Whilst I absolutely love Leonardo, and agree with Vasari’s assessment of Mona Lisa as the faithful imitation of nature in art, there is a tendency to forget all the other treasures in the Louvre. After all, it is so huge that often visitors do a quick tour of the highlights, and you can easily get lost in there (I know I did last time!). I think I probably have a tendency to do a quick tour of the things I want to see too – having studied art history, most recently a year-long module on Nineteenth-Century French Art, I had a checklist of paintings I wanted to gaze at and see in person after learning so much about them. But at the same time, sometimes it is really nice to wander and see what you can find, and sometimes you can be surprised – my mum suggested we went and had a look at the Dutch paintings, and we ended up walking through a whole floor and on the way found a cycle of huge paintings by Rubens, and when we arrived at Dutch painting found a Rembrandt self-portrait and a Van Dyck painting of Charles I. And that is without even considering sculpture, ancient antiquities and objets d’art. Today I just wanted to write about a few of my favourite other things in the Louvre – but go and explore. Maybe one time, it would be amazing just to walk in and see where you end up, and what you find… it really is that big.
Two of my favourite paintings are actually in the same room as the Mona Lisa. If you wander into the room, facing Leonardo’s masterpiece, marvelling at how much smaller it is than you expected – turn around and face the opposite wall. What you will see is quite honestly one of the biggest paintings you’ll probably have ever seen – Veronese’s beautiful, colourful and bustling Marriage Feast at Cana, executed during 1563. It is roughly 6.8 by 10 metres, which is huge. It is absolutely stunning though, and translates a Biblical story into the language of Renaissance Venetian opulence and pageantry. Venice during the period in which Veronese was painting was incredibly wealthy, the lead trade and bank centre of Europe – it was a major world power. Christ is at the centre of a composition of over one hundred figures, all engrossed in their own activity, whilst the disciples look to Jesus. Veronese truly set the painting in Venice with the framework of Palladian architecture in the background, and included portraits of himself and his contemporaries. I love this painting (and we even bought a jigsaw copy of it for my dad as a present) because the huge size and expressive, bright colours (which would have been expensive, the pigments having being imported from the east) emphasise the flurry of activity; it is far more luxurious and opulent than the austere medieval religious painting (though I love the gold leaf elements to these too – they aren’t far from this room in the Louvre). Our university lecturer once told us he always makes a point of walking right up to the Mona Lisa and turning around to admire Marriage Feast at Cana, because it often gets forgotten about by comparison.
My slightly angled photo of Veronese’s Marriage Feast at Cana
If you walk around the back of the floating wall adorned by Mona Lisa, there are some more Renaissance gems. My particular favourite is by another Venetian artist, Titian: his c.1509 Concert Champêtre. Much smaller than Veronese’s feast painting, the attribution has often been distributed – was it painted by Titian, or Giorgione? Recently it has been assessed as a youthful work by Titian. It is an allegory of poetry, showing man and nature in perfect harmony. The thing I find most fascinating about this painting though is the inspiration it gave to artists centuries after it was executed. This is most notable if you visit the Musée d’Orsay and seek out Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). Manet and Titian are two of my favourite artists, and considering they were working three centuries apart, so I love the fact that Titian inspired Manet.
Delacroix’s big break onto the art scene, the Salon of 1822’s Barque of Dante
Talking of the nineteenth century, Room 77 in the Denon Wing houses some of the most incredible French Romantic paintings; and, side by side, they really show Baudelaire’s words on the movement to be true: “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in a choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling”. In here is Géricault’s 1819 Raft of the Medusa and a range of Delacroix’s work, including his 1822 salon debut The Barque of Dante, his 1830 seeming embodiment of the revolution The 28th July, Liberty Leading the People and my absolute favourite, the chaotic, Rubenesque Death of Sardanapalus, executed in 1827-8 and the only one of his early works not to be purchased by the state. It has elicited diverse art historical readings, including arguments over whether or not he was in support of the Bourbon restoration or not (despite having a profitable commercial relationship with them). It also represents a window into a wildly romantic imagination combined with literary passion (Delacroix loved Byron) and also a deep interest in classicism – a despotic ruler looks dispassionately over the chaos he has instigated, with an indecipherable perspective.
Slightly blurry but the still amazingly chaotic Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix
I don’t know what it is I love about looking at art, and what makes me obsess about the Louvre. But I can promise that you could never get tired of the Louvre – it is so diverse and represents so many movements, cultures, objects, mediums… I’ve only mentioned a couple of my favourites here (which means there could be room for plenty of more posts about other ones!) but you could run to thousands of words on the treasures in there. The neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David and Ingres, Michelangelo’s marble statues of the Rebellious Slaves, the tiny and intricate Lacemaker by Vermeer… again to name but a few. You can literally explore and adventure through time and territory in there.
- I wish every single museum would do this, but as with many of the big museums in Paris (and, to be fair, some of the ones in London are opening later too!), the Louvre opens late one evening; on a Wednesday, it opens until 9.45pm, so you can spend a gorgeous evening perusing the galleries – it just makes it seem a lot more enchanting!