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.
A backdrop to power
The Tuileries Palace: home to heads of state
With the uprisings during the French Revolution in July and October 1789, the government was forced to relocate to Paris. All of the regimes of French rule until 1870 resided at the Tuileries Palace. They included Louis XVI, brought back by force and increasingly captive until his deposition on August 10, 1792; the Revolutionary Committees (1792–94), the most famous of which was led by Robespierre; and the members of the Directory followed by the Consulat who cohabited with the main revolutionary assemblies, located in a room built on the site of Louis XIV’s grand theater in 1793. The Tuileries then saw the triumph of Napoleon I, who moved there as First Consul in 1800 before being crowned emperor in 1804; it also witnessed his defeat after Waterloo in 1815. Louis XVI’s brothers, Louis XVIII and Charles X, stayed there on their return to power but needed to give way to their cousin Louis-Philippe in 1830, when he ascended to the throne in the July Revolution.
Various interior works were carried out in line with the tastes and fashions of successive monarchs. The most important contribution during this period remained the Marsan wing, built along the rue de Rivoli by architects Percier and Fontaine. This wing closed off the large Cour du Carrousel, whose entrance was henceforth marked by a small arch erected by the two architects in tribute to the military campaigns of 1805.
The French Revolution and the birth of the Musée du Louvre
Eager to succeed where the monarchy had failed, the French Revolution quickly sought to open the museum at the Louvre, first as a symbolic act on August 10, 1793, and then more regularly from the following October onward.
The major developments devised by the monarchy were reduced to the essentials: walls painted green and simple floorboards in the Grande Galerie where the public could discover around six hundred paintings, mainly from royal collections, as well as some objets d’art and antique busts set on top of columns. The political objective of the display—to restore to the whole populace all of the artworks previously reserved for the “tyrants”—took precedence over study. The paintings were hung in the manner of an aesthetic but non-didactic “flowerbed.” The nationalization of the property of the clergy, the seizure of goods from the nobility who had fled France, and the military campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars in the Netherlands and Italy, soon changed the number and nature of the collections. From 1797 onward, a specific setting was needed to display the antiquities; to accommodate them, the architects Cheval de Saint-Hubert and Jean Arnaud Raymond converted the former apartments of Anne of Austria. By preserving Romanelli’s painted ceilings but destroying the walls and replacing them with columns or smooth surfaces, they sought to replicate the great naves of the Vatican museum that had supplied many of the works exhibited at the Louvre after the signing of the Treaty of Tolentino with the Pope. The management of the early Musée du Louvre, assigned to teams that underwent regular renewal according to the various developments in the French Revolution, experienced dramatic innovations. Restoration issues fueled public debates that were reported in the press; the notion that it was better for the artworks to be kept in Paris rather than in the place they had been originally designed for was another argument in favor of the museum’s existence. The museum was also a learning center for artists who would come and train by copying major works, a practice that continues today. Furthermore, it was necessary to study the artworks in order to classify them in a rational manner by school and by country, thereby developing a rational overview of the evolution of the arts.
From Empire to the July Monarchy: the museum gains in strength
The numerous political changes that affected the nearby Tuileries did not necessarily have a deep impact on the Musée du Louvre. The revolutionary effort continued under the reign of Napoleon I, but accepted a cleaner break with the big dreams of a monarchic repository. The museum was fully devoted to the presentation of collections; it was no longer a palace of the arts, and the artists were soon driven out of the Louvre, in 1802 and then again in 1806. It was no longer a temple of the sciences, and the Institut de France, a modern version of the Academies of the Ancien Régime, spent only a few years there before moving to the Collège des Quatre Nations. The museum continued to expand with new rooms fitted out by architects Percier and Fontaine, creating a neoclassical aesthetic very much in keeping with Renaissance art that had a profound effect on the Louvre. In the Grande Galerie, they created the first overhead lighting, as well as columns bearing arches that punctuated the space without obstructing the building’s 430-meter length. They finally completed the main structural work on all of the wings of the Cour Carrée, which had remained unfinished since Louis XIV. A director, Dominique Vivant Denon, now supervised the development of the collections and their study; he coordinated in particular the drafting of the first general inventory of the museum’s collections. The fall of the Empire was a difficult time for the museum, which was emptied of all of the major collections seized during the victorious military campaigns of the Revolution and Consulat. The restored monarchy, however, swiftly began to compete with the previous regime, filling