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Visitor trails Masterpieces, In Search of Ideal Beauty

Thematic trail - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Monday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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site chinois / Escalier Victoire
site chinois / Escalier Victoire

© Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier

00Introduction

On their first visit to the Louvre, people often want to see the museum’s three great ladies — the Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, and La Gioconda. On this guided tour, you can (re)discover these and other key works and reflect upon that indefinable notion of “masterpiece.”

When the museum first opened in 1793, playing host to the former royal collections, its goal was to provide illustrious educational models for the artists of the future to ensure the revival of the “grand style” of the past. Although you will still come across students and copyists in the exhibition rooms today, museum policy has changed radically. Nearly six million visitors from every country and culture in the world flock to the Louvre each year, and there are several different ways of visiting the museum. However, there is always a quasi-universal crowd around certain “masterpieces,” which seem to strike a chord in the hearts of all spectators, whatever their nationality or culture. In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote that an artist could never attain ideal Beauty. Artists of every generation have been confronted with this question of supreme, timeless Beauty and suggested answers that reflected the age in which they lived and their particular genius. Some of these answers still seem to find an echo in us today. But with the arrival of the 19th century, the work of art acquired new functions and the masterpiece was no longer necessarily synonymous with Beauty, with aesthetic abstraction intended to delight the eye. Some works resounded with this new tone, in many ways heralding the status of contemporary works in present-day society. Far from being chronological, this tour spotlights works in front of which visitors spontaneously come to a halt.


How to get to the next stop:
Head for the Sully Wing. After ticket inspection, go straight to the moat in the medieval section of the Louvre. Before entering, on your left, you will see two models. The bottom one explains where you are, the top one shows you the layout of the Louvre under Charles V in the 14th century.

Medieval Louvre: remnants of the moats dug by Philip Augustus and Charles V, 12th-14th century
Medieval Louvre: remnants of the moats dug by Philip Augustus and Charles V, 12th-14th century

© Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier

01Remnants of the moats dug by Philip Augustus and Charles V

About 1200, fearing an English invasion from Normandy like the Vikings’ raid three hundred years earlier, King Philip Augustus of France ordered a fortress to be built outside the wall around Paris. This fortified castle, which guarded the western entrance to the city, did not become a royal palace until the fourteenth century, during Charles V’s reign, when a second rampart enlarged Paris and thus negated its defensive function. The large model at the entrance to the moat shows this second stage of the Louvre. The drawbridge façade corresponds to the eastern entrance, which you will see after turning right further along the moat. The pier of the original drawbridge has survived, while the adjacent quadrangular tower was an addition made by Charles V — the small opening in its base corresponds to the ditch that drained the latrines into the moat. On his return from Italy in 1515, Francis I decided to build a Renaissance-style palace. The keep and west wing of the old fortress were razed to the ground (the last vestiges were demolished during Louis XIV’s reign in the sixteenth century) and the moat was filled in. Preserved in perfect condition seven metres beneath the Square Courtyard, it was uncovered during the excavations in 1983-85 and has been open to the public since the inauguration of the Pyramid in 1989. A passage opened by archaelogists — on the right in front of the Sphinx staircase — leads to the base of the keep and the Saint Louis Room, now underground.

How to get to the next stop:
Proceed to the staircase at the top of which stands the Egyptian sphinx. As you pass, notice the marks left by the stonecutters (hearts, crosses, triangles, and hooks) on the stone blocks of the fortress.

Great Sphinx of Tanis
Great Sphinx of Tanis

© 2003 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

02Great Sphinx of Tanis

This 24-ton granite sphinx welcomes visitors to the Department of Egyptian Antiquities. Take the stairs on your left to begin your thematic tour, which then continues , which then continues chronologically on the first floor. The last part of the tour, Egypt during the Roman and Coptic periods, is exhibited in the Denon area. Champollion first deciphered hieroglyphics in 1822. He then encouraged King Charles X to acquire a private collection, the jewel of which was this statue when he founded the Egyptian Antiquities section at the Louvre Museum in 1826. Here the sphinx combines the image of the lion, at once a powerful animal and a solar symbol, with that of the king, identified from his headcloth (“nemes”), the protective cobra (“uraeus”), false beard, and the name written on the cartouche. Specialists believe that “sphinx,” a word of Greek origin, derives from the ancient Egyptian term “seshep-ankh,” meaning “living image.” Egyptian art should be interpreted as a magic art in which each representation is potentially alive. No better guardian could have been found for the entrance to the department. Egyptian art aspired to eternity and is awe-inspiring because it does not seem to have been made for mankind. In fact, this statue, which is over 4,000 years old, still conveys an impression of profound majesty. To have sculpted such a monumental work in such hard stone is in itself a masterpiece of technique and patience.

