Tips for the Louvre (and some masterpieces to enjoy)

We’re at the start of summer travel season, so I thought I’d share some insight from my six years of living in Paris. As a card-carrying member of the Louvre for almost my entire stay in the City of Lights I was a frequent visitor – and still have not seen everything. Nonetheless, there are a couple of pieces of advice I can impart and some pieces of artwork that I could visit over and over again.

1. Skip the line at La Pyramide

The snaking line to descend into I.M. Pei’s Pyramide at the center of the Louvre’s courtyard isn’t a line to buy tickets: it’s a bottleneck to go through security. It’s also not the only way into the museum. Instead, and especially if you take the Métro, get off at “Palais Royale – Musée du Louvre” and follow signs for the Carousel du Louvre. You can also access the Carousel from Rue de Rivoli, at number 99.

The Carousel is the underground shopping mall between the Métro and the museum. You’ll find a security checkpoint to enter the museum at the other end from the Carousel entrance. Just keep walking, and you can go through and buy tickets on the other side, with significantly less wait time.

While there were or are other access points listed (other than the Pyramide and the Carousel), my understanding is that they are for members or for groups only.

2. Buy tickets in advance

Leverage the power of the internet! This is the most visited art museum in the world. As I researched the Louvre Website, a warning popped up that they weren’t letting any more un-ticketed people in for the day… and it wasn’t event 1:30 pm Paris time yet. Don’t get disappointed on the day you plan to see the Louvre – buy tickets in advance – especially during tourist season.

3. What to see?

In my opinion there are two ways to visit the Louvre:

  1. Identify a couple of “must-see” items you may have on your “list”: The Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, etc. and chart a path from one to another. Try to enjoy the scenery as you go. Just getting from one iconic masterpiece to another will probably be enough to cover an entire first-time visit.
  2. The other option is to choose a wing that houses a genre of art you enjoy and start there. There are three wings at the Louvre: Richelieu, Denon and Sully. Sully connects Richelieu and Denon. I’d recommend choosing either of the longer wings Richelieu or Denon and you can always wander into Sully as you go. Or, start in Sully and go from there.

The map of the first floor (below) is an illustration of just how large, and complex of a museum this is.

Remember, this is the largest art museum in the world. You can’t possibly see it all.

4. Be prepared for a Mona Lisa letdown

By Victor Grigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Unless you’re going specifically to crowd-surf, you may find your experience seeing the Mona Lisa to be less than transcendent. If you haven’t heard it before, hear it from me: the Mona Lisa is probably smaller than you imagine. Google lists it as 30.31″ x 20.87″. It’s also behind bulletproof glass and constantly surrounded by hundreds of people (taking what I have to assume are terrible pictures).

If you feel it absolutely necessary to see La Joconde (as the French call her) in person I’d recommend a walk-by – then examine a copy in-depth online or in a book for a better experience. You won’t get up close in person unless you are truly committed.

5. Finally: On to the art!

There are eight curatorial departments in the Louvre:

  • Decorative Arts
  • Egyptian Antiquities
  • Islamic Art
  • Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities
  • Near Eastern Antiquities
  • Paintings
  • Prints and Drawings
  • Sculptures

According to Wikipedia, The Louvre owns approximately 460,000 objects and displays 35,000 of them.

Most of the pieces below are paintings This is a personal list – some of my favorite pieces in the Louvre (in no particular order). I don’t cover all the departments. I’ve also skipped over some of the most famous pieces and instead focused on a few that I enjoyed over and over again. Feel free to comment with works that you love from the museum as well!

La Jeune Martyre

Paul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre (The Young Martyr), 1855
(First Floor in Denon Wing, Room 700)

Delaroche’s Martyr is a stunning piece, and at 4 1/2 feet wide by 5 feet tall, its size and rounded top help to set it apart as unique.

Depicting a drowned young woman, ethereally beautiful even in death, this image exudes the quiet peace of death and a sense of spirit one expects from a living being.

The young woman floats, her hands bound in what seem to be leather laces. A delicate golden halo suggests her purity of soul, as does her flowing white dress. Painted at the end of the Romantic Era, the earlier version (1853, hanging in the Hermitage) with the longer title “A Christian Martyr Drowned in the Tiber During the Reign of Diocletian” gives more context. This young woman was considered an example of a young Christian in the era of Roman persecution, and particularly Diocletianic Persecution.

