Friday, August 15, 2014

The Louvre

At the age of 56, and after painting continuously for 46 of those years, and after nearly 28 years of teaching art history, I finally made it to the Louvre in Paris, one of the most historically important collections of art in the world, and where almost 4 centuries of artists from all over the West (and beyond) got an important part of their education.
I made 2 trips to the Louvre while I was in Paris.  The museum, housed in the former royal palace of the French kings, was even more vast than I had anticipated, and I've lived with the huge Metropolitan Museum in New York for over 20 years now.  I got lost in the place twice, and I usually can find my way around museums.

The Louvre itself is a major monument.  It began as 2 royal palaces, as the Louvre, the palace created out of the former fortress built by King Philippe Auguste in the 13th century; and as the Tuileries palace and gardens built for Catherine de Medici in the 16th century.  The Grand Gallery was originally built to connect the 2 palaces.  The palaces were gradually incorporated into a single immense palace by later rulers such as Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Louis Napoleon.  The Tuileries Palace is no more.  It was destroyed in the Paris Commune Uprising in 1871.  The Gardens remain.

Below are my photographs.  They are available to everyone especially educators.  I'm not sure that there is much that would be useful.  My trusty digital camera had trouble with the lighting in the place, and with the fact that so many paintings are under glass; unfortunately a necessary precaution after a lunatic destroyed a major Rembrandt in an acid attack in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg in 1985.

Louis XIV's major contribution to the Louvre before he decided it was too small and built an even bigger place in Versailles, the East Front faces the church of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois, former parish church of the French kings and the place where the bell sounded the signal to start the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of French Protestants.
King Louis loved the grandeur of the Baroque style, but hated the theatricality.  The architect Claude Perrault beat out such a major competitor as Bernini with his very grandly officious four-square design with doubled columns.  It is a very coolly straight-forward first major monument of French classicism; to my mind an admirable if not very lovable building.
It certainly was a very influential building on later architecture throughout Europe and in the USA.

Here is the east entrance to the Louvre in the center of the Perrault Colonnade.

The Cour Napoleon of the Louvre looking west;  this vista was originally closed on the west side by the Tuileries Palace destroyed in the Paris Commune Uprising in 1871.

The Cour Napoleon looking east with IM Pei's famous glass Pyramid.  I don't know what to think of the Pyramid.  I don't hate it as much as some people I know do, but I'm not sure it really contributes much to the Louvre either.  It does work as a main entrance and reference point fairly well, especially since the layout of the Louvre can be very confusing because it was built gradually in several independent sections.  It pays to study your Louvre map and its "pavilions" before going there.  Remember that the Mona Lisa is in the Denon Pavilion and not in the Pavilion d'Horologe.

Interior of the Cour Carre at sunset on a hot summer evening; the oldest part of the Louvre and the site of Philippe Auguste's castle

The newly restored Nike of Samothrace from the 2nd century BC gives visitors a triumphant welcome on the grand staircase.

The Grand Gallery of the Louvre, originally built to connect the old Louvre with the Tuileries Palace; in ages past, this hall was crowded with artists copying the paintings hanging on the walls.  Today, it is crowded with tourists on their way to gawk at the Mona Lisa.

All of the Louvre's Leonardos except the Mona Lisa hang together in the Grand Gallery.  The Virgin of the Rocks is an old favorite of mine, and it was a great pleasure to see it in person for the first time.  The literature describes the painting as having darkened over time; maybe, but I think this painting was probably always dark.  Leonardo painted it in 1494 for a confraternity in Milan dedicated to propagating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for the altar of their chapel in San Francesco Grande.  Leonardo illustrates a popular pious legend of the time that says that the infant John the Baptist lived in the desert under the care of the angel Uriel, and met the Holy Family as they fled to Egypt.  The confraternity apparently did not like the painting offering to pay Leonardo only half of the price agreed to in the contract.  Leonardo sold it to a collector who paid the full price for it.  The confraternity sued, and Leonardo countersued, and the whole mess was in court for years.  A judge ordered Leonardo to paint another version of the painting incorporating changes demanded by the confraternity.  That painting is now in London.
I usually begin my teaching of the High Renaissance with this painting.  It was a major break with painting of the day with its mysterious shadows, figures linked formally and psychologically, and especially the artist's very personal and idiosyncratic interpretation of the subject.
This painting was a little smaller than I expected.

The splendid Christ child from the Virgin of the Rocks.

The mysterious gender-indeterminate angel who points to the infant John the Baptist across the picture, and looks right out at us; the confraternity objected strenuously to this detail.  The angel in the London version is still beautiful, but no longer looks at us so challengingly.