the voids with some judicious purchases: the Venus de Milo, acquired in 1820, became the new masterwork of antiquities following the departure of the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere, which had been returned to the Pope. The purchase of the Durand and Salt collections in 1824 and 1826 allowed the creation of real Egyptian collections, which were entrusted to a leading scholar, Jean-François Champollion. Percier and Fontaine fitted out new rooms, known as the Musée Charles X, to accommodate these collections and to enable the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities to be extended. Painted ceilings enjoyed a prominent place in the decorative scheme of these rooms; though the two architects disliked them, the Comte de Forbin, director of the royal museums, sought to promote them in order to encourage state commissions to living artists. This choice was evocative of other significant decors in the palace, particularly as similar orders were placed for the west wing of the Cour Carrée, intended to house the administration of the Conseil d’État. These decorative elements required a wide range of artists: Ingres triumphed with an Apotheosis of Homer; Antoine-Jean Gros was in charge of the highly classical ornamentation of the coffered ceiling in the Salle des Colonnes; there were also younger artists such as Abel de Pujol, or those sometimes open to Romanticism such as Eugène Devéria. The purchase of other collections helped to diversify the Louvre’s spheres of expertise. The acquisition of the Révoil collection gave rise to a section of Decorative Arts from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Louvre also recovered a large number of French sculptures from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, which had previously been on display in a “Musée des Monuments Français” that closed in 1816; the pieces were exhibited in 1824 in a modern sculpture section set in the Galerie d’Angoulême, so called as a tribute to the Duc d’Angoulême, Louis-Antoine, who was heir to the throne. A maritime museum, the Musée de la Marine, was installed on the second floor of the Cour Carrée. Its collections were later transferred to the Trocadéro between 1936 and 1942. The momentum continued under the reign of Louis-Philippe who, in a personal capacity, purchased a rich collection of Spanish paintings. Excavations carried out by the French consul Paul-Emile Botta on the site of Khorsabad called for the inauguration of an Assyrian section in 1847.
The “New Louvre” of Napoleon III
Napoleon III, grandnephew of Napoleon I, took office as president of the Second Republic in 1848, reinstated the Empire in 1852, and continued to govern until 1870, when he was overthrown after military defeat at the Battle of Sedan. His long reign was one of the key moments in the architectural history of the Louvre, and of the museum.
The “New Louvre”
The Second Republic, proclaiming the “right to work,” launched a major construction program that included notably the restoration of the Louvre, which had become the “People’s Palace.” In charge of this was the architect Félix Duban, who worked on the decoration of the Apollo Gallery, as well as the façades of the Petite Galerie and the Grande Galerie. With him the palace achieved the stature of “historical monument”—to use the terminology recently adopted by the newly overthrown July Monarchy. After the coup d’état of December 1851, however, Napoleon III wanted a more ambitious project: to complete the Grand Design. He entrusted the design of new buildings linking the Louvre and the Tuileries to Louis Visconti, who was succeeded by Hector Lefuel after his death in 1853. The main structure was inaugurated in 1857 and consisted of low wings and higher pavilions around a new courtyard, fully open on one side toward the Tuileries Palace. This is the Cour Napoléon where the Pyramid now stands. The external appearance of the buildings was designed to stand in harmony with the palace of the kings of France, despite the systematic but always concealed use of modern construction techniques such as iron. This homogeneous architectural shell was to serve many functions and the Louvre established itself as a real annex to the Palais des Tuileries: it housed the emperor’s stables, the State Department that assisted the sovereign in the exercising of power, and a large Salle des États intended to accommodate parliamentary sessions.
A landmark of Napoleon III’s Paris
The “New Louvre” was a landmark of Napoleon III style, marked by ornamental profusion and by the desire to strike a balance between all of the styles that had gone before. Several hundred sculptors were hired to decorate the façades and, in particular, the great men set around the courtyard of the “New Louvre” as a tribute to the nation’s scientists, thinkers, and writers. Among the most significant artists and the most remarkable works featured the names of Auguste Préault, Antoine Louis Barye, or Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. The architectural program, implemented within a tight schedule, was a blend of the glorification of power, allegories of modernity, and traditional figures of art and nature, in a disarray that favored decorative effect over meaning. Lefuel’s skills as a great decorator were apparent inside. In particular, he installed grand ceremonial staircases and the Minister of State’s apartments, with modular reception rooms adorned with stucco and paintings reminiscent of the grand style of the reign of Louis XIV. The private areas, however, were styled rather on a Louis XV aesthetic.