Delaroche, Paul – A Christian Martyr Drowned in the Tiber During the Reign of Diocletian (1853, Hermitage)

In the background, a man and a woman look on, and it has been suggested that these could be her parents.

Detail of Version of The Young Martyr in The Hermitage

Small details help to make this painting even more interesting. In the upper left background we can see a warmly colored sky and stars. Questions remain as to whether or not the sun is rising or setting, and which stars are visible. Different interpretations ensure from the time of day. Is it sunrise and hence the dawn of God and goodness reigning over evil? Or is it sunset and a reign of evil befalling the world?

“Hermaphrodite Endormi/Sleeping Hermaphroditos”

Hermaphrodite Endormi/Sleeping Hermaphroditos Greek marble, c. 3rd-1st centuries BC
Sully, Ground Floor, Room 348

This sculpture is always a must-see for me. It’s steps away from the iconic Venus de Milo, and while it’s mentioned as a “hidden treasures” of the Louvre in many lists (and hence… isn’t that hidden), it still deserves its place here.

Before discussing my love of this piece I want to personally say that the interest for me isn’t the unconventional juxtaposition of anatomy. Perhaps that’s what makes many people do a “double-take” (and honestly, if that’s what’s necessary for someone to actually stop an examine a piece of artwork in this day and age… so be it). Rather, the execution as well as my love of Ancient Greek mythology and beautiful art from multiple time periods come together here.

First, let’s take apart the two pieces: the cushion upon which Hermaphroditos rests was actually sculpted by Bernini in the 17th century. The cushion, looking like it would spring back under a gentle fingertip pressure, is an exceptional pedestal for this piece.

The figure of Hermaphroditos dates from the 3rd to the 1st century BC and was found near the Baths of Diocletians in what is now Rome. Take a moment to appreciate how exceptionally sculpted the folds of cloth on this piece are, as well as the supple muscles and tendrils of hair. I consistently marvel at such ancient pieces, made of stone, that look like they are humans that could spring to life at any moment.

Photo Credit: Musee du Louvre – Theirry Ollivier

The background of the the story is also fascinating. Hermaphroditos (son of Hermes and Aphrodite) is said to have refused the romantic overtures of the nymph Salmacis. Unable to resign herself to rejection, Salmacis convinced Zeus to unite the two of them into one body for all time: “producing one bisexed being with male sexual organs and the voluptuous curves of a woman.”

The official interpretation on the Louvre’s website suggests that “Hermaphroditos has only fallen half asleep: the twisting pose of the body and the tension apparent down to the slightly raised left foot are indicative of a dream state.” Before knowing this story, and even now, I imagine Hermaphroditos having cried himself/themselves (clearly this is the perfect individual to use a plural pronoun!) to sleep. I saw great sadness in this figure’s sleep – perhaps I was projecting my own difficulty and unhappiness with my life in Paris? (more on that in a future post…) But now that I know of Hermaphroditos being forced to live in the same body for all time with a nymph for whom he didn’t particularly care, I feel that sense of sadness even more strongly.

So, go and enjoy this piece, but do so knowing the history of its different pieces and the mythology behind it. Decide for youself: is Hermaphroditos’ a sorrowful slumber or a restful dream state?

Raft of the Medusa

By Théodore Géricault, “Le Radeau de la Méduse” 1818-1819 Public Domain

Disaster has always held great fascination for humankind, despite its inherent morbidity. Think of those of us whose first instinct is to hold up a smartphone when there’s an emergency, rather than to help in some way. While I am certainly not accusing Géricault of any sort of analog voyeurism, his work did intend to bring a certain “immediacy” of this great tragedy and immense suffering to the consumers of art in France and Great Britain.

A brief background on the piece: the unfortunately named “Méduse” (Medusa – from Greek Mythology one assumes – where every man who looks upon her face turns to stone, and the word for jellyfish in French) as a seafaring vehicle also had the distinction of killing all but approximately 15 of its crew members in a shipwreck off the coast of Africa. While approximately 147 survived the initial sinking of the frigate, almost all perished, committed suicide in despair or were murdered in the 13 days at sea where dehydration, starvation and cannibalism all ensued.

The technical brilliance of this painting, the story behind it as well as the the story of the artist are all worth learning. If you’re interested in learning more, click over to the wikipedia article which is well-written and well-researched.

In his short life as an artist (Géricault painted the Raft of the Medusa at 27 and died at only 32), managed to create one of the enduring masterpieces of the Romantic era, a painting centered around the timeless concepts of death, despair, and the slippery nature of hope.

