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Visitor trails Mighty Aphrodite, Mythical Love Stories

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

School groups Groups

David et Bethsabée (détail)
David et Bethsabée (détail)

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

00Introduction

Are love stories fated to end badly? From the 1500s to the 19th century, painters and sculptors have depicted the amorous torments of famous literary couples: unrequited passion, oppression, flight, and  death . .

David and Bathsheba, Orpheus and Eurydice, Paolo and Francesca . . . Mythical couples caught up in the storms of love have long been among the favorite subjects of Western art. Biblical figures, ancient heroes, modern lovers - their stories have come to us through literature. Take this circuit and find out how artists in successive eras have interpreted the theme of thwarted love according to their sensibility and the conventions of their age. Observe the ways in which classical, baroque, and neoclassical artists have expressed the feelings of their protagonists, and what plastic effects they have drawn from their stories, whether it be a severe arrangement of figures, a fleshly sensuality, the chill smoothness of flawless bodies . . . Your tour begins with an introduction to the instigators of love and its turmoils: the goddess Aphrodite and her son Eros, or Cupid. They embody the essence of love and heartlessness. Eros's own love story opens and closes this circuit rich in depictions of amorous complications as shown in painting and sculpture.


How to get to the next stop:
From the pyramid, follow the directions for the Richelieu wing.
Entering the Puget courtyard on the right, proceed to the French Sculpture collections on the upper level of the mezzanine. Bear right at the entrance to Room 21.

Bather, also called Venus
Bather, also called Venus

© 2010 RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda

01Bather, also called Venus

Aphrodite, also known as Venus, is the goddess of love and beauty. Both mortals and gods succumb to her powers of seduction. From Antiquity onward she inspired numerous representations, all of them pretexts for paying homage to female beauty. The Renaissance revived this tradition, and thereafter until the 19th century Venus was the favorite goddess of artists, for she enabled them to express sensuality and eroticism. Observe the hollow formed by the left arm and the folds on the stomach. While clearly alluding to the idealized statues of Antiquity, this Venus, sculpted from a living model, has an altogether carnal reality. Notice the bold tilt of the head, which required a "bridge" to reinforce the marble behind the nape of the neck. Aphrodite's winged son Eros can be seen in this same room, on the right.

How to get to the next stop:
Go up a few steps and turn right to find Cupid in Room 21.

Cupid
Cupid

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

02Love

Eros, or Cupid, also known as Love, is represented as a child or youth, and is the messenger of his mother Venus. He makes his victims fall in or out of love by shooting a gold or a lead arrow at them. Circle round this work and observe the nimble motion of his hands. Notice the empty spaces in the composition. Admire the sculptor's technical virtuosity in rendering his gesture of presenting a rose, symbol of love, to a butterfly, symbolic of the soul (in Greek, psyche means both soul and butterfly). Notice the bas-reliefs on the plinth, which depict the joys and sorrows of the soul possessed by love. A swarm of bees attacks Eros in the end and rescues the enslaved soul. This tale introduces the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

How to get to the next stop:
Go left toward the window on the other side of the room.

Zephyr and Psyche
Zephyr and Psyche

© Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert

03Zephyr and Psyche

The story of Cupid and Psyche seems doomed from the start. Jealous of Psyche, an excessively beautiful mortal woman, Aphrodite gives her son the task of making Psyche fall in love with an unsightly creature. But Cupid becomes smitten with Psyche and does his utmost to save her from her fate. At this point Zephyr shows up and wafts Psyche to a mountaintop where she awaits the stranger to whom she has been promised. What are the bonds that unite Zephyr and Psyche? Their legs form a common axis round which their bodies appear to revolve. Their androgyny makes them look so much like each other that they appear to have fused into the same nature. Are they making love? Their torsos twist in opposite directions. Is this in fact a depiction of an abduction? The sculptor achieves a sense of imminent upward flight through a clever balance of masses. Admire the transparency of the billowing drapery evoking the breeze.

