The Louvre’s Masterpieces
What exactly is a masterpiece? Follow this trail to find out!
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Some artworks have survived over the centuries and made such a mark on history that we cannot imagine the world without them. Their influence has spread across borders and cultures, and to this day they continue to be distinguished by experts and admired by all.
Where better than the Louvre to get a sense of these great artworks? The palace is home to some of the world’s most iconic pieces – paintings, sculptures, architectural elements and art objects by famous or anonymous artists of many different origins and eras. And no two masterpieces are alike!
Start of trail
Enter through the Sully wing.
After the ticket check, go straight on.
When you reach the entrance to the Pavillon de l’Horloge, take the stairs on the right up to Level 1.
At the top of the stairs, go through the double wooden doors on your right.
You’re in the Salle des Cariatides. Look behind you to see the musicians’ gallery above the door.
Ancient masterpieces from the royal collections
Room 348 - Sully wing - Level 0
Walk through the room.
Take the passage to the right of the monumental fireplace.
Go straight on between the red marble pillars until you reach the Venus de Milo.
Under Henri II, the Louvre completed its transition from a medieval fortress into a Renaissance palace. The Salle des Cariatides was originally a splendid ballroom, designed in classical style by the architect Pierre Lescot. It has a musicians’ gallery, supported by four Roman-inspired ‘caryatids’; these sculpted female figures serving as columns were the architect’s way of elevating King Henri II to the status of the Roman emperor Augustus!
The room’s purpose changed in 1692 when it was used to display classical sculptures, which French royalty began to collect in the Renaissance. One of the first masterpieces to enter the royal collections, Diana the Huntress, was joined in 1807 by the Sleeping Hermaphroditos, purchased by Napoleon I. To understand the nature of this fascinating figure, it has to be seen from all sides.
Festivities and bloodshed
The Salle des Cariatides was used as both a ballroom and a court of justice. And it was here, in 1572, that Marguerite de Valois, the famous ‘Queen Margot’, married Henri de Navarre, the future King Henri IV. Only a few days later, on 24 August, Protestant nobles who had attended the wedding were assassinated in the Louvre in the notorious Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
A welcome newcomer to the Louvre
Room 346 - Sully wing - Level 0
Retrace your steps and take the first left after the red marble pillars.
Go straight on, pass the rotunda and head towards the stairs.
Go up the stairs as far as the large winged figure.
Aphrodite, known as the Venus de Milo
Perhaps the gentleness of her gaze and the slant of her hips would in any case have distinguished her from other sculpted goddesses… but this particular Venus carved out a reputation for herself as soon as she entered the Louvre. The statue was found on the Greek island of Melos (or Milos, as it is known today) and presented to King Louis XVIII, who gave it to the Louvre in 1821. Six years earlier, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Treaty of Vienna had stipulated that some 5,000 artworks seized by Napoleon’s troops should be returned to their owners. As a result, the Louvre lost many of the artworks (antiquities in particular) that had contributed to its status as the world’s greatest museum under the First Empire (1804–1815). So the Venus de Milo was welcomed with open arms and hailed as a masterpiece. Her appeal is still as strong as ever and she continues to be widely copied and referenced in art and popular culture.
An apple or a shield?
The Venus de Milo was found in fragments and her original appearance is still something of a mystery. The first restorer wanted to give the statue arms – but how would they have been positioned? A hand holding an apple, found near the statue, may once have been hers... but the position of her left leg suggests she may have held a shield, as she does in many other depictions – a reminder that Venus was the lover of Mars, the god of war.
An uplifting sight
Room 703 - Denon wing - Level 1
Opposite The Winged Victory of Samothrace, turn right and walk between the columns.
Look at the frescoes by Botticelli on the walls on your left.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
Standing at the top of the Daru staircase, The Winged Victory of Samothrace is a timeless icon of Western art. The monument was found on the island of Samothrace, in the sanctuary of the ‘Great Gods’ to whom people prayed for protection from the dangers of the sea. The figure, spectacularly placed in a rock niche high above the sanctuary, was designed to be seen in three-quarter view from the left – a view which highlights the billowing cloak and clinging ‘wet drapery’. The wings, the warship, the sanctuary… all point to the goddess Nike, the messenger of victory.
From discovery to fame
In the 19th century, a French diplomat came upon some fragments of a statue. He identified them as elements of a Victory and had them shipped to the Louvre. The monument was painstakingly pieced together – without its wings – and exhibited to the public, who showed no great interest. Ten years later, archaeologists came to realise that the pieces of grey marble found near the statue had originally formed a ship. So the statue underwent a second restoration, from which it emerged with its monumental base and wings – and that changed everything! The Winged Victory became one of the Louvre’s most popular exhibits. In 2014, following an eighteen-month conservation and cleaning project, the Victory and her warship reappeared in a new and even brighter light!
Italian frescoes on the walls of the Louvre
Room 706 - Denon wing - Level 1
Go straight on and through the glass door.
