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The Louvre
Not surprisingly, artists are probably the number one group of patrons trekking through the doors of art museums. In fact, if you go back to the 1700s when the very first museums in the world were opened, they were created primarily by and for artists. Today, no major, self-respecting city in the world is without its signature art museum. Now, imagine a museum wherein if you were to spend just one minute before each objet d'art in its collection, during normal visiting hours, you'd need more than a year to see it all. It's quite literally the biggest, best, and one of the oldest museums in the world--the Louvre. Most people are aware that it is where you'd go to see the Mona Lisa. It also has the biggest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Egypt, the same being true of Japanese, Italian, and Spanish art as well. That's not the case where art from this country is concerned, but it does have at least one token representation by an American artist--Whistler's Mother--resplendent in all his black and grey arrangements.

The Louvre grew up out of the thirteenth century fortress of Philippe-Auguste on the banks of the Seine. It can be seen in the Limbourg Brothers' illustrated book of prayers dating from around 1410 (October). Francis I, in 1546, built a castle upon the remains of this fortress, which had been largely destroyed. And it was the art-loving Francis who first began the core of what was to become the greatest collection of art in the world. He not only collected art, but artists as well, including Rosso Fiorentino, Benvenuto Celini, and of course most importantly, Leonardo da Vinci, who reportedly died in his arms in 1519. And with Leonardo, came the Mona Lisa. The Louvre itself grew during most of the next century, though art collecting was not high on the list of priorities of Francis' successors. Fortunately, in the case of the Cardinal Richelieu and the Queen Mother, Marie de' Medici, it was. Even so, when Louis XIV came to power in 1643 (he was 5 years old at the time), the collection numbered barely 200 paintings. By the time he died in 1715, that number had ballooned to over 2,000.

The Louvre as a museum owes its birth to the French Revolution of 1789, though at various times and for various lengths of time before that, the royal collection housed in the Louvre had been open to first artists and then the French people. But on July 27, 1793, the "Musee central des Arts" was established. The Louvre opened to the public less than a month later, though actually only a small section of the immense palace and only a small number of works were initially on display. The building today is somewhat in the shape of a rectangular letter "U" with the castle of Francis I at the bottom (east end) and north and south wings stretching out parallel to the river running west toward the Tuileries to form a gigantic open court. Designed and build first and foremost as a royal palace, the Louvre, while huge and grand, was never an ideal structure to become a museum. Any building built onto and remodelled dozens of times over the course of five centuries is bound to have its problems. With its many different departments and its maze of nearly identical galleries, the place was (and to a lesser extent still is) a nightmare to navigate under the best of circumstances. The noted twentieth century architect, I. M. Pei, helped. He startled (even outraged) Frenchmen with his new glass pyramid located in the central court, which today comprises the main entrance to the sprawling complex. Even so, visiting the Louvre today is still no Sunday stroll in the park. But given a month of Sundays, one has the opportunity to become at least a small part of the gigantic history of art; here, like no other place on earth.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 November 1999


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