A museum within a palace
Under the Second Republic, Félix Duban set about providing the Salon Carré and the Salle des Sept Cheminées (Hall of Seven Chimneys) with grand monumental decorations based on the idea that the richness of the works required a worthy setting. Preference was given to overhead lighting, and monumental figures by the sculptors Simart and Duret graced the arches. Hector Lefuel was also responsible for producing large decorative elements, in a shorter space of time, particularly in the southern portion of the “New Louvre” (now the Denon area). The large rooms at ground level, devoted to sculpture, played on the richness of the marble floor and the elegant interplay of the stonework’s cutting lines. On the first floor, the picture galleries followed a functional model with their overhead lighting and hanging systems able to incorporate a large number of works. The Mollien staircase and the Salon Denon, however, were more richly decorated, notably in the ceilings, where the painting by Charles Louis Muller plays a major role. Muller also executed the ceiling frescos for the Salle des États, where annual parliamentary sessions were held and which was destroyed after the fall of the Ancien Régime. The Musée du Second Empire reflected the high life of the regime, in particular the famous evening galas of its director, Count van Nieuwerkerke whose apartment in the north wing opened directly on to the exhibition rooms. In addition, the creation of the Musée des Souverains in 1852, showcasing objects that had belonged to the kings and emperors of previous regimes, showed the empire’s desire to bring together historical moments that had gone before it. Indeed, this museum was closed with the fall of the Empire in 1870. Moreover, it was a time of large acquisitions, such as that of the Marquis Campana Collection, which brought over 11,000 new pieces to the Louvre, including a major proportion of early Italian paintings and antique ceramics. Two donations—a gift by Alexandre Sauvageot in 1856 and the bequest of Doctor Louis La Caze in 1869—brought in over 1,400 objets d’art and 275 paintings. Finally, the excavations undertaken in Egypt by Auguste Mariette resulted in the arrival at the museum of over four hundred crates of works.
From the “New Tuileries” to the end of the palace
The “New Louvre” was barely finished when Hector Lefuel embarked upon an extensive program to modernize the Tuileries. The architect saw the palace’s façades as uninteresting, its interior layout as unsuited to a modern order, its old buildings as poorly constructed, but the decoration of the grand apartments as a masterpiece worth preserving. Between 1856 and 1858, he provided the emperor and empress with extra space by removing the terraces of the Palais des Tuileries and converting them into an apartment. He also modified the parterre area of the garden that extended to the base of the château; this area was known as the “reserved gardens” since the time of Louis-Philippe because it could be closed to the public when royalty was in residence at the Tuileries. Lefuel enlarged this area, protected by a ditch, and placed rows of statues there between rare species of trees planted in a grove, in the style of an English garden. From 1861 onward, a large reconstruction and conversion program was undertaken. It began with the demolition of the Grande Galerie and the Pavillon de Flore dating from the reign of Henri IV and in danger of collapse. They were to be rebuilt with similar volumes but with different ornamental details and levels. Lefuel took advantage of this opportunity to add a pavilion at the entrance to the courtyard to house parliamentary sessions. The fall of the Empire and, in particular, the troubles during the Paris Commune changed the situation completely. After the emperor’s military defeat by the Prussians at Sedan, France was torn between a provisional bourgeois government, based at Versailles and eager to make peace as soon as possible on the one hand, and on the other the population of Paris in the form of an insurrectionary Commune. The main building of the Palais des Tuileries, between the Pavillon de Flore and the Pavillon de Marsan, fell victim to fires started for strategic and symbolic reasons by Parisians during the “Bloody week” of May 21 to 28, 1871 that saw the capital regained by the armies of the provisional government. The ruins were the subject of much debate before being finally demolished in 1883. For his part, the architect Lefuel hoped to take advantage of this fire to continue his program to modernize the Tuileries: between 1876 and 1879 he rebuilt the Pavillon de Flore, the Pavillon de Marsan, and the adjoining wing along the lines of his Second Empire project. He also hoped to reconstruct afresh the main building of the palace, but this second part of his project never came to fruition.
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- Image: Hubert Robert, The Grande Galerie between 1801 and 1805, Musée du Louvre (RF 1964–34)
- Image: Benjamin Zix, The Emperor and Empress Making a Torchlight Visit, Musée du Louvre (Inv 33406)
- Image: Joseph Auguste, The Salle des Bijoux, Department of Paintings (RF 3630)
- Image: Victor Joseph Chavet, The Louvre of Napoleon III, Musée du Louvre (Inv 20048)
- Image: Nicolas Gosse, Napoleon III Visiting the Louvre Construction Site, Musée du Louvre (RF 1995–7)
- Image: Giuseppe Castiglione, The Salon Carré at the Musée du Louvre, Musée du Louvre (RF 3734)