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The Louvre not only is one of the most renowned art museums in the world but it’s also the largest. It can be overwhelming to navigate the museum, find what you are looking for, and not get overwhelmed by the sheer number of masterworks that are housed under one roof. Out of 380,000 objects, there are only 35,000 on display. We hate to admit it but it is impossible to see it all in one trip. There are a few artworks you should not miss. Here’s our short, non-exhaustive, subjective list of the top 13 things you should see at the Louvre.
1. The Winged Victory of Samothrace
An old marble statue is not just another marble statue. It’s the oldest and most important statue in the world. It is one of the most important and oldest statues in the world. These original greek statues are not only much more ancient than their Roman counterparts, often by hundreds of centuries, but they are also far rarer. Only a small number of these original greek statues have survived to this day, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace may be the most valuable. We don’t know much about the artist, but the technical mastery and the way it envisions elements around the work (like the wind blowing the Victory’s gown) make it one of the most important sculptures in Western art history. This is a remarkable feat for a woman who is 2200 years old.
2. Cupid’s Kiss Revives Psyche
The love story of Psyche and Cupid – yes, the little winged boy with love arrows but grown up – is one of the greatest classical romances. It can pull at the heartstrings of both classists as well as normal people. Antonio Canova, one the last of the era-defining Italians who created this statue, captures the most heartbreaking moment with great tenderness. The work is filled with romance and intense eroticism, despite the fact that Canova was Napoleon’s favorite artist. You can also see a pleasant way to kiss someone.
3. The Venus de Milo
No need for arms? No problem. One of the most well-known classical representations of female beauty is the Venus de Milo.
This is the most well-known piece of art worldwide, along with the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David. Its beauty and age, as well as its iconic missing arms, make it one the most beloved representations of classical feminine beauty. French helped to promote the statue, which they acquired from Melos, Greece (or Milo in French). The French even made a scandal by hiding its Hellenistic origins to claim it was older and more valuable. This was because it was believed that Classical art was superior to Hellenistic art. Even though it is only a few hundred year older than French scholars originally believed, the Venus still inspires transcendental awe in many who see it.
4. The Raft of the Medusa
The Medusa wreck would make a strong candidate for the “worst things that happen at sea” claim. Poor navigation caused this French frigate to sink off Mauritius. 151 of the 400 crew members were left stranded on an improvised raft, with lots of wine and very little food and water. There was murder, cannibalism, mutiny and heaviness. Only 15 of the original151 survived when help arrived.
The only positive thing, if you can even call it that, was Theodore Gericault’s painting that helped define the French Romanticism movement known as the Raft of the Medusa. It is not only jaw-dropping, but it also marks a shift in the way that Neo-classicism favored idealized themes to Romanticism’s more emotional and dramatic subjects. It is a shocking sight from a visceral perspective and is the most disturbing thing at the Louvre.
5. Liberty Leading the People
You’ve probably seen this painting before. It is the official national painting of France. It features Liberty, the famously naked-breasted female personification. She leads the fighters during the 1830 “July Revolution”. Marianne, the female character in the painting, became a symbol for the French Republic and its animus towards monarchies due to the popularity of the piece when it was first created. It doesn’t ignore the hard realities of France’s struggle to have a representative government. The 40 years of civil war, political upheavals and political upheavals that shaped France are reflected in the bodies found beneath Marianne the Triumphant. It measures 8 by 10 feet and is a symbol of heroic patriotism.
6. Napoleon’s Coronation
The Coronation of Napoleon measures almost unbelievable 33 feet by 20 inches. It is not surprising that the Coronation of Napoleon was commissioned by the Little Colonel himself, and painted by his official artist, Jacques-Louis David. It also has a similar, ahem napoleonesque, official name: Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of Empress Josephine at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, 2/12/1804.
It’s not a true work of art in some ways, but it is a Neo-Classical Sargeant pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover. This covers features a list of prominent French politicians, an odd-looking Turkish diplomat and, of course, the artist himself.
7. Sleeping Hermaphroditus
Although you might think that you have seen many works similar to this one before, we assure that it is not your first time seeing it. It appears at first glance to be a naked woman lying on a soft cushion. But it is actually a man…er…something in between. It’s actually a representation (a Roman copy, if you care about details), of Hermaphroditus, who had both male and female sexual organs. It was originally found in Rome, where it was displayed in the Borghese Gallery. After being sold to the French occupiers, it now resides in the Louvre. Even though modern audiences may not be as familiar with Hermaphroditus, it was a popular topic for statuary and paintings.
There is one more twist to the story. The cushion Hermaphroditus reclines on was not part of the original. It was instead crafted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (the master of Italian Baroque Art) and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cushions made from stone.