You are now in the Salon Carré (Room 708).
Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman
These magnificent Renaissance frescoes by the painter Sandro Botticelli reached the Louvre in 1882 after being (re)discovered in Italy in 1873 during the renovation of a villa near Florence. They were found under the whitewash on the walls of the villa, home in the Renaissance to a wealthy family who had probably commissioned them from Botticelli, a renowned artist of the day. He reportedly used the daughter of the house as his model, placing her in the company of classical heroines and a Cupid, perhaps on the occasion of her engagement. The scene is allegorical in nature; Botticelli’s emphasis is on the act of giving rather than the gift itself. A second, similarly allegorical fresco shows Prudence presenting a young man to Grammar, surrounded by the Liberal Arts. It would be nice to think that the young woman’s fiancé was the model for the young man…
The making of reputations
Room 708 - Denon wing - Level 1
Leave the Salon Carré through the double wooden doors to the right of the windows.
In the Grande Galerie, go straight on as far as the white marble columns.
Look at the paintings on the wall on your left, just past the columns.
The Salon Carré
In the 18th century, the Salon Carré (‘Square Room’) was used as an exhibition space for works by members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. These annual displays, or ‘Salons’, forerunners of our contemporary art exhibitions, were very popular with the public.
The role, significance and impact of the Salons changed during their century of existence, but they were essentially places where living artists could exhibit, where the general public could view contemporary art and where art criticism originated. Artists’ reputations were made or broken at the Salons, where critics enjoyed contrasting and comparing their works.
A platform for masterpieces
The Salon was moved out of the Louvre in 1848 to make more room for the museum, and it was decided to reserve the Salon Carré for outstanding paintings, such as the Mona Lisa which was presented here for a while. In accordance with the fashion of the day, the works were placed frame to frame in tightly packed displays that covered the high walls.
Treasures of the Italian Renaissance
Room 710 - Denon wing - Level 1
Go straight on, take the first right into the Mona Lisa room.
The Grande Galerie
The Louvre’s extensive collection of Italian art includes 5 paintings and 22 drawings by one of the greatest Renaissance artists: Leonardo da Vinci.
Portrait of a Lady, known as La Belle Ferronnière
Leonardo da Vinci
The compelling gaze of the woman in the outstanding portrait La Belle Ferronnière reflects Leonardo’s interest in capturing a living moment. The title of the work derives from a mistake by the painter Ingres, who made a drawn copy of the portrait and gave it the name of another painting in the Louvre. The sitter’s identity is uncertain, but she may have been Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, for whom Leonardo worked for several years.
Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Infant Jesus Playing with a Lamb, known as Saint Anne
Leonardo da Vinci
In the large painting of Saint Anne, showing the Virgin and Child with Mary’s mother Anne, the poses and arrangement of the figures are particularly striking. The fantasy landscape in the background creates a sense of timelessness, heightened by Leonardo’s famous ‘sfumato’ technique which casts a misty veil over the whole scene, enveloping it in a mysterious softness.
A gallery with an eventful history…
The Grande Galerie has been the setting for all kinds of happenings! In 1606, it served as a rainy-day playroom for the future king Louis XIII, who was provided with a live fox for his entertainment. And hundreds of sick people came here for the ‘royal touch’ ceremony, when Henri IV laid his hands on sufferers, exclaiming, ‘The king touches you; God heals you!’
A superstar… … facing a crowd of 132
Room 711- Denon wing - Level 1
Go behind the Mona Lisa and into the next room.
Turn left into a long gallery with red walls.
Go up to The Raft of the Medusa, a bit further along on the left wall.
Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci must have particularly treasured the Mona Lisa, as he never parted with her. She was given star status as soon she arrived in the Louvre… The painting’s special appeal lies in its technical excellence, the sitter’s famous smile, the fantasy background landscape and the sfumato technique that envelops the figure in a misty haze. The Mona Lisa’s special allure has brought her all sorts of unwelcome attention too, with incidents that have only added to her celebrity status. In 1911, for example, an Italian museum worker stole the painting ‘to return it to its homeland’, sparking a furore in the press!
In 1966, this famous and fragile masterpiece was moved to the Louvre’s largest room – the Salle des États – where it is conserved in the best possible conditions, protected inside a temperature and humidity-controlled glass case.
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Paolo Caliari, know as Veronese
While you’re queuing to enjoy your personal glimpse of the Mona Lisa, make sure to admire the painting opposite: The Wedding Feast at Cana. You can’t miss it: at almost 70 m², it’s the biggest painting in the Louvre! Commissioned to decorate the refectory of a monastery in Venice, Veronese had the bold idea of transposing a biblical scene to a contemporary setting – a Venetian banquet. The painting was a great success and other commissions followed. In 1797, it was confiscated by Napoleon’s troops who rolled the huge canvas up and shipped it to Paris.
Romanticism, topicality, sensuality…
Room 700 - Denon wing - Level 1
Go straight on and leave the room.