How to get to the next stop:
Go back to the entrance of the Cour Puget and take the escalator up to the second floor and the collections of Paintings from the Northern schools. Walk around the escalator to the right, go through rooms 19 and 18 and into room 17. This work is on the right-hand wall.

Hercule et Omphale
Hercule et Omphale

© RMN / Gérard Blot / Christian Jean

04Hercules and Omphale

Mighty Hercules was sold as a lover to Omphale, the queen of Lydia, and he fell in love with his captor. She browbeat him and seems to have led him by the nose. Whatever did Hercules do to deserve such a fate? She set him to work at the spinning wheel, but he was clumsy and she had to reprimand him.
In this comical scene, the male and female roles are reversed.
Omphale appears as an ironic lion tamer, and Hercules as an obedient giant. Have fun noting the different elements that set the two in opposition. By exchanging their attributes (the lion skin and the club; the distaff and the yarn), they invert the traditional roles of the couple. Go closer to make out the clear color definition of the shadows in the flesh tones, then step back to take in the full twist of their bodies.

How to get to the next stop:
Go to the right-hand wall in Room 11.

David and Bathsheba
David and Bathsheba

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

05David and Bathsheba

Taking advantage of Bathsheba's husband being absent, King David surprised her as she was bathing and fell in love with her. Quentin Matsys depicts the moment in the Biblical narrative when the king sends a messenger to her to declare his love for her. He subsequently has her husband killed so that he can marry her.
The outlines and details have a fine definition here. The greyish flesh tones contrast sharply with the warm colors in the Rubens painting you have just seen. Where are the two protagonists of this love story? The composition is misleading in this respect, for the "smitten lover" does not figure in the foreground. To spot him, let your eye follow the messenger's gesture. Notice how the masculine world dominated by King David intrudes upon Bathsheba's feminine universe on the left. Two secondary figures in the foreground, a young boy and a female attendant, draw us in to witness the scene. The meeting of the two dogs mirrors the relationship of the king asserting his dominence over Bathsheba.

How to get to the next stop:
Continue to Room 7, then proceed to Room 13 via Room 10 in the French Paintings section.

Écho et Narcisse
Écho et Narcisse

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

06Echo and Narcissus

Poussin combines in a single image two episodes from the story of Narcissus in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Rejected by Narcissus, with whom she has fallen in love, Echo dies, but her voice lives on, reverberating through the mountains. Punished for his indifference, Narcissus is condemned to fall in love with his own reflection on the surface of a pool. His fate is to drown and be transformed into the flower that bears his name.
This small canvas depicts an intimate scene between three figures. How are they united? Our gaze is drawn to Narcissus through the horizontal beauty of his naked body in the foreground. Notice the way the landscape "swallows up" Echo, who is slowly turning to stone. Among Cupid's attributes is the torch with which he inflames hearts; it is also a sign of death here.

How to get to the next stop:
The painting is located on right-hand wall in Room 14.

Orphée et Eurydice
Orphée et Eurydice

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

07Orpheus and Eurydice

Eurydice dies on her wedding day after being bitten by a snake. Crazed with grief, Orpheus goes down to the Underworld in search of her. His songs move Hades, who restores Eurydice to him on condition that he does not turn to look at her before reaching the world of the living. But Orpheus disobeys and loses her for good.
The main protagonist of this tragic tale is the landscape.
Stand back and close your eyes partly to follow the light's path on the figures. It's as if the harsh lighting on Eurydice's yellow dress sets the drama in motion.
Move closer and you will make out the serpent that is soon to cause her death. Look for the negative elements that threaten this idyllic landscape. The shadow from the foreground which encroaches on the scene is like the lethal venom that will seep into Eurydice's veins.

How to get to the next stop:
Continue to Room 19, turn right toward Room 20, go past the glass door to Room B, and follow the landing to Room A of the Carlos de Beistegui collection. The painting is on the right-hand wall.

