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Paris’ Louvre, Europe’s Greatest Collection of Art

Paris, France

Touring the venerable Louvre—a royal palace opened to the public by the French Revolution — we admire the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and Mona Lisa. We learn the difference between Neoclassical and Romantic art by comparing examples.

Complete Video Script

The Palais du Louvre was once the palace of the ultimate kings, and the biggest building in the entire world. Today the vast horseshoe-shaped palace, built in stages over eight centuries, with its striking 20th-century pyramid entry, houses the world’s grandest collection of art treasures.

These people are waiting not to get into the Louvre, but to buy a ticket to get into the Louvre. With a city museum pass, I save money and, more importantly, lots of time. Anyone with this pass can walk right in.

Once inside, take a moment to enjoy the modern pyramid entry — a work of art in itself. It leads to three wings. We’ll limit our visit to the Denon wing. The Louvre’s huge collection covers art history from ancient times to about 1850. It can be overwhelming. A key to enjoying your visit: Don’t even try to cover it all. Enjoy an excuse to return.

Remember to look up for a sense of how, long before it was a museum, this was Europe’s ultimate palace and home of its mightiest kings. In fact, the collection includes royal French regalia — such as the crown of Louis XV, and the crown Napoleon wore on his coronation.

This museum is one of the world’s oldest — opened to the public during the French Revolution in 1793. I guess it just makes sense. You behead the king, inherit his palace and a vast royal collection of art, open the doors, and — voilà! — a people’s museum.

The statue of Winged Victory seems to declare that the Louvre’s ancient collection is Europe’s finest. Two centuries before Christ, this wind-whipped masterpiece of Hellenistic Greek art stood on a bluff celebrating a great naval victory.

And, just past her, stands an entourage of twisting and striding statues, each modeling the ideal human form. Venus de Milo has struck her pose — like a reigning beauty queen — for 2,500 years now.

There must be more famous paintings here than in any other museum. The crowded Grand Gallery — while a quarter-mile long — displays only a small part of the Louvre’s collection.

We’ll feature a few paintings representative of three styles: Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romantic.

François I, who ruled through the early 1500s, was France’s Renaissance king. His private paintings became the core of the Louvre’s collection.

It was trendy for kings to have a Renaissance genius in their court — one of Europe’s greatest kings, François I, got Europe’s top genius, Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo’s work epitomized the esthetics of the Renaissance, and the Louvre’s collection of his paintings demonstrates his lasting influence.

His Virgin of the Rocks illustrates his trademark sfumato technique — the subtle modeling of his faces, and, in landscapes, how he shows distance by making it hazier and hazier.

And this portrait, Mona Lisa — believed to be of the wife of a Florentine merchant — is Leonardo’s crowd-pleasing masterpiece. With her enigmatic smile, she seems to enjoy all the attention. Her body is solid and statue-like, a perfectly balanced pyramid angled back so we can appreciate its mass. Her arm — level with the frame — adds stability and realism. And again, Leonardo creates depth in Mona’s dreamy backyard.

For me, this painting sums up the Renaissance: balance, confidence, and humanism — the age when the common individual — Mona Lisa — becomes art-worthy.

Like the museum, Napoleon was a product of the Revolution. One of the Louvre’s largest canvases shows Europe’s grandest coronation: Napoleon’s. The pope traveled from Rome to Paris to crown Napoleon. But Europe’s most famous megalomaniac, crown confidently in hand, pretty much ran the coronation show himself. The pope looks a little neglected.

The French Revolution was all about ending kings…so Napoleon crowned himself “emperor.” The politically correct art style of the time was Neoclassical.

Napoleon would approve of everything in this room. Greek, Roman, heroic, or patriotic themes; clean, simple, and logical — it’s pure Neoclassical. This Parisian woman, wearing ancient garb and a Pompeii hairdo, reclines on a Roman-style couch — perfectly in vogue.

Neoclassicism was an intellectual movement. After all, during the Revolution, everything was subjected to the “test of reason.” Nothing was sacred. If it wasn’t logical, it was rejected. The reaction to Neoclassicism was a romantic movement: “Romanticism.”

Romanticism meant putting feeling over intellect, passion over restrained judgment. Logic and reason were replaced by a spirit that encouraged artists to be emotional, and create not merely what the eyes saw, but also what the heart felt.

What better setting for an emotional work than the story of an actual shipwreck? In Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, we see a human pyramid ranging from death and despair at its base to a pinnacle of hope as one of the survivors spots a ship — which ultimately comes to their rescue. If art controls your heartbeat…this is a masterpiece.

The Romantic Movement championed nationalistic causes of the 19th century. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People shows the citizens in 1830, once again asserting their power and raising the French flag at a barricade in those troublesome back streets of Paris. This painting and that struggle reverberate with the French people to this day.