How to get to the next stop:
Turn your back on the Sphinx, face the moat, and take the staircase on your left; this will bring you out behind the Venus de Milo.

Aphrodite, known as the "Venus de Milo"
Aphrodite, known as the "Venus de Milo"

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Anne Chauvet

03Aphrodite

There’s nothing more frustrating than studying Greek art, given that the originals are so few and far between and are never seen in their original state. Could you imagine this statue with arms, and adorned with jewelry and color? The Venus de Milo, or Aphrodite of Melos (named after the Greek island on which it was discovered in 1820), is one of these magnificent originals. Her naked torso enabled her to be identified as Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, goddess of love and beauty, born out of the foam of the sea. And with her, Greek art gave birth to all Western art’s female nudes. Certain stylistic details indicate a dating of around 100 BC. Her elongated silhouette, position in space, and very sensual, realistic nudity link this work to the Hellenistic period (323–31 BC), the last great era in Greek history. Her neutral, impassive face, however, forms a stark contrast, rather like a mask that has been added on. Timeless and emotionless, it is comprised of a play on proportions: it is three times as long as the nose, which is a continuation of the forehead in this “Greek profile” — which the Greeks, of course, did not actually have! What the sculptor was seeking to depict was divine beauty, that of Plato’s ideals, not worldly reality. This image “that expresses beauty in a language which is always our own” (Alain Pasquier) provides a fine answer to the eternal quest for Beauty; in short, it is a timeless masterpiece.

How to get to the next stop:
With your back to the Venus de Milo, cross the gallery ahead of you. Go past the Caryatids Room on your right and cross the rotunda which, in the 19th century, was the entrance to the museum. Go up two flights of stairs to the foot of the Victory of Samothrace Staircase.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

04Winged Victory of Samothrace

An original Greek statue probably destroyed by an earthquake, this work was found in countless pieces in 1863 on the island of Samothrace, in the northeast Aegean. The right wing is a plaster copy of the left wing, the only one to have survived. The cement base beneath its feet is also modern; the statue initially stood on the sculpted prow of the ship. It loomed out of a hilltop sanctuary at an angle, which explains why less attention was paid to carving the right-hand side. The Victory — “Nike” in Greek — is shown as if she were just alighting on the prow of the ship to which she is bringing divine favor. Discovered in 1950, her right hand enabled her original gesture to be restored: with her raised hand, she announces the coming event. Staged in spectacular fashion very much in keeping with Hellenistic taste, she could be seen from afar by ships approaching the island. The proportions, the rendering of the bodily forms, the manner in which the drapery flapping in the wind is handled, and the expansiveness of the highly theatrical gesture all bear witness to the search for realism in sculpture dating from this period. After examining certain stylistic details, scholars believe that this monument might be a votive offering from the Rhodians to thank the gods for a naval victory around 190 BC, but André Malraux was delighted with the accidental mutilation of this statue, which turned it into a timeless icon of Western art — “a masterpiece of destiny.”

How to get to the next stop:
Turn your back on the Victory and go down one flight of stairs. Then turn left or right up to the large room with red walls. Enter the “Red Rooms.” The first is reserved for the neoclassical movement. On your left, you will see The Oath of the Horatii.

The Oath of the Horatii
The Oath of the Horatii

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

05The Oath of the Horatii

These works invariably bring back memories of school textbooks. They illustrated noble sentiment and great heroism in the chapter on the French Revolution. But, in fact, it was Louis XVI who encouraged the birth of this style in reaction to the frivolous, feminine spirit of the preceding period, when mythology was more a pretext for female nudity than for the edification of the viewer. In this return to the antique, the Revolutionaries, extolling the ultimate sacrifice made for the homeland, borrowed outstanding episodes from Roman history that served their own ideology. Jacques-Louis David became the leader of this “neoclassical” movement and painted the masterpiece of the genre. Rome’s chosen champions, the Horatii, swear an oath of loyalty before their father. Only one of the three brothers would return alive from their duels with the Curiatii, in the city of Alba. He would kill his own sister, Camilla, because she mourned the death of her betrothed, a Curiatius. The very sober scene, lit like a theater stage, is set in an austere republican house. The straight lines and warm, strident colors of the male figures form a contrast with the fluid lines and softer tones of the group of resigned, despondent women. The illusionary perfection of the technique, in which any trace of the brush was considered “vulgar,” stemmed from David’s desire to “paint like people spoke in Sparta.” It gives the spectator the quasi-disturbing impression of a snapshot taken over 2,000 years ago.