La mort de Didon
La mort de Didon

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

08The Death of Dido

Seduced and abandoned by Aeneas, Queen Dido kills herself in despair. Rubens sticks close to the description of her suicide in Book IV of Virgil's Aeneiad:
" Eyes bloodshot and rolling, and her quivering cheeks flecked
with stains and pale with coming death."
The abandoned queen is the unique subject of this painting.
Rubens chooses to show the moment when she carries out her fatal resolves and stabs herself in the heart with a sword.
Notice how, with its twisting torso and limbs, her body occupies the entire canvas. The exuberance of the pose shifts the action from the intimacy of the bedroom to the theatricality of a stage.
The warm, radiant colors suffuse Dido's naked body with sensuality. Its generous proportions are a celebration of athe female anatomy.
Look for the signs of grief on her face. There is something deeply moving about the way that this tragic figure expresses her energy.

How to get to the next stop:
Take the Henri II stairs on the right down to the first floor. Cross Rooms 32, 33, and 34 to get to the Victory of Samothrace. Go down a few more steps and take the central staircase up to Room 75. The painting hangs at the far end on the right.

The Entombment of Atala
The Entombment of Atala

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

09The Entombment of Atala

Chateaubriand's novel Atala is an exotic love story about two "noble savages" who have been Christianized. Atala, torn between her love for Chactas and her vow to remain a virgin, dies in the cave where the two lovers have been given shelter by an old missionary.
The young woman has just died. Notice the areas where light falls. Atala's body draws our attention first; the eye then moves to the patch of sky outside the cave. Notice the way the crucifix held by the lifeless young woman echoes the wayside cross emerging from the trees. Follow the rippling movement of the three overlapping bodies from left to right. Atala's body fits into the space hollowed out between her lover's bent back and the old monk's bowed head. The composition brings to mind a Deposition, an impression confirmed by the painting's title.

How to get to the next stop:
Go to Room 77. This painting hangs on the left-hand wall at the far end of the room.

Paolo and Francesca
Paolo and Francesca

© 1996 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

10Paolo and Francesca

The story of the 12th-century lovers Paolo and Francesca who were murdered by her jealous husband figures prominently in Dante's Divine Comedy:
"Their hellish flight of storm and counterstorm through time foregone, sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
Whirling and battering it drives them on."
Dido too is found in this second circle of Hell reserved for carnal sinners.
The work shows a couple embracing beneath the gaze of two bystanders. Try to work out the lovers' position. With no resting point on the ground, they seem to float in thin air. Follow the outlines of the two differently colored draperies: do they define a sheet revealing the fusion of two figures making love, or a death shroud dividing them?
Notice the contrast with the two figures on the right: Dante and Virgil. Observe how the light plays an important part in emphasizing the distance between two scenes that seem to unfold independently of each other.

How to get to the next stop:
Take the Mollien stairs down to the Collections of Italian Sculpture on the ground floor and cross to the far end of Room 4. The work is on the right.

Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l'Amour
Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l'Amour

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Raphaël Chipault

11Cupid and Psyche

Psyche becomes the bride of Cupid, but knows neither his face nor his identity. To discover who he is, she spies on him as he sleeps. "Love cannot live without trust," he admonishes her before fleeing. Abandoned, and forced by Venus to perform a series of superhuman tasks, Psyche falls into a deadly sleep from which only Cupid's kiss can awaken her.
This work depicts the final scene in the story of Cupid and Psyche. Cupid has just arrived, his wings are still raised and form an X with Psyche's body. Circle round the sculpture and look for the points where the two bodies meet. Move closer and note the different aspects of the marble as it brings substance and material reality to the figures' essence: the softness of the hair, the transparency of the wings, the fullness of the flesh, the roughness of the rock, the vase's polished shape, the smoothness of the draperies . . .

Auteur(s) : 
Liz HERON