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.
The Modern Louvre
Sadness of the “Belle Époque”
The fall of the Empire, the destruction of the Tuileries, and the removal of the seat of power may have marked the triumph of the museum at the Louvre. Yet in fact, the beginning of the Third Republic was a difficult time for the institution. A number of space-consuming administrative departments invaded the palace, including in particular the Ministry of Finance that occupied the entire site of the former State Department, remaining there until its relocation in 1986. In 1905, the Central Union of Decorative Arts—an association that aims to promote the applied arts—was granted premises in the Pavillon de Marsan and part of the adjoining wing, which it still occupies today. In addition, the museum had only low funding available in an increasingly competitive art market context between major European institutions. Two unfortunate incidents seem to sum up this difficult period: the 1896 purchase of the tiara of Saitaphernes, which proved to be a fake, and the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911.
These difficulties should not, however, overshadow other positive developments, including the Winged Victory of Samothrace being displayed at the top of the Daru staircase from 1883, the creation of a procurement fund for major museums, and of the RMN (Réunion des Musées Nationaux), an advisory body for the pooling of their resources and requirements. The founding of the École du Louvre also enabled the museum’s curators to publicize and disseminate their research. The Louvre’s universalist ambition also lived on, particularly through the acquisitions of generous benefactors: in 1894 Ernest Grandidier donated his collection of Chinese and Japanese art (now in the Musée Guimet), and the bequest of Baroness Delort de Gléon in 1912 led to the creation of an Islamic art division that was to open after World War I.
A time of great leaders, from Verne to Malraux
After World War I, during which part of the collections had been evacuated to the south of France, the Louvre underwent several major refurbishment programs.
During the interwar period, the director Henri Verne launched an ambitious and rational plan to restructure the collections and modernize the exhibition rooms. Provided with electricity, the Louvre was now able to open to visitors at night. Rooms were reassigned to the museum’s various departments so as to create more coherent exhibition circuits. Access was made easier through the creation of underground passageways beneath the ticket offices on the Cour Carrée, allowing freedom of movement at ground level without the need to leave the building. For the first time in its history, the museum had a centralized visitor reception area, housed in the Salle du Manège, where people could buy tickets, book lectures, or purchase publications and reproductions of works in the museum. New areas at ground level in the Flore wing were also allocated to sculptures and Egyptian antiquities; the Cour du Sphinx, the first of the Louvre’s courtyards to be covered with a glass roof, became home to collections of Greek antiquities. The creation of new museums (the Musée de la Marine and the Musée Guimet), designed to house the collections that the Louvre was no longer able to accommodate, also tightened the thematic scope of its exhibits.
World War II interrupted this program. Paris was under occupation and the authorities demanded the opening of the museum. Nonetheless it was largely empty, most works having been dispatched to the provinces as a protective measure. The German occupation commandeered the use of several of the Louvre’s rooms and the whole of the Jeu de Paume museum in the Tuileries gardens to house the works from Jewish collections confiscated by the Nazis. This situation, however, allowed the French authorities and Jacques Jaujard, director of the National Museums, in particular to stay informed about the atrocities committed, mainly thanks to Rose Valland, head of the Jeu de Paume.
After 1945, Georges Salles continued to implement Verne’s plan. The work experienced renewed activity under the authority of the first Minister of Culture, André Malraux (1958–69), thereby allowing the museum to occupy the Pavillon de Flore, which until then had been temporarily reserved for the Ministry of Finance. Malraux was also mindful of the Louvre’s palatial character and called for the façades to be cleaned. Between 1964 and 1966, he ordered the reconstitution of the ditch, a project originally intended for the foot of the Colonnade but which had never been carried out.
The Grand Louvre and the present
The Grand Louvre
The “Grand Louvre,” an initiative of the then French President François Mitterrand, marked the triumph of the museum that at last occupied almost the entire building (with the exception of the Marsan wing, still devoted to the decorative arts) after the scheduled departure of the Ministry of Finance.
The objectives of the Grand Louvre were not unrelated to Verne’s plan. The aim was to welcome visitors. For this purpose a centralized area was created in the basement at the heart of the Cour Napoléon; topping it was a glass pyramid by the architect Ieoh Ming Pei. The structure, which acts as an urban beacon, was inaugurated in 1989. The areas vacated by the Ministry of Finance enabled the collections to be relocated in a new wing (the Richelieu wing), arranged around three courtyards covered with modern glass canopies designed by Pei and Macary. It was inaugurated in 1993. The final adjustments to the Grand Louvre project were completed in 1997.
The museographic program, led by Pei or by interior designers such as Jean-Michel Wilmotte, took a modern, comfortable, and discreet approach to the works. In the decorative arts rooms on the first floor, special attention was paid to the design and layout of the display cases. On the second floor, the overhead lighting was given a new take by deflectors that filter the natural light and dissimulate a supplementary source of ambient lighting. However, a specific decorative scheme was implemented to display the Marie de Médicis cycle of paintings by Rubens. Postmodern in style, it attempts to rekindle the spirit of the earlier format using resolutely modern elements.
After the Grand Louvre
From 1993 onward, the museum gained in autonomy by becoming a public institution. It now had its own director whereas it had previously been under the supervision of the Musées de France. The museum’s development was marked by the creation of the Department of Islamic Art; for this, the architect Rudy Ricciotti covered the Cour Visconti with an undulating structure of glass and metal. Under the presidency of Henri Loyrette (2001–13), the museum also experienced considerable development outside the Louvre with the creation of an annex at Lens and assistance with the foundation of a new museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
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- Image: Demolition of the Grande Galerie, Archives Nationales (64 AJ 286 d 24)
- Image: Staircase of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, 1934, Musée du Louvre
- Image: Cour du sphinx, 1934, musée du Louvre
- Image: Aerial view of the Louvre-Tuileries sector and of Paris, to the east
- Image: Cour Marly, 1993, musée du Louvre
- Image: Musée du Louvre-Lens, architects SANAA / Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa - IMREY CULBERT / Celia Imrey and Tim Culbert - MOSBACH PAYSAGISTE / Catherine Mosbach
- Image: Newly covered areas of the Department of Islamic Art in the Cour Visconti of the Musée du Louvre (R. Ricciotti – M. Bellini / Musée du Louvre)
- Image: Architectural project of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, exterior view