How to get to the next stop:
On the wall opposite is The Coronation of Napoleon, also by Jacques-Louis David.

The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804
The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804

© Musée du Louvre/E. Lessing

06The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I

It took David three years to complete this vast painting commissioned by Napoleon I to immortalize his coronation on 2 December 1804 at Notre-Dame. Specially redecorated for the occasion in neoclassical style with painted trompe-l’œil wooden paneling, the choir of the cathedral resembles a theater stage in which each actor has his place amidst the grandiose scenery. As in any work of political propaganda, there are certain notable arrangements with reality: the presence of the emperor’s mother on a throne in the center, when in fact she was absent that day, as she was angry with her son; or the idealized beauty of a slimmer, taller Napoleon and a younger Josephine, rejuvenated by the brush of a diplomatic artist, recently appointed First Painter to the Emperor. It depicts Napoleon crowning Josephine, blessed without great conviction by Pope Pius VII, seated behind the emperor, and is less provocative than the painting in which he crowns himself. Amidst the 150 portraits of spectators, his skillful lighting effects play up these central figures, lingering over the brilliance of a jewel, the richness of a fabric, or the softness of a velvet cushion. David was the precursor of modern-day photographers who immortalize celebrity events in magazines where luxury is supposed to feed the dreams of the public. Yet the most lifelike figure of them all is Talleyrand, dressed in red, on the right. He seems to be casting an ironic eye on this ostentatious display.

How to get to the next stop:
Walk to the end of the room. You will find The Large Odalisque between the two doors in front of you.

La Grande Odalisque
La Grande Odalisque

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

07Odalisque

Here, Ingres transposed the antique theme of the female nude to the Near East, a place he had traveled to only in his dreams and the pretext for the sensual image of a naked woman in a harem — hence the title, The Large Odalisque — set against an exotic background. Until the end of his life, Ingres continued to paint exotic scenes and female nudes, one of his favorite subjects — as in The Turkish Bath — drawing on influences as diverse as Raphael, the Mannerists, and Persian miniatures. Whereas Ingres, like his master David, was a classical artist in terms of technique and his interest in antiquity, which he showed in other works, he distanced himself from this trend by giving priority to draftsmanship, pure lines, and sensual curves, distorting anatomical reality if necessary. This odalisque has three vertebrae too many. Likewise, her right breast and left leg are joined to the rest of the body in a curious fashion. In contrast to this physical deformity, the heavy blue drapery, the turban, and the nargileh are treated in an illusionistic manner. The critics of his day, completely nonplussed by this chimerical combination, berated his singular style. On the other hand, Ingres would have a strong influence on modern artists such as Picasso, who gladly borrowed his ideas and his manner of recomposing bodies to suit his own purposes. Besides, doesn’t the somewhat cold blue and gold tonal harmony lift this image permanently out of reality into an artist’s pure fantasy?

How to get to the next stop:
Move on to the next room (the Salon Denon), and through to the room containing the Mona Lisa. The Louvre's largest painting, Veronese's Wedding Feast at Cana, is directly in front of you.

The Wedding Feast at Cana
The Wedding Feast at Cana

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

08The Wedding Feast at Cana

This huge canvas once adorned the refectory of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Here, Veronese, acclaimed as a colorist and for painting vast, multifigured scenes, chose to depict Christ’s first miracle, performed during the Marriage at Cana. Working the perspective so as to draw the spectator into the scene, he transposed the biblical episode to his own era, rich 16th-century Venice. Note the splendor of the fabrics, the sumptuous jewelry, silver and silver-gilt tableware, and the elegant Palladian architecture, which set a magnificent stage for this story, which is supposed to have taken place in the home of poor people who ran out of wine during a wedding feast. In the center, on Christ’s right, Mary holds an invisible glass in her hand to show that there is no wine left. In the right foreground, the figure in yellow pours water that has turned into wine from a jar, a miracle witnessed by the two figures behind him. A man clad in green hurries toward the newlyweds, on the left in front of the columns, to ask why the best wine was kept for the end of the banquet. Another reading of the work moves vertically from the symbolic image of the butchers chopping up meat to the hourglass on the musicians’ table and the dog chewing a bone: it heralds the “sacrifice of the Lamb,” the death of Christ, who revealed his true nature by performing this miracle. But the dogs are also an allegory of fidelity, that of Christians whose faith will sweep away the clouds.

How to get to the next stop:
Turn around to see the Mona Lisa.

