, originally the offices of the Ministry of Finance, is grand indeed, but it is also a comfortable, sociable, aristocratic drawing room in the plush and splendid Victorian manner. Fifteen crystal chandeliers add festive brilliance to the ornate surroundings, a sumptuously elegant composition of gilt stucco, mirrors, ormolu, putti, marble and bronze fireplaces, and frescoes. Looking down upon all this imperial grandeur are four lunettes, a series of paintings known as the Étapes du Louvre--the stages of the Louvre. There, framed in gilded arcs are Francis I, Catherine de Médicis, Henry IV, and Louis XIV. And holding pride of place in the center of the ceiling is The Joining of the Louvre and the Tuileries by Napoléon III. Literally central to Napoléon III's identity as ruler of France, to his right to live in the palace, is the palace itself.

The imperial family would spend little time in the Grand Salon. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Napoléon III was taken prisoner and held until the peace treaty of March 1 of the following year. He was deposed in absentia by the National Assembly in Bordeaux, which declared him "responsible for the ruin, invasion, and dismemberment of France." In the capital, the insurrectionist Paris Commune had taken over. The repression cost tens of thousands of lives--more than the sanguinary months of the Terror of 1793-94.

On May 23, Communards set fire to the Ministry of Finance, the Tuileries, and the Louvre library, among other architectural and historical treasures. The Tuileries Palace was in ruins. During the first decade of the hard-won Third Republic, the broken walls and masonry rubble of Catherine de Médicis's creation stood like a ghost palace amid the manicured gardens, an accusation and a propaganda problem. Finally, in 1882, the ruins were cleared, opening the Louvre westward, to the Place de la Concorde--once Place Louis XV, then Place de la République, where Louis XVI was beheaded--with its obelisk, and beyond it to the Champs-Élysées and the broad avenues of Haussmann's Paris. (Baron Haussmann's grands boulevards epitomize the thinking of their imperial patron, Napoléon III: vast and splendid, they not only facilitated circulation, but permitted the imperial guard to monitor the formation of mobs--and to shoot cannon at them.)

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Louvre refined its identity, spawning new museums with the works it shed. During World War I, the greatest masterpieces of the world's greatest museum were evacuated, as they were again from August 1938 to December 1939. The plans to save the Louvre's artworks had been made even before the Munich agreements of 1938, but thousands of crates had to be built. The Louvre, still mainly a government building housing administrative offices, had only one truck, so transport was borrowed from the Samaritaine, a nearby department store. Two days before war was declared, all the art in the Louvre was out of Paris, its priceless treasures sent out to châteaux throughout France, sometimes only a step ahead of the advancing Germans. The Resistance kept the British informed of the artworks' movement, which allowed the BBC to mount an effective propaganda campaign, emphasizing the success of the resistance.

Also in the 1930s, Lefuel's unfinished staircase was completed, and Winged Victory of Samothrace, her mighty wind-whipped wings raised aloft, was set on her prow on the landing. Only one work of twentieth-century art graces the palace: in 1953, Georges Braque was commissioned to paint his bright blue Birds on the ceiling of Henry II's soberly wood-paneled antechamber--a happy and unique marriage of styles.

With the jet age--the era of international mass transit--beginning in the mid-1960s, the Louvre, already beloved by Parisians and the French generally, became one of the globe's most popular tourist destinations. By 1977, three million people a year were visiting the museum, and the strain was beginning to be felt. In 1981, François Mittérand, president of the French Republic, unveiled the Grand Louvre project, born as much from a pragmatic assessment of the Louvre's situation as from the principle that the leader of a nation owes a legacy to the people of that nation.

Although some accused the president of self-aggrandizement, the fact was that the number of visitors was growing geometrically, to a point where only a reconceived new infrastructure could meet the museum's needs. The museum's some 34,000 holdings--ranging from the Mona Lisa to pottery shards to thousands of ancient amulets--required more room and better conditions. The Louvre's vast technical and scientific projects needed more space. Mittérand approached Pei Ieoh Ming with the project; Pei's plan called for the Louvre's last non-museum occupants, the Ministry of Finance, to move. (In an interview Pei pointed out that the president and he were thus in the position of evicting the very people they were asking for money.)

Pei's plan is both ambitious in its scope--the Louvre now receives on average some five million visitors a year, and the museum complex includes cafés, a restaurant, shops, parking, even a post office--and modest in its relation to the nineteenth-century edifice--the glass of the pyramids is specially made to be as transparent as physically possible. From below, the delicate geometric webbing, borrowed from the rigging of a World Cup sailboat, sets off the stolid grandeur of Napoléon III's pavilions, while the entire structure allows maximum daylight down into the Hall Napoléon, where the visitors' services are located.

The Burgundy stone used throughout the new spaces provides continuity with the warm tint of the original limestone, mediating between boldly sober architectural elements and the varied historical environments of this living edifice. In the Hall Napoléon, below the pyramid's understated webbing, two staircases connect the street level and the floor below; one of the two staircases is a spiral. While this allows for an elevator at its core, it is also a tribute to an earlier architect and his celebrated escalier à vis in Charles V's late-medieval castle. This combination of taste, tact, and utility is the secret of the success of the Grand Louvre: the goal of supporting the art and serving the visitor is evident everywhere.

If Mittérand's choice of a non-French architect was controversial, Pei's pyramid, inaugurated on March 30, 1989, was far more so. Yet it is a--literally--lucid solution to a number of requirements, including the French president's only aesthetic condition: "No pastiche." It is also only the visible tip of the radical work undertaken so far for the Grand Louvre, which is far from finished, just as the museum continues to evolve, with bequests and acquisitions changing the shape of the collection. The first stage of Pei's project was underground, where archeological excavations cleared the area around the base of Philip Augustus's great keep, first identified during excavations in 1866. Visitors approach it after walking through the former moat around Charles V's walls, below the Cour Carrée. The dramatically lit tower, which so impressed Philip Augustus's contemporaries, is a solemn edifice, its blind walls rising into the shadows.

Even musing, a visitor can walk around the part of the Great Tower that is accessible in much less than a minute; Philip Augustus's entire castle took up one-quarter the area of Louis XIV's Cour Carrée. Yet, this, the Louvre, its very name lost in legend and speculation, was the determined heart and beginning of France. It is far more than a symbol--or else it reminds us of the timeless strength of symbols.

Returning to street level, the visitor approaches the Cour Napoléon from the lively Tuileries Gardens and the Carrousel, its triumphal arch now little more than a benign architectural folly amid the crowds, the parterres, and the neat rows of chestnut trees. At first approach, the Pyramid seemed outsized, arrogantly dwarfing the stately, slightly stuffy buildings surrounding it, making them lok overdressed, almost dowdy. Now, it is a transparent reference reaching delicately, deftly into the past, a gently ironic tribute to Napoléon's unsuccessful military foray into Egypt, to the sixteen pyramids that greeted the third convoy of masterworks to arrive at the first emperor's Louvre, and to Denon's and Champollion's profound and far more long-lasting contributions. The pyramids go back further still, to the earliest pieces in the museum, and back to the very source of Mediterranean art and culture and the pharaoh's tombs, meant to last forever.

Time is deconstructed in this palace and its courts, built over lifetimes: the tiny clock face of the artisan-king Louis XIII's Pavilion de l'Horloge rises behind and above the pyramid, like a temporal moon, a mechanical toy marking minutes and hours above a reminder of millennia, of queens, emperors, pharaohs, and the ceaseless quest for beauty, human dignity, and peace.


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

© 2000 Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.