Louvre Museum: History and Most Important Masterpieces

The Louvre Museum and glass pyramids at night

Noppawat Charoensinphon / Getty Images 

The Louvre Museum was originally constructed over 800 years ago as a fortress to protect the city of Paris from invaders. The fortress was eventually torn down and replaced with a palace that served as the royal residence of the French monarchy. By the 19th century, the Louvre had been transformed into a museum, open to the public. The Louvre Museum is now home to more than 35,000 of the world’s most famous works of art, including the “Mona Lisa,” the “Venus de Milo,” and the “Great Sphinx of Tanis.” 

Key Takeaways

  • The Louvre Museum was constructed by King Philippe Augustus as a fortress in 1190 to protect the city of Paris from foreign invasion.
  • When the protective walls could no longer contain the growing population of Paris, the walls were torn down, and a palace for the royal family was commissioned in its place.
  • By 1793, the Louvre had been transformed into a museum, with the French Revolution facilitating the changing of hands from the monarchy to the national government.
  • The iconic Louvre pyramid was added to the museum during a renovation project in the 1980s to promote a higher visitor volume.
  • The Louvre Museum is currently home to some of the most famous works of art in the world, including the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo”, and the “Great Sphinx of Tanis.” 

The origin of the name “Louvre” is unknown, though there are two theories held by most historians. According to the first, the word “Louvre” comes from the Latin lupara, meaning wolf, due to the presence of wolves in the area in previous centuries. The alternative theory is that it is a misunderstanding of the old French word lower, meaning tower, referring to the Louvre’s original purpose as a defensive structure. 

A Defensive Fortress

Around the year 1190, King Philippe Augustus ordered a wall and a defensive fortress, the Louvre, to be constructed to protect the city of Paris from English and Norman invasions.

The original Louvre fortress.
A rendering of the Louvre museum circa 1500 by the Rouargue Brothers, notable because of the original defensive mechanisms, including the tower and the fortress walls. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the city of Paris grew in wealth and influence, which led to a dramatic increase in population. When the original defensive city walls of the Louvre could no longer contain the growing population, the fortress was transformed into a royal residence.

The first French monarch to reside in the Louvre was Charles V, who commanded that the fortress be reconstructed into a palace, though the danger of the Hundred Years War sent subsequent monarchs to seek safety in the Loire Valley away from Paris. It was only after the Hundred Years War that the Louvre became the primary residence for French royalty.

Before it was converted into a royal residence, the Louvre fortress also served as a prison, an arsenal, and even a treasury. 

A Royal Residence

The Louvre fortress was originally constructed on the right side of the river Seine, the wealthy side of the city where merchants and tradesmen worked, making it an ideal location for a royal residence. While King Charles V ordered the transformation of the fortress into a palace during the 14th century, it wasn’t until King Francis I returned from captivity in Spain in the 16th century that the Louvre fortress was demolished and rebuilt as the Louvre palace. Armed with a desire to regain control over the city of Paris, King Francis I declared the Louvre as the official royal residence of the monarchy, and he used the palace to store his vast collection of artwork.

Rendition of the 17th century Louvre Palace
An illustration of the 17th century Louvre palace. As a royal residence, the palace lost its defensive features over the years, replaced by Renaissance architecture.  Print Collector / Getty Images 

All successive French monarchs added to the palace and its collection of art until King Louis XIV, the Sun King, officially moved the royal residence from the Louvre to Versailles in 1682.

During the Age of Enlightenment, middle-class citizens of France began calling for the public display of the royal art collection, though it wasn’t until 1789 when the beginning of the French Revolution initiated the transformation of the Louvre from a palace to a museum. 

A National Museum

In response to the growing outcry of the French middle class for access to the royal art collection, the Louvre Museum was opened in 1793, though it was closed for renovations shortly afterwards. The museum’s collection grew rapidly as a result of the plundering of Napoleon’s armies during the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the pieces taken from Italy and Egypt were returned after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, but the expansive Ancient Egyptian Collection that exists in the museum today is a result of this plundering.

The Louvre Museum under Napoleon Bonaparte
Military Review under the Empire, painted in 1810 by Joseph Louis Hippolyte Bellange and Adrien Dauzats depicts the early years of the Louvre as museum. Much of the collection was amassed for the museum during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the 19 century. Photo Josse/Leemade / Getty Images 

Over the course of the 19th century, the Royal Academy was converted into the National Academy, turning over control of the museum to the democratically-elected government of France. It was during this century that two additional wings were added to the palace, giving it the physical structure it exhibits today. 

The Louvre Museum During World War II

In the summer of 1939, the Director of French National Museums, Jacques Jaujard, oversaw a clandestine evacuation of more than 4.000 works of art from the Louvre, including the “Mona Lisa.” The following year, Adolf Hitler successfully invaded Paris, and by June the city had surrendered to Nazi control. 

The evacuation took several years, and most of the artwork was first moved to the Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley and later transferred from estate to estate in order to keep the collections out of the hands of the Germans. Though some of the hiding places of the collections were revealed after the war, Jacques Jaujard remained silent about the operation until his death in 1967. 

The Louvre Pyramid and Renovation in the 1980s

In the early 1980s, former French President François Mitterrand proposed the Grand Louvre, an expansion and renovation project of the Louvre Museum to better accommodate increased visitation.

