History of the Louvre
From château to museum
A visit to the Louvre and its collections lets visitors discover Western art from the Middle Ages to 1848, as well as a large number of ancient civilizations. Yet it also offers another history to explore. The grand palace that houses the museum, which dates back to the late twelfth century, is a true lesson in architecture: from 1200 to 2011, the most innovative architects have in turn built and developed the Louvre. Long the seat of power, this royal residence was also home to French heads of state until 1870 and is one of the major backdrops to the history of Paris and of France.
Residence of the Kings of France
Renaissance of the Louvre
After the Hundred Years’ War the French kings, who had become accustomed to living away from Paris, continued to reside mainly in the Loire Valley and only traveled occasionally to the capital a few times a year. Things changed during the reign of François I (1515–47), after the king’s military defeat at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 and his captivity in Spain. On his return to France, the king wanted to regain control of his capital and decided, in an official declaration of 1528, to make his main residence there. The medieval château was updated and, at the end of his reign, the king decided to have it rebuilt, but the main work was not undertaken until the reign of Henri II (1547–59).
The classical style of Pierre Lescot’s Louvre
The reconstruction of the château as desired by François I began with the west wing, which was to house a grand ballroom and the ceremonial staircase leading to the royal apartment. To the south, overlooking the river, a large pavilion was more specifically intended for the king; its upper stories were later removed between 1806 and 1809. The architect Pierre Lescot oversaw all of the work, with the help of talented artists such as the sculptor Jean Goujon or the carpenter Scibec da Carpi. Lescot’s work was marked by a desire to adapt classical forms (Corinthian and composite columns on the façade) with modern tastes and necessities (large windows, high roofs). Taking as his reference the great monuments of ancient Rome, as well as the offerings of contemporary Italian architects, Lescot obtained a highly original result.
The façade, with its sculptures, stood as a true encoded portrait of the perfect ruler that Henri II was, at once king of war, bestower of economic prosperity, and guardian of the sciences. The laurel leaves and arches adorning the friezes refer to the dwelling place of Emperor Augustus, built against a shrine dedicated to Apollo; as such they present Henri II as the emperor’s indirect successor.
Inside the grand ballroom was decorated with caryatids, inspired by those of the temple of Mars Ultor in Rome, which supported a balcony reserved for the oboes that heralded grand entrances. On the other side, a “tribunal” or raised podium framed by a triumphal arch provided a grandiose setting for the king and his family. The other parts of the interior decoration, including the grand staircase or the king’s grand bedchamber, whose decoration was moved in the nineteenth century, placed a strong emphasis on sculpture. This sets them apart from the other great royal building project of the Renaissance, the Château de Fontainebleau, where fresco painting played a major role.
Catherine de Médicis creates the Tuileries at the height of the Wars of Religion
After King Henri II was accidentally killed in a tournament, his wife, Catherine de Médicis, was forced to play a major political role at a time when tensions between Catholics and Protestants led to the Wars of Religion. At the Louvre, Lescot continued his work with the reconstruction of the south wing. However, during this period, the château was best known as the scene of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, with the assassination of Protestant nobles who had come to Paris to celebrate the marriage of their leader, Henri de Navarre, and Queen Margot (Margaret of France), the Catholic daughter of Henri II. The scenes at the Louvre gave the signal for attempts to exterminate Protestants throughout the kingdom.
Alongside the works at the Louvre, Catherine de Medici took a very important decision for the future by purchasing a substantial amount of land between 1561 and 1569 in the suburb situated five hundred meters to the west of the château. The land had until then been the site of food gardens, recreational dwellings, and a small industry of tile manufacture, whose memory lives on in the name “Tuileries.” In this area she wanted to create a large garden for the court, together with a palace for its use. The garden, assigned to an Italian who oversaw a team of French gardeners, contained fountains, a labyrinth, as well as a number of other recreational features, notably an artificial cave commissioned from Bernard Palissy, a ceramist from Saintonge. The palace, meanwhile, was entrusted to two leading architects, Philibert Delorme followed by Jean Bullant, but due to lack of sufficient funding it was unfinished and uninhabitable when Catherine de Médicis died in 1589. It was designed to stand alone from the Louvre, but the idea of linking the two soon emerged.