The very beautiful Virgin Mary in the Virgin of the Rocks

The most crowded gallery in the Louvre dominated by a single painting on one wall

The crowds swarming around the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa

The crowds in front of the Mona Lisa;  this painting was always famous.  When it was painted at the beginning of the 16th century, it was hailed as a major breakthrough in portraiture.  For the first time in history, the subject of a portrait actively engages with us looking at her; she sits comfortably, turns to look at us, sees us, and reacts to our presence with the beginnings of a smile.  Now I think the celebrity of the picture feeds upon itself.  It is now famous for being famous, and it is disappearing behind its own celebrity.  It is hard to see this painting with fresh eyes anymore, it is so familiar and part of the furniture.  It is literally hard to see this painting in the Louvre through the crowds, the security, and the layers of bullet-proof glass.
A colleague of mine from the Bronx saw this picture I took of the mob in front of the painting and quoted Robert Hughes, "they came to have seen, but not to see."

Here is my photo of the original.  Mona Lisa smiles wanly at the crowds from behind multiple layers of protective glass, and from across a 4 meter wide no-man's-land patrolled by a phalanx of museum guards and police.  Thanks to Bill Paulsen and his wheelchair, I got as close a look at the painting as it's possible to get, which is not very close.

And there are so many other magnificent paintings in this room largely ignored by the crowds like this splendid Titian

Mona Lisa smiles because she faces this painting by Veronese of the Wedding at Cana, the largest in the museum.  It was painted for the refectory of the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria Maggiore in Venice.  Napoleon stole it when he ended the Venetian Republic and brought it back to the Louvre.  It was one of the few works of art not repatriated after the Bourbon Restoration.
On the one hand, Veronese's work is about as deep as a paper cup.  On the other, it is so beautifully painted.  This painting was admired and copied by artists from Delacroix to Renoir for its vivid and harmonious colors.

According to legend, the musicians in the foreground of Veronese's Wedding at Cana are all artists of the day.  Veronese himself sits to the left dressed in white.  The bearded man whispering in his ear is frequently identified as Tintoretto.  The old man in red on the right playing the bull fiddle is supposed to be the elderly Titian.

Also in the same gallery is this once famous painting by Giorgione, a painting famously parodied by Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe.
My photo did not turn out all that well.

The beautiful little glimpse of twilit landscape in the Giorgione painting

A detail from Watteau's Cythera

What is probably my favorite work by Caravaggio, The Death of the Virgin painted for the Alberti family chapel in Santa Maria della Scala in Rome.  The public and critical reaction against the painting was so intense that Laerzio Alberti who commissioned the painting was obliged to take it down and replace it.  This was the last painting to show the Virgin Mary as dead, not just lying on a bed dying, but dead and laid out on a trestle.  The Roman public was shocked, and critics complained that the Virgin Mary looked like a drowned whore.
I agree with Rubens who enthusiastically admired this painting and urged King Charles I of England to buy it.  It's one of Caravaggio's most focused and humane dramas.  The grief feels genuine in this picture, and never was his tenebrism used so well with such subtlety as in this picture.

Hate to say it, but I'm a big fan of the always demanding art of Nicholas Poussin; here a detail from Et In Arcadia Ego.
There was a gallery full of Poussin's work to admire in the Louvre.

A detail of the dying Narcissus from Poussin's Echo and Narcissus, an early work

The Louvre's brand new gallery dedicated exclusively to Rubens' cycle of paintings of the life of Queen Marie de Medici, wife of King Henry IV.  She commissioned this painting cycle for the Luxembourg Palace, and Rubens worked on it enthusiastically in the disappointed hope that he would get to do a cycle about her much more interesting husband, the recently deceased Henry IV.  Marie was a very mediocre monarch; not especially awful but not particularly great either.  Henry married her for her money.  He spent the royal bounty working to successfully settle the war between Catholics and Protestants in France.  She ruled briefly as regent after Henry was assassinated by a lunatic with a knife in the streets of Paris.  The big events of her reign were her quarrels and reconciliations with her son, the future King Louis XIII.
To our eyes, the whole cycle is ridiculous using a language of allegory and personification that is completely alien to us now.  Rubens probably knew it was all bullshit, but he worked on this series enthusiastically because it was a chance to make a name for himself in history, and because he really believed in the absolute monarchy even if he didn't believe much in Marie de Medici.
Of course it's all bullshit, but was bullshit ever more spectacularly well painted?  Even that famously ambivalent skeptic Delacroix admired these paintings enough to copy them repeatedly.

The most famous detail from Rubens' Marie de Medici cycle, the celebrating sea goddesses from the painting of Marie's arrival in Marseilles; splendid flesh magnificently painted by the acre.

Probably my favorite painting by Jan Van Eyck, the Madonna of Chancellor Nicholas Rolin, painted for his family chapel in a church in Autun that no longer exists.  I was surprised by how small this painting is.  Jan Van Eyck must have used a microscope to paint it.  An even more amazing and beautiful painting in real life.

My attempt at a detail shot of the magnificent morning landscape filled with sparkling light out the window in Van Eyck's Rolin Madonna; one of the first great landscapes in Western art and still among the greatest.

