The Louvre is by far the biggest museum in Paris as well as the most visited museum in France. Whether it’s the permanent collections or temporary exhibitions, the Louvre is home to thousands of works of art including magnificent examples of painting, sculpture, Egyptian antiquities, and Islamic art.

Each masterpiece, from the Winged Victory of Samothrace to the Venus de Milo, is worth a look. There are few museums in the world with such an impressive collection.

You can find the Louvre in Paris’ 1st Arrondissement, by the Tuileries Garden and the Tuileries Palace. It’s the most popular cultural site in France, visited more than the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

Superprof recommends these works of art should you find yourself  in the Louvre Museum.

The Famous Mona Lisa

There’s no other museum in the world that has a piece as famous as the Mona Lisa by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci.

La Joconde’s enigmatic smile hides more than a few secrets, one of them being a tenuous connection to America.

Putting the Italian word ‘Mona’ under the microscope, we find that this is a polite way of addressing women; sort of like ‘Ma’am’ or ‘My Lady’ in English. It derives from the Italian term ‘ma donna’.

Where can you see the Mona Lisa?
You'll struggle to get close to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre but it's worth it. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Italian art connoisseurs refer to this work as Monna Lisa; this spelling of the diminutive is much more accurate than the version with the dropped ‘N’ so common in our language.

There is a good reason Italians prefer this spelling: ‘Mona’, in some Italian dialects, is considered vulgar; a slur. Its translation is ‘monkey’.

Monkey Lisa? Maybe English speakers everywhere should add that extra ‘N’…

The subject of the painting and its artist both being of Italian blood and the work having been painted long before anyone in Europe knew about America, what is the Monna Lisa’s American connection?

In the Heidelberg University library lies a printed volume written by the Roman philosopher Cicero.

In the margin of that book, next to an entry detailing the artistic skill of Ancient Greek painter Apelles of Kos, is a handwritten note that da Vinci’s skill at painting is at least as great as that of the Greek artist. It goes on to state that Leonardo was painting Lisa del Giocondo at that time.

It was this bit of text, discovered in 2005, that gave us conclusive proof this painting is indeed a work of Leonardo da Vinci.

The author of that marginal note was Agostino Vespucci whose cousin, Amerigo, was the first European to set foot in the Americas, which are named after him.

Ah, the secrets behind that Monna Lisa smile!

This jewel of Renaissance art is essential if you find yourself visiting the Louvre. The painting was acquired by Francis I of France following the artist’s death since the king was his patron.

This piece has been a source of inspiration for those who came after da Vinci. The technique used, the smile, the look, the background, have all intrigued viewers for centuries.

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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

The Coronation of Napoleon is a piece produced by Jacques-Louis David, a French neoclassical painter, between 1805 and 1807.

The piece shows Napoleon I, the Emperor of France, being crowned at the Notre-Dame de Paris. You can see Napoleon crowning Empress Josephine having just been crowned himself by Pope Pius VII.

This tableau is huge, no doubt to underscore the magnitude of the event it depicts. Measuring more than six metres by almost 10 metres, the canvas has plenty of room to depict the majesty of the occasion in full splendour.

Another momentous aspect of this work is how much time it took to create.

Napoleon commissioned it in September 1804 but Mr David did not start even the preliminary sketches until more than a year later. He and his student, Georges Rouget, worked on it for more than two years before showing it at the Spring Salon in Paris.

It made another appearance at the Salon in 1810, this time as a decennial prize submission. And then, Mr David kept it for another nine years before finally transferring it to the French Royal Museum.

Even then it was not displayed. Kept in storage for 27 years, it was finally installed in the ‘Chambre Sacrée’ of the Versailles Palace museum.

In 1889, The Coronation of Napoleon finally took its place at the Louvre.

You might wonder why Napoleon Bonaparte, a vainglorious man not generally known to be tolerant or generous would permit such a delay in receiving a work he had commissioned, and why Jean-Louis David kept the huge canvas rather than turning it over to any official.

For one, the French emperor was rather incendiary; he got in a lot of political trouble and was often the target of assassins. He also loved a good fight; his military campaigns were frequent and legendary. Perhaps he simply had no time to enquire about his coronation painting.

Napoleon died in May 1821. He had been living in exile since December 1815 on the island of St Helena. During that time, he was allowed no gifts that bore any semblance of his status as an imperial. Likewise, nothing denoting his rise to power would be displayed.