8. Hammurabi’s code
Here’s a lesson you should learn from history class. The Ancient Babylonian King Hammurabi’s code, which dates back to 1754 B.C. is not only one the oldest written laws in the world but also one of the most readable written text ever found. It is extremely dry, as it contains rules regarding business transactions, inheritances, divorces and taxes. It also includes one of the earliest written examples of “an eye for another eye, a teeth for a tooth” in Babylonian life.
9. I.M. Pei’s Pyramid
I.M. Pei was asked to design a new entrance for the Louvre in 1984 by I.M. Pei’s giant Modernist steel-and-glass pyramid was a huge success. It seemed like half of Paris was in a frenzy when he presented it. Although the controversy has subsided over the years, and many people now support the pyramid, it is still a controversial structure in Paris. What do you think?
The Lamassu, another old but goody, were protector spirits who guarded ancient Assyria’s entrances back to 3000 B.C. In other words, the statues shown in the above picture would have been older than the Winged Victory statue to the ancient Greeks. Their craftsmanship will amaze you if their age is not enough. These magnificent winged bulls with heads of men look so extraordinary, you could stare at them for hours wondering how they were made from solid stone blocks. These massive beasts, which cross the line between art and artifacts, never fail to stimulate museum-goers’ pulses.
11. The Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave
Michelangelo Buonarotti was many, and not just content or happy. His history-changing career gave him an unrivalled ability to convey emotion, despair, and pain to the marble figures he carved – see his Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica and his famous statue, David.
Two statues of slaves by Michelangelo are kept in the Louvre. They are amazing examples of Michelangelo’s ability to sculpt the human form and portray emotions. Their creation is also part of an intriguing story of artistic frustration. These statues were originally made to be part the tomb of Pope Julius I, who also ordered Michelangelo’s famous frescoes to be painted on the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel. The tomb of Julius II was to be the most important monument since the Egyptians constructed the pyramids. It also served as Michelangelo’s crowning work. The tomb was not built as planned after years of delays and budget cuts. Many of the pieces Michelangelo intended for it were given to private collections and churches. The tomb is still in existence today in Italy. It houses Michelangelo’s famous Moses sculpture. However, it was one of his greatest disappointments. It is difficult to determine if these Slaves reflect some of Michelangelo’s professional frustration and despair during those years, but they are excellent examples of his ability for art to evoke emotion.
12. Grande Odalisque de Ingres
While most art museums have a fair amount of paintings of naked women, few are as well-known or controversial as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Grand Odalisque. Artists refer to “odalisques,” a figure depicted in Romantic paintings that featured young women living in the harems and palaces of Eastern Sultans. These women were brimming with exoticism and eroticism. They also had the sexual freedom that western European women did not have. In other words, they were a romanticized ideal of Eastern sexuality. Ingres’ nude woman, who gazes suggestively over her perfect shoulder and holds a fancy feather duster (ok, it’s a fan), is perhaps the most idealized example of an odalisque. Ingres went as far as to lengthen her stomach and back by adding five more vertebrae. He believed it would increase her sensuality. It’s fascinating work, regardless of whether you view it as a stunning study of female beauty or a problem example of male desire warping women’s image.
13. The Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an iconic painting. However, a few words about why you should see it (and you absolutely should) will help you get excited about an image so common it sometimes seems almost banal. It isn’t the most artistically skilled or beautiful painting at Louvre. Nor is it the most emotional or inspiring. It has a rare combination, perhaps more than any other work, of technical mastery and new artistic techniques. Also, it is the product of a celebrity artist’s provenance. And a fascinating history. Da Vinci was a genius, a polymath and an innovator who changed the world. Each of his paintings is as important as any other because only a few survive. The Mona Lisa was painted using a technique he invented called “sfumato”. He layered layers of semi-transparent paint on top of one another to create the illusion of three dimensions by using light and shadow. It was revolutionary at the time and he created images that no one else could. What a picture! Mona Lisa’s smile has been the subject countless art criticisms, mostly due to the ambivalence it suggests. Is she happy? Sad? Perplexed? Is it a delicious mystery historians love to debate about and will continue to do so in the future. The Mona Lisa was taken in 1911, but it was not recovered for two years. This led to the belief that one of the greatest works of artistic heritage of the world was lost forever. It was luckily recovered, and it enjoys the celebrity status that is reserved for British royalty and pop music stars. It is today the most visited thing at the Louvre. It is best to time your visit so that it coincides with closing time, when there are fewer people.
Continue reading: Why did they move the Mona Lisa? (Plus other fascinating facts about the famous painting)