Seven Artworks at the Louvre you should see
The Louvre is one of, if not the, greatest art museums in the world. It contains an enormous collection of artwork that represents the height of human achievement. In these halls, you can encounter paintings and sculpture from around the world and throughout millenia.
It really is one of my favorite places to visit in Paris.
And I’m not alone. Given its unsurpassed collection, it is the most visited art museum in the world, welcoming millions through its door every year.
So what are some of the top artworks at the Louvre?
Let’s look through the collection, stopping at seven of the best the museum has to offer. Of course, there isn’t room to show off all the great work, but these are some of the showstoppers that you have to see when you visit.
1. La Belle Ferronière before the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Ask anyone, “What is the most famous painting at the Louvre?” And the answer is almost certainly going to be the Mona Lisa. It was painted by Leonardo da Vinci over the course of several years (some historians believe he continued working on it for more than a decade).
To many, this is the Italian Renaissance master’s magnum opus. It is a half-length portrait of, most likely, the Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini with several features that make it the most famous painting in the world.
For one, the environment and human form are tenderly rendered, and the facial expression is mysterious, launching thousands of essays that have tried to grasp just what exactly the subject is feeling and what her smile means.
Though Mona Lisa is popular today, it wasn’t until the 20th century that La Belle Ferronière was the Star of the Louvre.
The Mona Lisa reached the status of the most well known painting in the world after her theft. While its notoriety had grown over the 19th century as French intellectuals began to revere Leonardo, the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, along with its return, made it the subject of headlines around the globe.
Today, it attracts crowds who flock to see this enigmatic work by a master at the height of his powers and visitors forget to give tribute to La Belle Ferronière on the way to Mona Lisa.
2. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix
In this inspiring work, Eugère Delacroix gives us a view of politics and history imbued with a classical Greek twist. The woman holding the tricoleur is none other than Liberty in the flesh — shown as Marianne, a personification of the French Republic.
The dramatic composition places Liberty on top of a mound of dead fighters, pointing to the grim price that all upheavals bring with them. But it also contains an inspiring message that those deaths are not in vain.
Despite what many believe, this was not created for the first French Revolution of 1789. Instead, it was painted to commemorate the Revolution of July 1830. In this echo of the earlier Jacobin uprising, the people of France overthrew King Charles X.
Liberty Leading the People has gone on to become one of the most treasured works of the French Romantic school. And Delecroix, already a leading artist when he painted it, further solidified his position with this effort.
3. Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch
Made somewhere near the end of the 2nd century BCE, the Venus de Milo is a celebration of the goddess of love. The exquisite piece is made out of Parian marble — a favorite material for Greek sculptors at the time of its creation.
Standing at a slightly imposing height of 204 centimeters (6 feet 8 inches), the work overwhelms the viewer. It is said to be the embodiment of the Greek ideal, and for that reason, it connects us to the ancient Hellenistic culture.
The sculpture has been a key piece in the Louvre’s collection since it arrived in 1820, after it had been discovered on the island of Milos. France had recently returned much of the artwork Napoleon Bonaparte looted over his many campaigns, and so the country was looking to acquire new works to make it once again the center of European culture.
The French government made a concerted effort to promote the Venus de Milo as the greatest classical sculpture in existence. The effort worked, but only because this work of art lives up to the enormous hype.
4. The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault
This is a painting that no picture can do justice. You really have to see it to believe it. It stands over four meters tall and seven meters wide (16 feet 1 inch by 23 feet 6 inches). That scale is awe-inspiring. Combine that scale with the dramatic subject matter, and you have one of the can’t miss pieces at the Louvre.
Géricault completed the work before he was 30 years of age, depicting the events after the wreck of the Méduse — a French naval frigate that crashed off of Mauritania’s coast in 1816. Stories of the starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism that occurred among the survivors on the raft made for an enormous scandal in France.
The artist began work on the piece two years later, relying on interviews with survivors and a model of the raft that he made himself. The painting helped Romanticism take off in France, though it does retain some features of the Neoclassicism that was still the major school at the time.
Its horrific imagery, larger than life presentation, and absolute mastery by the painter make The Raft of the Medusa a harrowing and important art experience. And you can only really see it in all its glory at the Louvre.
5. Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova
Here, we have another work of art that helped change prevailing European tastes from the refined and balanced Neoclassical to the emotionally poignant Romantic movement. In Antonio Canova’s marble masterpiece, Cupid and Psyche are shown at the dramatic climax of their story — giving viewers a deeply moving experience of love.
The first version was created between 1787 and 1793, a long process that bore plenty of fruit. The fine detail work on both the characters and their setting give the viewer a visual feast to take in.
Unlike many sculptures of the time, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss has no single point that the viewer can take in all elements. Instead, it encourages you to move around it, peek in at all its surprises. That interactivity makes it especially important to view in person.
The majesty of the moment, the incredible delicacy of the details, and the truly three dimensional storytelling make this sculpture a masterpiece. But it is the universal appeal of love that keeps it relevant through the centuries.
6. The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer
While we’ve looked at large paintings and sculptures that stand impressively before the viewer, now it is time to dive into a painting notable for its miniature scale. Vermeer’s The Lacemaker is only 24.5 by 21 centimetres (9.6 by 8.3 inches), with absurdly high detail for such a little piece.
A young woman is bent to her work, one that requires the exact kind of precision that the artist used to paint her. In that way, the form of the painting and its subject matter are perfectly matched.
Vermeer was so good that other artists accused him of cheating. He likely used a camera obscura to view his subject. A camera obscura is made by creating a dark enclosure where a lens projects an image onto a surface.
I do not believe Vermeer used one because of the recent evidence and the x-ray scans of his paintings. It showed no under drawings with mechanical precision but a rudimentary technique of perspective with optical effects, small intentional imperfections and details incorporated in the painting, like the shadows of a nail, a blurred foreground and a broken piece of glass.
The painting of the Lacemaker by Vermeer is a delight to view. The way that Vermeer is able to fit in a scene in such a small space adds to the experience, forcing you to consider it up close, the way you might view thread when making lace.
7. The Seated Scribe
Created with limestone, quartz, and copper, this sculpture from ancient Egypt is a magnificent display of the abilities of artists living and working in North Africa more than four thousand years ago. That incredible distance of time has not diminished the impact of the piece, in fact, it is part of its undeniable charisma.
*Update Oct 2022 - The Seated Scribe is borrowed by Louvre Lens.
While the body is somewhat simplified, the face is highly realistic. The scribe’s eyes pierce forward, and he sits ready to write on his papyrus roll. Red-veined white magnesite is inlaid in the eyes, along with polished rock crystal. The effect is as captivating today as ever before.
The scribe was an important part of the Old Kingdom, the era of Egypt that the work is dated to (though the exact date isn’t known). That the role of the scribe would be immortalized in this impressive sculpture is a testament to the importance the culture placed on writing.
To see it in person is to travel back in time and connect to people who lived and worked, just as we do now.
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