Such a shame! The painting is remarkable in its symbolism and detail; a true neoclassical treasure.

This isn’t the only time a French emperor appears in a piece in the Louvre; there’s a portrait of Napoleon III painted by Winterhalter from 1853.

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Tragedy, agony and cannibalism make this a tableau of terror
This ill-fated raft depicts all of the agony and tragedy of the shipwreck Source: Wikipedia Credit Theodore Gericault

The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault

"The Raft of the Medusa" by Géricault, like many other pieces in the Louvre, shows an imposing scene. The painting features the shipwreck of the frigate Medusa, a French colonial vessel which sank in 1816 near Mauritania.

Of the 147 aboard, only 10 survived. This piece depicts the hopelessness in the ensuing starvation, dehydration, madness, and cannibalism.

It’s not surprising that Theodore Géricault would choose such an encompassing theme; it covers everything that fascinated him, save horses.

Mr Géricault was enamoured of equines and, while pursuing the sport, sustained such severe injuries that they contributed to his early death. He also suffered from chronic tuberculosis; the two conditions caused his gradual weakening.

But, brush in hand, what a talent he was!

He could paint horses so lifelike you might expect them to snort or whinny. His landscapes and portraits, painted in neoclassical style are so true to life that you might converse with that person or walk into that paysage.

What fascinated our young painter was the study of humanity.

Emulating da Vinci in his morbid fascination of the human body, Géricault visited morgues to observe the stiffness of rigour mortis and capture the exact hue of dead human flesh.

He brought severed limbs home to record their decomposition and, once, kept a decapitated head on the roof of his studio that he painted over and over again.

The consensus was that he was one to be avoided at all costs.This judgement and its resulting treatment of him by society led to a deterioration of his mental health.

Oddly enough, that proved beneficial for this young artist who, toward the end of his life, painted a series called Les Monomanes, also known as Portraits of the Insane.

As profound as The Insane are, his greatest, most ambitious work remains The Raft of the Medusa.

This piece helped inspire other artists including:

  • William Turner
  • Eugène Delacroix
  • Gustave Courbet
  • Édouard Manet

The piece was purchased by the Louvre in 1824 shortly after the artists' death.

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

Created in 1830, this piece depicts the French civil war and Revolution (the July Revolution) with armed citizens marching behind a woman, the allegory of liberty. The bodies on the ground show the violence in the conflict and the importance of the uprising.

When Eugène Delacroix took brush in hand to paint this tableau, he was already an established artist; a leader of the French Romantic school of art – a sharp contrast to the perfection and rigidity of neoclassicism.

He was just coming into his own when the Age of Enlightenment was evolving toward new ideas and styles of painting. Mr Delacroix eagerly fell into the practice of colour brushed freely onto canvas; he eschewed the brand of academic art most of his contemporaries embraced.

He was fast friends with Théodore Géricault but rather than seek out the macabre for inspiration, Delacroix hunted the exotic.

His body of work includes several nude compositions as well as mythical scenes and even fictional characters such as Desdemona and Hamlet. Also prancing through his portfolio are tigers and jaguars, an Arabian Fantasy and Women of Algiers.

Despite his apparently extensive travels – the the Americas to paint The Natchez people, to Morocco to paint a few scenes and to Greece to accurately depict the ruins, his heart was forever French.

While painting Liberty, he wrote to his brother: “And if I haven’t fought for my country, at least I’ll paint for her.”.

The idea of Liberty is an important part of 19th-century history and achieving it through armed combat often seemed the most effective way.

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Who painted Liberty Leading the People?
This, unsurprisingly, is a popular piece in France. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“We only have one freedom: the freedom to fight for freedom.” - Henri Jeanson

It wasn’t until 1874 that the piece was transferred to the Louvre where it became one of the most visited pieces. It’s often thought of as a symbol of the French revolution and the French democracy.

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The Wedding at Cana

The Wedding Feast at Cana is a painting by the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese from 1563 depicting the biblical story from the New Testament in which Jesus transforms water into wine. The piece includes biblical characters and Venetian contemporaries from the 16th century.

The monks from the Order of Saint Benedict commissioned the enormous painting to cover the rear wall of their newly-constructed refectory at the Basilica San Giorgio Maggiore.

Mr Veronese would be paid 324 ducats for his efforts and be fed in the monastery. The commission contract further stipulated he would be paid for his personal and domestic expenses and be provided with a barrel of wine.

