A Morning at the Louvre


This was at the largest and probably most spectacular museum in the world—the Musée du Louvre. It contains 35,000 works of art—many of them priceless. It is an immense treasure.

The Louvre was built by King Philippe-August as a fortress in 1190, but Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor made it his home from 1364 to 1380. In the 16th century Frances I replaced it with a Renaissance-style palace and started the royal art collection with 12 paintings. All of them were from Italy. In those days Italy, not France, was the centre of the art world.

In 1793 the revolutionaries opened up the collection for the masses. When Napoleon took over, soon after that, he converted the palace into a museum. For the people of course. Napoleon knew how to suck up.

We had a short but marvellous tour of the Louvre. This was our hour or two of art—great art. What a pity that we did not have more time. That is one of the problems with tours. They decide what you will see and for how long.

We were accompanied by the guide from our city tour, who turned out to be very good. We enjoyed her commentary a lot. I took some photographs of the art not to get a good replica, just to remind me what I had seen. I include them for what they are worth. Not much.

We started with Egyptian and then moved quickly to Greek art. After that we saw Renaissance art and the art of pre-Impressionists.

It was wonderful to see the amazing development from the solidity and stiffness of the Egyptian art to the Greeks sculptures that seemed to come to life. We stopped to admire the transformation of the ideal into flesh and blood beauty.

We next looked at Greek and Roman art. In describing the truly awesome Venus de Milo (Aphrodite Melos) created in about 150-100 B.C. Helen Gardner put it this way, “Here…the ideal is taken out of the hypersensible world of reasoned proportions and made in to an apparition of living flesh… The feeling as stone has quite surrendered to the ambition of making stone looking as thought it were the soft warm substance of the human body.” [1] Unfortunately we don’t know the name of the great artist who created this masterpiece.

We also saw The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This wonderful statue consists of a statue of a winged female figure—thought to be the goddess Victory on top of a base in the shape of the prow of a ship. The base in turn stands on a low pedestal. The garment flows with grace and seems to almost fly over the skin as light as a butterfly. The sculpture was created about 220-185 B.C. It is a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture.

From the Greek section we went to the Renaissance Art. Unfortunately I have forgotten the title and the artist. What I did remember was the principle. At first in early Renaissance art the portraits showed the models all with the same face. And they were all perfect. No blemishes were shown. They thought that was how it was supposed to be. Eventually artists started to show differences. They showed people with imperfections. That really ushered in the art of humanism. For humans are nothing if not imperfect. Perspective also became important in Renaissance art. Eventully9 they created marvels of perspective. That was something the Greeks and Romans failed to achieve.

One of the masters of Renaissance art was of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. Between 1495 and 1527 the center of the art world moved from Firenze (Florence) to Roma (Rome). That was accomplished by a series of powerful and ambitious Popes Alexander Vi (Borgia), Julius II (della Rovere), Leo X (Medici) and Clement VII (Medici) who together established Rome as the power of Europe. And with that great power came great art. They often go together like love and marriage. Rome became not only the religious capital of Europe, but the artistic capital as well.

Naturally the Popes lived in magnificent splendour. They lived like secular princes in other words. Yet they embellished the city with great art and great opportunities for artists. It was the golden age of the Renaissance, or the High Renaissance as it is sometimes called. This was the age of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. While these artists had learned from the masters of the Middle and early Renaissance they were creative geniuses, who did not shy from breaking away. They were outstanding rebels.

Yet there was also a spiritual element to the High Renaissance. As Gardner said, “The High Renaissance not only produced a cluster of extraordinary geniuses, but found in divine inspiration the rationale for the exaltation of the artists-genius.” [2]

Leonardo was a rebel—like so many artists before and after him. He was gay, left-handed, handsome, and athletic. He was one of the greatest artists in history.

Walter Isaacson, who wrote a recent biography of Da Vinci, called Leonardo “the most curious person in history.” [3] As Helen Gardner said, he was, “A man who is the epitome of the ‘universal man.’ Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) has become a kind of wonder of the modern world, standing at the beginning of a new epoch like a prophet and a sage, mapping the routes that art and science would take.” [4] He documented the human heart, created a portable bridge, an adding machine, solar power, and a double hulled vessel, worked on a flying machine and studied human anatomy. Some have credited him with inventing the parachute, the helicopter and the tank. Besides inventions and art he was interested in mathematics, sculpture, architecture, astronomy, biology, science, music, engineering, history and cartography. Clearly he had enough interests for a legion of people.