Time for a break? Try the Café Mollien…and enjoy the fabulous view of the Pyramid from its terrace.
Go down the large staircase.
Go up to the two large male statues in the middle of the room.
The Raft of the Medusa
When you leave the Salle des États, turn your attention to the large 19th-century French paintings in the Salle Mollien...
At the Salon of 1819, Théodore Géricault presented his huge painting The Raft of the Medusa, a dramatic scene illustrating the recent wreck of a French ship – an event that had shocked the public. One hundred and fifty people drifted for thirteen days on a makeshift raft, falling prey to thirst, starvation, disease and cannibalism. Only fifteen survived to tell the tale.
The pyramidal composition and precision of the drawing are classical in inspiration, but Géricault chose to cast a cold and sickly light on the figures of the sick and the dead, heaped together on their precarious raft. The artist spent eight months on his painting, meeting survivors, building models, and visiting morgues and hospitals to observe the dead and dying. The harsh realism of the result divided critics, who were either fascinated or repelled.
The Raft of the Medusa entered the Louvre in 1824, shortly after the painter’s death.
Liberty Leading the People
Eugène Delacroix is regarded as one of the great Romantic painters. Contrary to popular belief, Liberty Leading the People does not portray the French Revolution of 1789, but the three-day uprising of July 1830 when Parisians took to the streets to defend their freedoms – that of the press in particular – from the tyrannical rule of Charles X. In this work described by Delacroix as ‘a modern subject, a barricade’, the allegorical figure of Liberty has something of the beauty of a Greek goddess but is personified by a sensual and vibrant woman of the people. This painting, the most famous by Delacroix, has been referenced in all kinds of freedom fights.
Imprisoned in stone
Room 403 - Denon wing - Level 0
Walk through the room. Just before the exit, look at the sculpture on the right near the window.
Slaves (The Rebellious Slave and The Dying Slave)
Michelangelo Buonarroti, known as Michelangelo
These two striking muscular figures illustrate the mix of realism and idealism at which Michelangelo excelled. A closer look reveals the fine bonds, carved in relief, that restrain their movements and identify them as ‘Slaves’. The figures are depicted in different poses: The Dying Slave is shown in a deep, perhaps eternal sleep; the Rebellious Slave seems to be straining against his bonds. The statues were commissioned from Michelangelo as part of a decorative project for a pope’s funerary monument but the project was abandoned and the Slaves remained imprisoned in the marble. Their state of incompletion makes them more difficult to interpret… but a touch of mystery has never harmed a masterpiece!
Taking an all-round view
Sculptures need to be seen from every angle to be fully appreciated. In the case of the Dying Slave, the figure’s charm and mystery are heightened by walking all around it… Look out for the monkey carved behind his left knee! Why a monkey? It all depends on the interpretation of the Slaves themselves: if these figures of resignation and rebellion represent the inability of humans to rise above their physical condition, then the monkey symbolises material life; but if they are seen as personifications of the Arts, mourning the death of the Pope, then the monkey is a symbol of Painting…
Bringing marble to life
Room 403 - Denon wing - Level 0
Leave the room and go down the steps.
From the landing, you can see the Pyramid through the window on your left.
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss
When you enter the Michelangelo gallery, the work of another Italian sculptor might be the first to catch your eye… Cupid can be hard to resist! Antonio Canova specialised in delicate marble depictions of mythological episodes; it’s easy to see why he was so admired by the Romantic poets of the late 19th century! He managed to capture emotion in stone: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss instantly conveys a sense of the feeling of love. Rather than just copying a classical model, Canova took an almost choreographic approach to the composition of his sculpture, choosing the compelling moment when the goddess awakens – a moment captured in a masterpiece that has lost none of its power to move us.
A different view of the duo
Not far from Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, another sculpture of the lovers shows them younger, at the start of their tumultuous love affair… In this work, Canova chose to depict them standing – the challenge being to achieve a sense of movement and life. Once again, you should walk around the sculpture to see it from the back: the young lovers make a very different and far more modern impression!
A transparent controversy…
Room 404 - Denon wing - Level 0
Ieoh Ming Pei
On your way through the Salle du Manège, look through the glass door to the famous Pyramid which sparked such controversy in the press and the National Assembly during its construction between 1985 and 1989. Some feared the venerable palace would be transfigured beyond repair… but in fact, the project followed in an 800 year-old tradition of architectural transformations, such as the demolition of a 30 metre-high keep that once stood at the heart of the medieval fortress. I.M. Pei’s Pyramid – a mere 19 metres in height – was inspired in part by the geometry of the Tuileries Garden, and the Chinese-born American architect chose the clearest possible glass to ensure that the buildings of his predecessors would remain perfectly visible.
Way to exit
To find your way out, go through the room opposite the Pyramid.
Go down the spiral staircase on the left.
Go down the stairs on the right and continue straight on to the Pyramid.