With help from his brother, Mr Veronese delivered the painting as specified and, for 235 years, the painting adorned the wall it was meant for.

Napoleon’s French Revolutionary Army seized the tableau as war plunder, cutting it into manageable pieces and rolling it up like a carpet for the long voyage to Paris. After the Napoleonic Wars ended some 17 years later, Pope Pius appointed sculptor Antonio Canova to negotiate the painting’s repatriation.

Vivant Denon, the French museum’s curator argued that the canvas was too fragile to undertake such a long journey; the Italian negotiator then abandoned any thought of collecting the painting.

Denon didn’t exactly tell the truth.

In its more than 450 years, this painting has been rolled up, crated and shipped all over France to keep it safe during various wars. Clearly, it could not have been that fragile.

The Louvre finally made good on their debt to Italy in 2007 by contributing to a digitised replacement of this tableau, which now hangs in its original spot.

The Wedding at Cana is considered one of the artist’s most important works. However, it isn’t the only piece to depict this story. Giotto, Gérard David, and Giuseppe Maria Crespi have also painted it.

The piece can now be found in the Louvre, just opposite the Mona Lisa.

François I of France by Jean Clouet

King François I of France is represented by Jean Clouet, painted in 1530. This king was one of the biggest patrons of the arts in the early-modern era; he played an important part in the Louvre’s history having acquired pieces such as the Mona Lisa.

François I funded artists to affirm his power and display his appreciation for the arts; Jean Clouet was only one of a stable of painters in his court, albeit none quite as curious as he was.

A bit of mystery surrounds this artist, specifically his provenance.

Court records of the second year of this king’s reign detail that Mr Clouet was indeed employed as a court artist. However, later records of a land deed bequeathed to his son uncover the fact that Mr Clouet was not French, nor had he ever been naturalised.

Of course, it was quite common to have painters from other lands become court painters. The controversy stems from the land escheat.

Although a large body of work had been attributed to Jean Clouet, there was doubt that any piece of it was his because none of the sketches or paintings was signed.

However, the discovery of the Portrait of Guillaume Budé, along with a text written by Budé himself that states Clouet painted his portrait helped to identify the artist’s style, permitting the authentication of his works.

The art community can now say with authority that Jean ‘Janet’ Clouet was a brilliant and prolific miniaturist who excelled in painting portraits.

Incidentally, there are also other French monarchs in the Louvre including Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis XVIII.

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Who painted The Grand Odalisque?
Ingres' work is a blend anatomical realism and feminine beauty. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Grande Odalisque

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is probably one of the most famous French painters of the 19th century. His piece La Grande Odalisque from 1814 is an example of the quality of his work.

The piece was commissioned by Caroline Murat, the sister of Napoleon I and the queen consort of Naples. However, with the fall of the Empire, the queen never paid the commission.

During his long career, Mr Ingres endured much acclaim and many pitfalls. Besides not getting paid, La Grande Odalisque might have been the work that saw him heaped with scorn and derision.

The most alarming aspect of this tableau is the concubine’s proportions. Her left arm is far shorter than her right, her back is improbably long and her pelvis is twisted in a way that would be impossible for even a contortionist to replicate.

And then came the lighting. The distorted figure is uniformly toned from the soles of her feet to her expressionless face. Said one critic, upon reviewing it at Paris’ 1819 Salon: “It has neither bones nor muscle, neither blood nor life.”

Despite harsh criticism, La Grande Odalisque was hailed as Mr Ingres’ first step toward exotic romanticism.

Ironically, he viewed himself as the defender of academic orthodoxy in art, opposing the nascent Romantic style of painting. His work being hailed as romantic must have been a cruel blow to him.

With no live model so improbably proportioned, he drew on works of Giorgione and Titian for the reclining pose while the figure’s over-the-shoulder look came from his mentor, Jacques-Louis David’s work titled Madame Récamier.

The artist created several other famous pieces:

  • Bonaparte, First Consul (1803-1804)
  • Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806)
  • Jupiter and Thetis (1811)
  • Roger Freeing Angelica (1819)
  • Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx (1827)
  • Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville (1845)
  • The Princesse de Broglie (1853)
  • Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII (1854)
  • The Turkish Bath (1859-1863)

Ingres employed a neoclassical style which made his pieces veritable works of art and is now carefully cared for in the Louvre.

New York's MET museum also has great exhibitions!

