Museum  May 29, 2020  Peggy Carouthers

An Inside Look at the History of the Louvre

flickr/Hernan Irastorza

One of the biggest and most famous museums in the world, the Louvre is a treasure of the art world, housing works that celebrate nearly two millennia of human culture and history. Yet for all its fame, the Louvre also has a long and remarkable history.

Here are eleven of the most surprising facts about the history of the Louvre.

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An 18th-century etching by Louis-Pierre Baltard shows the Louvre castle from the south and Seine river around the year 1200.

1. The Louvre was Once a Fortress and Royal Residence
Though it’s now known for its renowned art collection, the Louvre began its life as a fortress in the 12th century designed to protect what was then the western edge of Paris. Built by Philip II, the medieval fortress featured a 98-foot tall keep and a moat. It was used to defend the city until Paris grew and other defensive structures were built on the new outskirts of the city in the 14th century. 

In the 16th century, however, Francis I demolished the original fortress and rebuilt the Louvre as a Renaissance-style royal residence. It continued to house the royal family until 1682 when Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles.

Part of the medieval structure can still be seen today in the Louvre’s Salle Basse, built in the 13th century.

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Raphael, Baltasar de Castiglione, c. 1515.

2. The Art Collection Began in the 16th Century
In addition to building the renaissance palace, Francis I was an avid art collector. The art he amassed in the 16th century still makes up a core piece of the museum’s collection today, including works by Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as the museum’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

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Engraving of Henry IV lying in state at the Louvre.

3. Henry IV Attempted to Heal the Sick at the Louvre
Along with many contemporary monarchs, Henry IV, who reigned in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, believed in his divine right to rule. As king, he believed he had the ability to heal the sick, such as those suffering from tuberculosis, through a ritual called the “royal touch.” People who were sick would visit the Louvre, where Henry would anoint them with holy water.

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Titian (1490–1576), Supper at Emmaus, c. 1530.

4. The Palace and Collection Were Expanded Over the Centuries
After Francis’s death, construction on the Renaissance palace continued under Henry II and Charles IX, and the Louvre and the grounds were added onto by nearly every French monarch after them. Some of the biggest contributions to the building and art collection were made by Louis XIII and Louis XIV, known as the Sun King.

Many of Louis XIV acquisitions were purchased from the collection of Charles I of England, who was executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, including The Supper at Emmaus by Titian and Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I.

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An engraving by Jan van Huchtenburg after Adam Frans van der Meulen showing the expanding Louvre in the 17th Century.

5. The Louvre Housed Artists in the 17th and 18th Centuries
As early as 1608 Henry IV offered artists studios and living spaces within the Louvre. His grandson, Louis XIV, continued this tradition. When he moved the royal court to Versailles, the Louvre became a home for artists, who not only lived in the former palace but also copied paintings and created their own works there.

6. The Museum Was Opened by the Revolutionary Government
In the 18th century, art museums were still fairly rare, but driven by its Enlightenment principles, the French revolutionary government opened the Louvre as a public art museum in 1793 with a collection of 537 paintings. After the revolution, France operated on a 10-day week, and the government allowed artists inside the Louvre for the first six days of the week, followed by the museum opening to the public for the next three days. The final day of the week was set aside for repairs.

The museum was forced to close in 1796 due to structural issues, and it didn’t reopen until 1801, when Napoléon had it reopened and renamed Musée Napoléon.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503-06.

7. The Mona Lisa Hasn’t Always Been a Fixture at the Louvre
Though Francis I acquired the Mona Lisa after Da Vinci’s death in 1519 and the painting was at the Louvre while he lived there, the museum’s most famous painting moved among the French royal family’s other palaces, including Fontainebleau and Versailles, for centuries.

When the monarchy was abolished during the revolution, the Mona Lisa was put on display in the Louvre and made part of the museum’s permanent collection. In the centuries since, it has only been removed a handful of times.

First, it was removed because Napoleon wanted to hang the painting in his bedroom. Then, it was hidden for safety during both the Franco-Prussian War and World War II, along with other valuable and moveable works of art. In 1911, the painting was stolen, but it was returned two years later. Finally, in the 1960s, it toured American museums in New York and Washington, D.C. at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy.

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The Seated Scribe from Saqqara, Egypt, limestone and alabaster, circa 2600 and 2350 BC.

8. Some of the Collection Was Plundered by Napoleon
As Napoleon conquered territories and nations, such as Belgium, Prussia, and Austria, he looted many works of art and added them to his collection. Though as many 5,000 pieces were returned to their native homelands after he was defeated in 1815, a few hundred works were kept by France, including many pieces of the Louvre’s Egyptian antiquities collection.

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Nazi Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt seen with a plaster model of the Venus de Milo while visiting the Louvre in 1940.

9. The Nazi’s Reopened the Louvre During World War II
Though conservators had removed all the valuable pieces of art they could from the Louvre and hidden them in private country chateaus prior to the Nazi invasion, the invaders still reopened the museum to the public after occupying Paris. However, the Louvre was nearly empty as only sculptures that were too hard to move had been left behind, many of which were covered in burlap.

Six rooms in the museum were used by Nazis to catalogue and ship art that had been confiscated from wealthy French families, most of which were Jewish.

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10. The Louvre Wasn’t Entirely a Museum Until 1993
Though the Louvre has enjoyed a long history as an art museum, it wasn’t until 1993—the building’s 200th anniversary as a museum—that a wing which had formerly been occupied by France's ministry of finance was finally rebuilt as part of the museum and opened to the public.

The 1988 addition of I.M. Pei’s Pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre had already changed the face of the Louvre. The iconic structure is now recognized around the world. Belying its dramatic look, the pyramid is largely functional, bringing natural light to subterranean offices, and providing a single entrance to unite the three buildings of the Louvre.

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The Louvre complex as seen from Tour Montparnasse, Paris.

11. The Museum and the Collection are Massive
Today, the Louvre houses works dating from the sixth century B.C. through the 19th century A.D. With more than 35,000 works of art displayed at a time, and the Louvre measures 652,300 square feet.

About the Author

Peggy Carouthers

Peggy Carouthers is a writer, editor, and custom content manager based in California. She enjoys creative writing and learning about art and literature. She is passionate about connecting companies with audiences.

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