Henri IV and the Grande Galerie
The Wars of Religion came to an end under the late Valois dynasty and the rise to power of a Protestant convert to Catholicism, Henri IV, the first ruler from the Bourbon cousin branch. He did not return to Paris until 1594 and reaffirmed his presence there through a major construction policy, which included the Louvre. While claiming to want to “continue and complete” the work of his predecessors, Henri IV greatly changed the nature of this work.
No longer was the Tuileries palace an isolated edifice with three large courtyards, as intended by Catherine de Médicis, but a recreational annex to the Louvre, surrounded on all sides by gardens. To link the two buildings, between 1595 and 1609 the king’s architects erected a structure of exceptional dimensions: a great gallery almost half a kilometer in length. The upper level was reserved for the king; below were stables, a minting workshop, the royal printworks, and in particular lodgings for the artists that the king wished to favor and protect from the system of trade guilds. At the far end of the ground floor on the Louvre side, a “hall of antiquities” housed the king’s collection of statues. These facilities made the Louvre a privileged site for the development of the arts. Henri IV and his wife Marie de Médicis also commissioned many highly innovative interior decorations that have now all disappeared.
The “Grand Design” of Henri IV and Louis XIII
All of these works formed part of a wider program, a “Grand Design” that consisted in making the Louvre and the Tuileries into the largest palatial complex in Europe. The trickiest part of this project was the quadrupling of the Cour Carrée and the creation of a coherent unit between the Louvre and the Tuileries. This entailed the razing of a complete section of the city that bordered on to the palace; no work had yet begun when Henri IV was assassinated in 1610.
Louis XIII, the son of Henri IV, was determined to continue his father’s project but lacked the means: his kingdom faced strong domestic tension and, externally, the Thirty Years War. He nonetheless succeeded in doubling the length of the west wing of the Cour Carrée through the exact duplication of Pierre Lescot’s architecture. To separate the old and new wings, his architect Jacques Lemercier designed a pavilion with a large dome, decorated with caryatids. This motif was destined to become a model of great royal architecture that, a century later, would be found on major monuments such as the École Militaire in Paris.
The palace of the Sun King
The reign of Louis XIV marked a new stage in the history of the Louvre and the Tuileries, even if the king himself did not appear to have enjoyed his Parisian residences. His minister Colbert, his architect Louis Le Vau, and his first painter Charles Le Brun were much to thank for the work undertaken to complete and embellish the Grand Design. As the king gradually gained authority, he moved away from his capital. The Louvre’s development therefore occurred mainly at the start of his reign (between 1652 and 1674).
Modernization work (1652–60)
When the king returned in 1652 at the end of the troubles of the Fronde, the prime concern was to modernize the existing rooms and to enlarge the space available for the king and his mother, Anne of Austria. The Petite Galerie built in the time of Henri IV was made thicker, extended by new rooms, and better linked to the rest of the château. At ground level a new “summer apartment” was appointed for the queen mother, with vaults decorated with frescos by the Italian painter Romanelli and works in stucco by the French sculptor Michel Anguier. A fire on the upper storey in 1661 necessitated the redecorating of the king’s gallery. This was the first of Charles Le Brun’s major projects at the Louvre, as well as one of the first backdrops to Louis XIV as Sun King. On the vault Apollo’s daily task became the metaphor for a regulated world organization made possible through the monarchy.
The unfinished Grand Design (1660–74)
From 1659 onward, Cardinal Mazarin, the king’s chief minister, hoped to complete the Grand Design. While he saw this as a continuation of the work of Henri IV and Louis XIII, the project became increasingly complex after his death in 1661. The idea emerged that a “king of today” required a radically modern architecture rather than old approaches developed fifty years earlier. The debate centered mainly on the east wing of the Cour Carrée, which marked the palace’s entrance facing the city. The south and north wings of this courtyard were nearing completion in 1664, when Colbert launched an extensive consultation in France and in Italy. Leading architects put forward their ideas and, between June and October 1665, the famous Bernini came to France to implement his project. Though this trip was crucial for artistic relations between France and Italy, it had little impact on the Louvre as work was immediately halted after the artist left. In the end, the construction of the new wing was entrusted to a group of French experts including Louis Le Vau, Charles Le Brun, and the theorist Claude Perrault, assisted by the architect François d’Orbay. Their ideas resulted in an original architectural offering: the colonnade, which is considered a characteristic feature of French architecture. It is a portico styled on a classical temple, forming a large decorative element facing the city. Its coupled columns, colossal dimensions, and arrangement of Corinthian order set above an opaque lower level were repeatedly imitated until the eighteenth and twentieth centuries; examples include the buildings on the Place de la Concorde and the Grand Palais. From 1674 onward, work at the Louvre lost momentum; while the walls were completed, most of the Cour Carrée still lacked a floor, roof, and windows.