The Louvre Pyramid by IM Pei
The iconic glass pyramid of the Louvre, designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei in the 1980s during a massive renovation and expansion project. Bertrand Rindoff Petroff / Getty Images

The job was tasked to Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei, who designed the iconic Louvre pyramid that serves as a main entrance to the museum. Pei wanted to create an entryway that reflected the sky and made the outside Louvre palace walls visible, even from underground. The final result, competed in 1989, is the 11,000-square-foot glass pyramid with two spiralling staircases that funnel visitors into a vast network of underground passages that lead to different wings of the former palace.

This renovation project also revealed the previously undiscovered original fortress walls, now displayed as part of the permanent exhibit in the museum’s basement. 

The Louvre-Lens and the Louvre Abu Dhabi

In 2012, the Louvre-Lens opened in northern France, featuring collections on loan from the Louvre Museum in Paris with the intention of making French art collections more accessible across the country.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi was inaugurated in November 2017, featuring rotating art collections from museums across the world. Though the Louvre in Paris and the Louvre Abu Dhabi are not directly in partnership, the latter is leasing the museum name from the former for 30 years and working with the French government to encourage visitation to the first museum of this kind in the Middle East. 

Collections at the Louvre Museum

As the Louvre Museum was the home of the French monarchy, many of the pieces currently on display were once part of the personal collections of the kings of France. The collection was augmented by Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Charles X, though after the Second Republic the collection was supplied mainly by private donations. Below are the most famous pieces on permanent display in the Louvre Museum. 

Mona Lisa (1503, estimate)

One of the most famous works of art in the world, the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, has been on display at the Louvre since 1797. More than six million people visit the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa each year. This fame is almost entirely the result of a robbery that took place in 1911, when the Mona Lisa was taken from the Louvre by an Italian patriot who believed the painting should be in display in Italy rather than France. The thief was caught trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Museum in Florence, and the Mona Lisa was returned to Paris in early 1914.

Mona Lisa - Leonardo Da Vinci
Mona Lisa - Leonardo Da Vinci.  Fine Art / Getty Images

Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC)

Representing the Greek goddess of victory, Nike was found in hundreds of different pieces in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace before she was brought to the Louvre Museum. She was positioned as the sole figure on top of a staircase in the museum in 1863 where she has remained ever since. The athleticwear company of the same name used the goddess of victory as inspiration for the brand, and the Nike logo is taken from the shape of the top of her wings.

Winged Victory of Samotrace
Winged Victory of Samotrace. Print Collector / Getty Images 

Venus de Milo (2nd Century BC)

Discovered in 1820 on the Greek island of Milo, the Venus de Milo was gifted to King Louis XVIII, who donated it to the Louvre collection. Because of her nudity, she is thought to represent the Greek goddess Aphrodite, though her identity has never been proven. She is positioned to appear as though she is looking across the other Roman depictions of Venus that appear in the same hall at the Louvre Museum.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo.  Todd Gipstein / Getty Images

Great Sphinx of Tanis (2500 BC)

As a result of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, the Sphinx was discovered by French Egyptologist Jean-Jacques Rifaud in 1825 in the “lost city” of Tanis and acquired the by Louvre the following year. It is positioned strategically as the sole, dominant figure at the entrance to the Egyptian collection of the Louvre Museum, just as it would have been positioned as a guardian at the entrance of an Egyptian pharaoh’s sanctuary.

Great Sphinx of Tanis
Great Sphinx of Tanis.  Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images

The Coronation of Napoleon (1806)

This enormous painting, created by Napoleon’s official painter Jacques-Louis David, depicts the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as the Emperor of France in Notre Dame Cathedral in 1804. The imposing dimensions of the painting are intentional, designed to make observers feel present at the ceremony. It was moved from the Palace of Versailles to the Louvre in 1889.

The Coronation of Napoleon
The Coronation of Napoleon.  Photo Josse/Leemage / Getty Images

Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819)

This oil painting by Théodore Gericault depicts the sinking of a French ship on route to colonize Senegal. The painting was widely considered to be controversial because it depicted tragedy in a realistic, graphic way, blaming the newly reinstated French monarchy for the sinking of the ship, and it featured an African man, a subtle protest against slavery. It was acquired by the Louvre after Gericault’s death in 1824.

Raft of the Medusa
Raft of the Medusa. Heritage Images / Getty Images 

Liberty Leading the People (1830)

Painted by Eugène Delacroix, this work depicts a woman, a symbol of the French Revolution known as Marianne, holding the tricolor revolutionary French flag that would later become the official flag of France, while standing above the bodies of fallen men. Delacroix created the painting to commemorate the July Revolution, which toppled King Charles X of France. It was purchased by the French government in 1831 but returned to the artists after the June Revolution of 1832. In 1874, it was acquired by the Louvre Museum.

Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People.  Photo Josse/Leemage / Getty Images

Michelangelo’s Slaves (1513-15)

These two marble sculptures, The Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, were part of a 40-piece collection commissioned to adorn the tomb of Pope Julius II. Michelangelo completed a sculpture of Moses, the only piece residing at the tomb of Pope Julius II, as well as two slaves – the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, before being called away to work on the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo never finished the project, and the completed slaves were kept in private collection until they were acquired by the Louvre after the French Revolution.

The Rebellious Slave
The Rebellious Slave. Dmitri Kessel / Getty Images

Sources

  • “Curatorial Departments.” Musée Du Louvre, 2019.
  • “Louvre Museum Opens.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Feb. 2010.
  • “Missions & Projects.” Musée Du Louvre, 2019.
  • Nagase, Hiroyuki, and Shoji Okamoto. “Obelisks in Tanis Ruins.” Obelisks of the World, 2017.
  • Taylor, Alan. “The Opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 Nov. 2017.