Ingres’ Nudes

After such a dark and shall I say, male work, let us now slip into the feminine world of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres’ work, and particularly his portraiture, has a special luminosity. The women have perfect alabaster skin, the sheen of the paint mimics the lush fabrics perfectly and the colors are somehow both vibrant (prints, feathers) and muted (the great expanses of nude flesh) at the same time. While I don’t particularly care for what I consider to be “Oriental Fetishism,” I still admire Ingres’ work. His portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville from the Frick Collection is breathtaking, and will be discussed in a future blog post.

Below are two few of my favorites from the Louvre – I highly suggest seeking them out.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES, La Grande Odalisque, 1814
Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES, The Turkish Bath, 1852-1859, modified in 1862
Oil on canvas glued to wood

Unfortunately, these two pieces are not in proximity to one another. I’d be curious to know more about how the Louvre curates their works and how often they rotate their works in the galleries. More information to be gathered for a future blog post, I guess!

You may be wondering: Is all the art in the Louvre European?

“Diversity” can be a touchy subject in art, especially in Europe. That’s because a lot of non-Western pieces in museums such as the Louvre are usually the result of unauthorized excavation or from colonialism.

A future post will discuss Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, which contains artifacts from all over the Middle East, including an entire temple transported and rebuilt. There is so much to say on this subject; it’s simply too complex to adequately address here.

That said, if we look at the artwork presented at the Louvre from a strictly face-value point of view, in terms of what is interesting or enjoyable (not questioning why it’s there, how it was acquired, or anything more) There’s a fair amount of non-Western art in the Louvre worth exploring.

There is an amazing department devoted to Ancient Egypt, for instance, as well as a section on Mesopotamia with friezes and sculptures that remain etched in my mind. I would be remiss not to mention a couple of of the breathtaking pieces from outside the Western art tradition.

The Winged Human-Headed Bull

Photo Credit: Musee du Louvre – Theirry Ollivier
Technical Description (Translated from French)
Winged human-headed bull
Neo-Assyrien Era, Reign of Sargon II (721-705)
Facade m, Door k, Khorsabad, antique Dur-Sharrukin, Assyria, Iraq
High-relief and rounded, alabaster
Height : 4.20 m. ; Length. : 4.36 m. ; Depth. : 0.97 m.
Excavation by P.E. Botta 1843 – 1844

These fascinating creatures, with their chimera-esque quality similar to that of the Sphinx, once were guardians at gates or doorways of the city and the palace of Dur Sharrukin (present-day Khorsabad, North-East of Mosul, Iraq) under the reign of Sargon II. One of the most interesting features of these high relief pieces is that they seem to have five feet: they have two front hooves that are stationary, and then three behind them, giving the illusion of movement.

Such pieces can remind us all of the creativity and richness of human civilization across the world, and across many eras, and the many ways in which humanity has tried to protect itself from misfortune.

Hammurabi’s Code

Photo Credit: RMN / Franck Raux
Technical Description (Translated from French)
Hammurabi’s Code, King of Babylon
1792 – 1750 B.C. Basalt
Height. 2.25 m; Width. 0.65 m
Excavation by J. de Morgan, 1901 – 1902

While I don’t consider the aesthetic value of Hammurabi’s code to be particularly high in my mind; its value as one of the oldest set of codified laws is priceless. This is also the original. The others, in museums all over the world, are replicas.

It’s definitely worth having a look to see the original document that codified “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

6. Go to Café Marly for post-visit break (or dinner with a view of the museum)

Image courtesy of Café Marly

Once you’re ready to exit the Louvre and find a place to eat, Café Marly can’t be beat in terms of location. It is housed under the Louvre’s arcades, looking out over the main courtyard or in on Louvre’s marble statues in a brightly-lit atrium.

Café Marly is not really a cafe and is not affiliated with the museum (in other words, it’s no snack bar).  It’s a restaurant with style and servers with attitude.  The food is fine (nothing exquisite) but here it is more about the scene and the setting.  If you go, I suggest trying to book a table out on the terrace, and enjoy the experience.

Café Marly
93, rue de Rivoli – in the 1st arrondissement

The courtyard of the Louvre, 2007

In conclusion…

The Louvre is one of the world’s great museums and is unparalleled in terms of its heritage. With these pieces of advice perhaps your first (or next) visit will be a pleasant experience where you see new art (or the same pieces but in a different light).

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