Transforming the Tuileries (1659–67)
As the work on the Cour Carrée made the Louvre unfit for dwelling for a long period, Colbert had the Tuileries palace finished and modernized in order to provide the king with an alternative residence. The work, entrusted to the architect Louis Le Vau, involved the completion of the north section of the palace, to make it perfectly symmetrical, and the thickening of existing areas to make more space for the king and his family. In the northern portion, work began on the largest auditorium in Europe, under the guidance of the Vigarani, a family of Italian specialists. Inaugurated in 1662, the theater was famous for its mechanical devices used for scene changes; the room became known as the “Salle des Machines” after this stage machinery. Too big and ill suited to ordinary performances, it was no longer used after 1671.
In the southern portion, the king occupied two-thirds of the first floor and half of the ground level. At his disposal were four apartments: one large ceremonial suite of rooms on the first floor over one hundred fifty meters in length, and a more private lodging on the same level. A similar layout was found on the ground level, where one of the two apartments notably housed the rich collections of antiquities. Under the supervision of Charles Le Brun, an army of painters and sculptors set about decorating the thousands of square meters of walls and ceilings in record time. This work heralded that of Versailles, marking a major milestone in French art. Sadly, it was destroyed in a fire at the Tuileries in 1871. Some vestiges, salvaged before the disaster, are now kept in the Louvre.
The garden also underwent a dramatic transformation by André Le Nôtre, the grandson of one of the gardeners recruited by Catherine de Médicis. Between 1665 and 1669 Le Nôtre provided a completely new vision of the site, to which he remained attached throughout his life and where he retired after 1693. He modernized the parterres, unified with decorative boxwood hedges, and diversified the wooded areas. While giving the appearance of perfect geometrical consistency, he turned existing irregularities such as the former bastion that closed off the garden to the west to create ramps and differences in level. He also provided a visual opening of the garden onto the surrounding area by means of terraces and apertures while ensuring that it remained neatly closed.
The Louvre during the Enlightenment: a temple of the arts, the sciences, and taste
When Louis XIV left for Saint-Germain en Laye and Versailles, the Louvre was on the lookout for a new vocation. The Sun King chose to house his royal academies there, thereby reinforcing its status as a place intended for artists and intellectuals whereas the Tuileries remained the locus of power in Paris where the king resided when in the capital. These academies were the French Academy, the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Architecture, and the Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The young king Louis XV lived there from 1715 to 1722, the members of his family stayed there when they came to spend the day in Paris, and Queen Marie-Antoinette had a small apartment fitted there for her Parisian evenings out.
The Louvre was a site of intense artistic life. From 1737 onward, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture organized regular exhibitions of its members’ works in the Salon Carré. These famous “salons” took their name from the venue that played host to them. They became known all over Europe through accounts in the press and commentaries such as those by Diderot.
Enlightened “philosophers” also became excited about the future of the edifice in the heart of Paris and came up with a series of different ideas, which included using the Louvre to accommodate the royal library, the opera house, and the royal collections. The term “museum” summed up all of these ideas, reminiscent of the great classical model of Alexandria as a “temple of the arts, sciences, and taste,” in the words of the theorist Jacques-François Blondel. None of this was undertaken, and only some work was carried out to destroy the last houses that cluttered the center of the Cour Carrée and the foot of the Colonnade between 1755 and 1770, under the guidance of the Marquis de Marigny. His successor, the Comte d’Angiviller, commissioned many projects for presenting the royal collections in the Grande Galerie, but without success. However, the eighteenth century already set the stage for a debate that was to fuel thinking and achievements in the following century. Two partly contradictory projects therefore emerged: a locus of power and/or a locus of learning.