The Card Sharp with the Ace of Diamonds by La Tour

The Card Sharp with the Ace of Diamonds is a painting by the French painter Georges de la Tour, painted in 1636-1638. As one of this French artist’s most famous pieces, it is a must-see Louvre attraction.

The painting depicts 3 people playing cards and a servant. It’s clear that one of them is planning on cheating since they’re hiding the ace of diamonds behind their back. However, the servant could easily reveal their secret.

De La Tour was inspired by Caravaggio's themes, including that of the cheater as well people seen from this particular angle.

If any word or phrase could define Mr de la Tour, ‘contradiction’ would be it.

He painted mostly religious scenes but this work, known as The Cheater in French depicts a decidedly secular theme. His early work is painted in the style of Caravaggio but he didn’t learn those techniques in Italy and, while he was reportedly quite prolific, very little of his work remains.

Those canvases of his that have survived were often mistakenly attributed to Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, himself a mostly forgotten artist until his works were rediscovered in the 19th Century.

For all that de la Tour's work has gone mostly unrecognised for centuries, he must have been a more than adequate artist. He was titled ‘Painter to the King’ and was often commissioned by landed gentry to paint for them. However, his bread and butter came from local wealthy patrons.

Perhaps his lack of renown is due to the epidemic that killed him and his entire family. With no one left to promote his work, he fell into obscurity as dark as his later chiaroscuros.

If you find yourself in Madrid, check out the great art in the Prado.

The History of Alexander (several pieces) by Charles Le Brun

The History of Alexander is a series of works by Charles Le Brun depicting the epic of Alexander the Great including his war against Darius and the Persians.

This monumental work is made of several distinct pieces:

  • Battle of the Granicus (1665)
  • Entry of Alexander into Babylon (1665)
  • The Battle of Arbela (1669)
  • Alexander and Porus (1665-1673)

His Alexander series represents the pinnacle of his achievement but they are not the sole testament to his renown.

His remarkable artistic talent earned him many accolades, among them the title of First Painter to the King. He was also made Chancellor for life at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the king made him a nobleman.

In 1668, he was named Rector in Perpetuity of the Royal Academy of Painting in Paris. That was after he became the founder of the Academy of France in Rome.

One doesn’t make such headway in the art world without knowing how to wield a brush.

When he was just 11 years old, he was ‘discovered’ by the Chancellor of France, who placed him into an apprenticeship under Simon Vouet. He earned his first commission from Cardinal Richelieu when he was 15, garnering the attention of premier Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin.

Is it any wonder that King Louis XIV declared Charles le Brun the greatest French painter of all time?

Le Brun didn’t just paint royalty and the Antiquity, he also painted religious themes, mythology, military and historical themes, as well as producing a large number of drawings.

Find out more about the great piece in the Musée d'Orsay.

When did Daniele Ricciarelli paint David and Goliath?
If you thought you'd seen it all, you should check out the other side of this piece. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

David and Goliath

This painting on slate by Daniele Ricciarelle, also known as Daniele da Volterra, is an interesting piece as you can enjoy both sides of it.

The artist wanted to show the power of painting by freeing it from the two dimensions of the canvas. At the same time, you can see the story from the Old Testament whereby the Hebrew David defeats the Philistine Goliath.

Daniele almost missed the recognition he so richly deserves for this unique Mannerist creation.

Until its restoration, it was thought to have been a Michelangelo piece – an honest mistake seeing as Daniele de Volterra trained under this great master.

De Volterra's initial foray into the art world belies his success as a painter.

As a boy, he was sent to train under two Sienese masters. Records indicate he was not well-received. He soon decamped, presumably for Rome - his brushwork has been identified in the frescoes of the Massimo Palace which were painted in 1535.

And then, he met Italian artist Perin del Vaga. Through working with him, Mr de Volterra became friendly with Michelangelo’s cohorts, which ultimately led to a productive partnership of sorts, with Michelangelo using his influence to secure commissions for his young friend.

No doubt that they enjoyed long conversations over concepts in art, of which this unique piece was surely conceived.

After this quick virtual trip around the Louvre, you’ll probably want to see these masterpieces for yourself, as well as objects from Mesopotamia, the famous Carrousel du Louvre, and the glass pyramid that also acts as the museum's entrance.

Entry is free the first Saturday of each month so it might be worthwhile planning a trip to Paris then as you can enjoy the decorative arts on a budget.

If you can't make it to the Musée du Louvre to enjoy its many exhibits, you can learn more about art history from one of the many talented private tutors on Superprof.

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