Yet only about 15 of his paintings survive but with that small number he has achieved more influence on future art than perhaps any artists other than his contemporary Michelangelo. As Isaacson said, “He died a poor man but left us a world of lessons.”[5]

He was a genius of both science and art. No one achieved such lofty status in both disciplines. It was astoundingly implausible. He used his science to improve his art and his improve his science.

Specifically, he used his knowledge of the science of light to understand how he could use that knowledge to reveal not just the physical condition in which the subject is found, but “the lights and darks of human psychology as well.” [6] Anthony Blunt, described the same process this way, “A good painter has two chief objects to paint—man and the intention of his soul. The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movements of the limbs… A painting will only be wonderful for the beholder by making that which is not so appear raised and detached from the wall.” [7]

Painters have to contend with the uncomfortable fact that “Light simultaneously veils and reveals the forms of things, immersing them in a layer of atmosphere between them and our eyes. The ambiguity of light and shade—familiar in the optical uncertainties of dusk—is in the service of the psychological ambiguity of perception.” [8]

The Renaissance is famous for introducing into painting the concept of perspective. In the Renaissance everything was perspective and no one mastered it more profoundly than Leonardo Da Vinci. This is clear from his world famous Last Supper (which is not shown in the Louvre but in Milan). Perspective however is more than the famous converging lines, but includes subtle use of light and shadow.

Instead we got to see the Mona Lisa. As Gardner said, “If Leonardo’s Last Supper is the most famous of religious pictures, the Mona Lisa is probably the world’s most famous portrait.” [9] Some art critics have focused on her mysterious smile or what Nat King Cole called “her mystic smile” in his well-known song. Gardner pays more attention to the play of light and shadow in the painting. She says it shows his scientific knowledge. He added to Masaccio’s concept of chiaroscuro—the subtle play of light and dark and how they can obscure each other and illuminate each other at the same. The painting is the product of their effect on each other. The penetrate each other. And that creates the miracle of great art. Leonardo was a master of this concept.

Like the Impressionists that came 4 centuries later, Leonardo was enthralled by ambiguity and uncertainty. He was repelled by certainty. That was why he avoided harsh lines in his art, preferring soft gradations of color and even form.

We also saw a painting from another great Renaissance artist that Chris and I got to appreciate from our 3 weeks in Florence. This was Tiziano Vecellio or Titian as we call him in English. Gardner says of him that “He is among the very greatest painters of the Western world, a supreme colorist and, in a broad sense, the father of the modern mode of painting.”[10] He is particularly credited with adopted canvas and its rough-textured surface as a replacement for wood as the typical medium for paintings.

According to Marilyn Stokstad contemporaries said that Titian “could make an excellent figure appear in four brushstrokes.” [11] She also called hi “a true magician of portraiture.” [12] He was most famous for his colours and his paintings of nudes like the Venus that we saw in Florence at the Uffizi Gallery. Stokstad characterized his art this way, “No photograph can convey the vibrancy of Titian’s paint surfaces, which he built in layers of individual brushstrokes in pure colors, chiefly red, white, yellow, and black… His technique was admirably suited to the creation of female nudes, whose flesh seems to glow with an incandescent light.

One of the first works of art we stopped to appreciate, was one by Eugéne Delacroix—one of the supreme artists of France. He was nothing if not extreme. He did not believe in moderation. Instead he delivered the patron on a “a whirlwind journey through the deepest troughs of suffering, fear, despair and to the highest peaks of intense rapture and energy.” [13]

Delacroix, who lived from 1798 to 1863, once wrote, in his dairy “I dislike reasonable painting.” That is why many of his paintings depict extreme scenes of suffering, fear, and despair, while others are filled with a sense of boundless rapture and energy or even tranquility. Reminds me of modern action films with their over-the-top oeuvre.

His art draws on themes from mythology, literature, the mysterious East, and contemporary history, all treated with the same emotional intensity. He was always an extremist.