A detail of Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox, paint laid on thick in strokes worthy of DeKooning, only not abstract, but describing slabs of raw meat, and implying all kinds of tragedy.
There are a lot of great Rembrandts in the Louvre, but the Bathsheba was not up when I was there; a rare disappointment.

The second largest painting in the museum after Veronese's Marriage at Cana, David's painting of Napoleon's coronation; all the figures are life-size.

Neo-Classicism is so gay.  A detail from Guerin's Aurora and Cephalus.  The only one of the Neo-Classicals with heterosexual bona fides was Ingres.

Some Jacques Louis David details;  here the dramatic center of the Oath of the Horatii; David painted great hands.  David may have been an ideological fanatic and a son of a bitch, but what a great painter he was in his prime!

A weeping servant from David's Lictors Bringing Back to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons

A detail from David's unfinished painting of Madame Recamier; she complained that David did not paint her famous dark hair dark enough, so she abandoned the commission.  She got an inferior painting by Gerard instead.

Madame Recamier's daring bare feet from David's unfinished portrait

A detail from Gericault's Raft of the Medusa showing his studio assistant/lover Jamar sprawled out with legs akimbo; the young Delacroix posed for the figure lying face down on the right.

Another detail from Gericault's Raft of the Medusa showing auburn haired Jamar from the back; the painting is about a current event of the day, the shipwreck and surrounding scandal of the Medusa on its way to west Africa loaded with hopeful settlers and Africans on their way home.  The ship hit a reef and began to sink.  The high paying passengers and officers who were nobles and the beneficiaries of political patronage took all the life boats.  The ship's carpenter built a raft out of the ship's timbers for the remaining passengers and crew, about 130 people.  The officers in the lifeboats decided to make for shore and cut the ropes to the raft.  The raft was set adrift for 9 days during which the passengers in desperation turned on each other and even resorted to cannibalism.  In the end, there were only 15 emaciated survivors covered with sores rescued.  The painting shows those survivors (looking quite healthy) spotting the rescue ship for the first time.  It then disappeared for several hours, but showed up again to save the survivors.  The incident was a big scandal for the restored Bourbon monarchy, and Gericault made this huge painting as an indictment.

Spotting the rescue ship from Gericault's Raft of the Medusa

Delacroix's Sardanapulus, based on a poem by Byron; a much bigger painting than I expected, full of sex and violence;  the poem describes a fictional Assyrian king who was cynical and besotted with luxury, who finally roused himself to do his duty and defend his kingdom from invaders.  When he was defeated, he committed suicide by burning himself to death on a funeral pyre with all of his luxuries.  The slave girls and horses about to be killed and put on the pyre are entirely Delacroix's invention.

A detail from Delacroix's Sardanapulus

Details from Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, another painting inspired by contemporary events, in this case, the Greek struggle for independence.  The Turks retaliated for the Greek declaration of independence by massacring the population of the island of Chios and selling the survivors into slavery.

Detail for Delacroix's Massacre at Chios

Another detail of doomed Greeks from Delacroix's Massacre at Chios;  I'm finally beginning to appreciate what a fine painter Delacroix really was.

Delacroix's most famous painting, Liberty Leading the People; a painting full of ambivalent feeling upon close examination.
A magnificent painting that gets better and better as I get to know it over the years.  It was a great pleasure to see this painting in person.

A detail of Delacroix's Liberty

Another detail of Delacroix's Liberty that should give us pause.

One of the beautifully painted dead soldiers at the foot of Delacroix's Liberty.

Another dead soldier from Delacroix's Liberty

The pistol waving kid who seems to be out front of Liberty in Delacroix's painting.

I only saw a part of the Louvre.  I deliberately concentrated on painting this trip.  I did not try to see all of the museum, although trying to cover most of the painting collection was exhausting.
I missed the museum's sculpture collection, and its celebrated ancient art collections.  I will just have to save those for a future trip.


Leonard said...

It all gives me pause...some even leave me breathless. Thank you for the tour.

Gerrit said...

Robert Hughes, "they came to have seen, but not to see."

Indeed. Recently saw a photo where almost no one was looking at poor Mona, as everyone was taking selfies with the painting as background.
When I was at the Uffici, in 1990 I think, I had the big room filled with Botticelli's all for myself, while a crowd stood in front of the Birth of Venus.
Re the hand with swords in the Oath of the Horatii: the man is holding three swords, weighing some 15 or 20 kilo's. He is holding not the hilts, but the blades. Your hand will be sliced in two.

JCF said...

"critics complained that the Virgin Mary looked like a drowned whore": says more about the critics than Caravaggio.

Seeing the "Winged Victory" reminded me of this: ever see "Funny Face"? (La Audrey at her most GORGE!)

Delocroix awesome? Doug, I could have told you that! [And yes, in "Liberty Leading", my eyes go exactly where you'd guess they would. ;-)]

Never heard about that "Raft of the Medusa" incident before. Not unlike what happened, what, 60-70 years later? (Titanic)

I think you were right to take your time, and leave the rest for later. Thanks for sharing, Doug!