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Visitor trails Masterpieces, Accessible Visitor Trail

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

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Leonardo di ser Piero DA VINCI, dit Léonard de VINCI (Vinci, 1452 - Amboise, 1519)
Leonardo di ser Piero DA VINCI, dit Léonard de VINCI (Vinci, 1452 - Amboise, 1519)

© 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 Mona Lisa. As you follow this accessible guided tour, you will (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:

Starting from the Pyramid, head toward the Sully wing. Go round the escalators and take elevator D or E (on your right) to the mezzanine floor ("Mezzanine-accès aux collections"). Enter the Sully wing and head toward the Medieval Louvre; turn left at the entrance and take elevator G to the 1st floor. Turn right out of the elevator, and cross the landing to enter the Bronze Room. Go straight on into Room 74. Turn right; elevator C is on your right when you leave the room. Take the elevator down to the ground floor to Greek Antiquities. The first work on the trail, the Venus de Milo, is on your left when you enter Room 7.

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

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Anne Chauvet

01Aphrodite, known as the Venus de Milo

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:

Take elevator C to the first floor. Turn left, then left again in the rotunda and go into the Galerie d'Apollon. Admire the gallery's treasures; then go to the far end of the room, where a door leads into the Salon Carré. Ask a museum attendant to open this door for you, and enter the Salon Carré. Go straight ahead into the Grande Galerie. When you reach the statue of Diana the Huntress, turn right: the Mona Lisa is in front of you.

<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

02Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo

Acquired by Francis I in 1518, acclaimed by artists of the day, the Mona Lisa – also known as 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:

Turn around to admire The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese.

The Wedding Feast at Cana
The Wedding Feast at Cana

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

03The 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:

Go back toward the Mona Lisa, then head toward the end of the room. You will see paintings by Titian and Tintoretto as you pass to the right of the Mona Lisa. Continue straight ahead into Room 74 (French painting). Head toward the red room to your right, where you can admire Jacques-Louis David's famous painting, The Coronation of Napoleon, on your left.

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

04The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804

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:

One of David's early masterpieces, The Oath of the Horatii, is on the wall opposite the Coronation of Napoleon. But first, take a moment to admire the outspread wings of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, just in front of you.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

05Winged 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:

Leave Greek sculpture for the moment, and admire David's Oath of the Horatii, to your left.

The Oath of the Horatii
The Oath of the Horatii

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

06The 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:

Make your way back to the entrance of the room. Facing you on the wall between the two doors is La Grande Odalisque, by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres.

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:

Leave Room 75, go straight ahead into Room 77 (Romantic paintings). The famous Raft of the Medusa, by Théodore Géricault, is on your left.

The Raft of the Medusa
The Raft of the Medusa

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

08The 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:

Go back into Room 74, take elevator K or L down to the ground floor for the final part of this tour. Turn right out of the elevator, and take elevator M to the ground floor (Italian Sculpture gallery). Michelangelo's Slaves face you at the end of the Gallery.

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

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Raphaël Chipault

09Slave

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:

You have reached the end of this accessible trail. To find the exit, take elevator M to the Entresol level. Leave the Denon wing, then follow the mezzanine floor to elevator D or E that will take you to the Pyramid. Take the tube elevator to reach the exit.