Delacroix was not a man of the Enlightenment. He was one of the original romantics. To the romantic the “real” is wild nature. It must be untamed. This is how he described the romantic zeal, “It is evident that nature cares very little whether man has a mind or not. The real man is the savage; he is in accord with nature as she is. As soon as man sharpens his intelligence, increases his ideas, and the way of expressing them, and acquires need, nature runs counter to him in everything.” [14]

The romantics were constantly in search of the sublime and the terrible, awe and wonder. They did not seek divine proportions, order, and tranquility as the Classicists did. Delacroix said specifically that he sought “delights in the terrible.”[15]

This art form thought that art should try to stir things up. They wanted art that would electrify. His art was designed to appeal to the populous. Sort of like Donald Trump.

The work of art we saw was one of his greatest namely Death of Sardanapalus that he painted in 1826. It shows grand opera on a colossal scale. The painting is 9’7’’ wide and 6’ 4 1/2’’ high. Delacroix showed the last hours of the king in a tempestuous and crowded setting. Since his armies were defeated he had his most precious possession destroyed. These included his concubines, his slaves, horses, and treasures. If he could not have them, no one could have them. With impressing gloom he watched them die. Who would not be depressed with such a sight? According to Gardner, “the king presides like a genius of evil over the panorama of destruction, most conspicuous of which are the tortured and dying bodies of his Rubenesque women, the one in the front dispatched by a slave almost ecstatically murderous. This carnival of suffering and death is glorified by superb drawing and color, the most daringly difficult and torturous poses, and the richest intensities of hues and contrasts of light and dark. The king is he center of the calamity; the quiet eye of a hurricane of form and color. It testifies to Delacroix’s art that his center of meaning, away form the central action, entirely controls it.”[16]

Another work of art by Delacroix that we enjoyed a lot was his Liberty Leading the People, which he painted in 1830, long after the revolution and long after he was aware that liberty had died in the Revolution. The painting is, according to Gardner, “an allegory of revolution itself. Liberty, a partly nude, majestic woman, whose beautiful features wear an expression of noble dignity, waves the people forward to the barricades. The familiar revolutionary apparatus of Paris streets. She carries the banner of the republic, the tricolor, and a musket with bayonet and wear the cap of Liberty. The path of her advance is over the dead and dying of both parties.” [17] Revolution climbing over the dead bodies. Is this not exactly how revolutions work?

You can barely see the towers of Notre-Dame rising through the smoke. Those same towers we saw a couple of hours ago. This painting does really show the temperament of revolution all right.

Delacroix started the abandonment of the ideal that preceded impressionism. This became important in the afternoon when we visited the Impressionist. Delacroix like the Impressionists that followed him was not afraid to show imperfection. Both wanted to abandon perfection for the real. And the real, is the product of the mind.

Nearby in the museum we also gazed at a painting by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) called Raft of Medusa. According to Gardner this paining was influenced by Michelangelo and Rubens. [18] This painting had a very modern theme for it showed the French ship Medusa laden heavy with Algerian immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. The actual incident like many we have heard about in Europe in the last few years was a tragedy of mismanagement or exploitation and abuse. It caused a scandal in its day. Much more so than many such disasters trigger these days. These days such misery is old hat. It raises not a stir. It only raises cries for bigger and stronger walls. Gardner described the painting this way, “The figures are piled upon one another in every attitude of suffering a despair, and death recalling the foreground figures in Gros’s Pest House. Powerful light and dark contrasts suits the violence of the twisting and writhing bodies. Though Baroque devices are everywhere present, Géricault’s use of shock tactics that stun the viewer’s sensibilities amounts to something new, a new tone of intention that distinguish the second and “high” phase of Romanticism. [19] Apparently Géricault studied actual bodies from the scene to “get the facts” right. He did not want to present any fake news.


[1] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p.176

[2] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 476

[3] Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci (2017)

[4] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 476

[5] Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci (2017)

[6] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p 478

[7] Anthony Blount, Artistic theory in Italy 1450-1600 (1964) p. 34

[8] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p 478

[9] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p 480

[10] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p 524

[11] Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, (1995) p. 709

[12] Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, (1995) p. 709

[13] Musée du Louvre Guide,

[14] quoted in Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 673

[15] quoted in Louise Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 673

[16] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 674

[17] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 675

[18] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 670

[19] Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, (1975) p. 672

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