<i>Portrait of Lisa Gherardini</i>, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the <i>Mona Lisa</i> (the <i>Joconde</i> in French)
<i>Portrait of Lisa Gherardini</i>, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the <i>Mona Lisa</i> (the <i>Joconde</i> in French)

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

09Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondoco del Giocondo

Acquired by Francis I in 1518, acclaimed by artists of the day, La Gioconda only earned her worldwide fame in the 20th century, more on account of her “adventures” — theft (1911–14), stoning (1956), travels to the United States (1963) and Tokyo and Moscow (1974) — than her outstanding qualities. Da Vinci’s dazzling, almost magical technique models the forms through his use of glazes (very diluted, quasi-transparent layers of paint), playing with light and shade effects by making the contours hazy (“sfumato”). Aerial perspective, moving from brown to blue, creates, through the density of the air, an abstract landscape made up of earth and water. What a pity that the colors darken as the varnish ages: the sleeves were once saffron yellow. The model’s identity has given rise to the oddest suggestions at times, even going as far as to say that she was a man. It is probably a portrait, begun in Florence between 1503 and 1507, of Monna (“Mrs.”) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. Her smile could thus be a symbol of her name, “gioconda” also meaning “cheerful.” While this is one of the period’s largest portraits, painted on a single, very thin (12 mm) poplar board, it is not an ostentatious image of a rich bourgeoise lady, although her pose and attire and the absence of eyelashes and eyebrows are in keeping with the elegance of her station. It is above all an ideal portrait, reflecting Renaissance interest in Platonic theory, when the beauty of the body was seen as that of the soul.

How to get to the next stop:
Return to the Grande Galerie. Turn left into the corridor you came down and continue back to the main staircase. Go down the steps, walk under the arch — the majestic entrance to a palace in Cremona — and you will find yourself behind Michelangelo’s two statues.

The Raft of the Medusa
The Raft of the Medusa

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

10The Raft of the Medusa

Romanticism’s manifesto, this work caused a huge scandal at the Salon of 1819. For the first time, an artist had depicted an event from contemporary history without having received a commission and had filled his composition with anonymous figures in a format hitherto reserved for historical painting. Precursor of the critical spirit that so often motivates art today, the subject was a caustic statement on the government then in power: in 1816, the frigate “Medusa” sank because of the incompetence of a captain who had obtained his post through political relations. Due to a shortage of lifeboats, 149 people piled onto a raft that drifted for twelve days. Only fifteen survived the ensuing slaughter, madness, and cannibalism. Seen from one corner, the raft appears very unstable, while two diagonals heighten the dramatic tension: one leads the eye to the vast wave that threatens to engulf the raft, the other leads to the tiny silhouette of “The Argus,” the ship that eventually rescued them. This long oblique line evokes the tragedy — the torso of a man who has perhaps been devoured by his companions — and the various psychological states of mind: the dejection of the bewildered man holding his dead son, the dying man rising up with a start, and the desperate hope of those waving to their potential rescuer. But at this point in time, nobody knew which way the scales of fortune would tip. The only hero in this poignant story is humanity, and that is what still moves us today.

How to get to the next stop:
Walk through the room to the landing of the Mollien staircase, where there is a café. Go down the stairs towards the Italian sculptures rooms. Our last stop in this tour, Michelangelo's Slave, stands right in front of you.

Captive (The Rebellious Slave)
Captive (The Rebellious Slave)

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Raphaël Chipault

11The Slave

Works by Michelangelo are seldom found outside Italy, but the Louvre owns these two virtuoso statues, given to the king of France by the Florentine Roberto Strozzi, who received them from the artist himself. They belong to a group — the other statues are in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence — intended to adorn the tomb of Pope Julius II, originally a colossal project but modified several times and finally scaled down drastically. Many interpretations of these statues are possible: symbols of surmounted passion, of the soul enchained by the body, or of nations subjected to the pope’s authority. They could also represent the imprisonment of the arts after the death of a great patron (Julius II had funded the decoration of the Sistine Chapel) for, at the foot of the Dying — or rather sleeping — Slave, is a monkey, an allegory of painting imitating reality in the way a monkey mimics mankind. The numerous marks left by tools prove that these statues are unfinished. Unlike other sculptors, Michelangelo generally worked on a block of marble from front to back, without a model. Notice the hand of the Rebel Slave who is still imprisoned in the marble. Only a formidable artist working directly on the marble would dare to be so bold. Proud of his sculpture and unafraid of showing it, here is a Renaissance artist proclaiming his freedom to choose what he creates, even the moment when he puts down his chisel.

How to get to the next stop:
Retrace your steps to the Hall Napoléon beneath the Pyramid.