THE first of the museums of the world, is the probably undisputed rank of the Louvre. There are others, certainly, that possess individual treasures more valuable perhaps than any among its collection. If it can claim the Venus, London has the Parthenon fragments. If the Victory of Samothrace stands guard within its portals, Olympia still keeps the Hermes, and Rome holds the Mercury, the Apollo Belvedere, the Torso, and the Laocoön. Even its collection of paintings, rich, wonderful and tremendous as it is, does not for the most part contain the greatest works of the greatest masters. None of its Raphaels can compare with the Sistine Madonna or the Vatican frescoes. Michelangelo, of course, can only be known in Rome. Leonardo, indeed, is there almost at his highest in the Gioconda, but Milan claims the Last Supper. Titian’s Entombment, and Man with the Glove, are not far from its greatest expression, but Rome has his Sacred and Profane Love, Florence his Venus, and Venice his Presentation of the Virgin, to mention only these among their many. The most wonderful productions of Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck are in other galleries. And so it goes. Of men of both earlier and later date, Italy, rather than Paris, retains their masterworks. Yet, if many of the unapproachable creations of the artistic world are not found in the Louvre, it does possess an unrivalled collection of representative and noble works of almost all the great painters of all time. It is this general and very unusual excellence, joined to its vast numbers, that puts this museum at the head of all European galleries, and makes a thorough study of it a study really of the art of the world.
The picture-galleries of the Louvre are on the first floor, and occupy a part of the western side of the old quadrangle, and then continue with the Salle Lacaze, into the Salon Carré, and from there through the Galerie d’Apollon to the end of the Rubens room, which fills the long gallery over the rez-de-chaussée of Catherine de’ Medici and the Napoleonic additions of the southern wing of the Louvre. With these are the three rooms opened in 1903, which are in the second story, beyond the Musée de Marine.
It may be well to say here that besides its collection of paintings, within the Louvre are galleries of drawings, engravings, ancient sculpture, sculpture of the middle ages and the Renaissance, modern French sculpture, Assyrian antiquities, Egyptian antiquities, Greek and Etruscan antiquities, the Algerine Museum, the Marine Museum, the Ethnographical Museum, a collection of enamels and jewels, the Sauvageot, the Campana, the Oriental and Le Noir Museums.
Containing now almost three thousand works, the picture-gallery has grown to such proportions through centuries of effort. To François I. is due the first inception of the art collections of the Louvre. This sovereign acquired, during his Italian wars, a decided artistic taste, which he proceeded to satisfy in a truly royal manner. Since France had no great artists, he would import into that country all whom he could persuade to leave their sunny Italy. Leonardo da Vinci was the most famous of those, but his greatest work had been already accomplished before he found in the French court a refuge from his troubles. Besides him and Andrea del Sarto, François succeeded in getting various others of lesser fame, and his court was a veritable Golconda for all artistic talent. When he could not induce the painters themselves to leave Italy, he ordered great numbers of works from them. Leonardo’s Gioconda, and Virgin of the Rocks, Raphael’s Holy Family and St. Michael, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Visitation, and Andrea del Sarto’s Charity, were among those he purchased, and they are to be seen at the Louvre to-day. Not only did he care for paintings and sculpture, but he developed a fondness for all sorts of objects of art and antiquity, such as bronzes, medallions, jewels, cameos, intaglios, etc. At one time he brought from Italy 124 antique statues and reliefs, and a great number of busts. It was at Fontainebleau, where the new school of art under Italian influences was begun, that he stored his acquired treasures. The collection received little addition till the time of Louis XIII. A writer in 1692 said that this king found forty-seven paintings in his cabinet. Many of the valued gems of François had been dispersed, no one could say where. Among those mentioned at the close of the seventeenth century were two by Andrea del Sarto, one by Fra Bartolommeo, one by Paris Bordone, fourteen by Ambroise Dubois, two by Clouet, four by Leonardo da Vinci, one by Michelangelo, which was the Leda, since destroyed, three by Perugino, two by Primaticcio, four by Raphael, three by Sebastiano del Piombo and one by Titian.
These had been increased to about two hundred when Louis XIV. came to the throne. At his death the cabinet held more than two thousand. Colbert, he who discovered Perrault, the architect of the colonnade of the Louvre, was also the minister who brought about such an enormous increase to the royal collection. He spared neither time, pains, nor money in adding to it, and gave its care and direction to the painter Le Brun.
The banker Jabach, of Cologne, had acquired a large part of the art treasures of Charles I. of England, and had transported them to Paris. Ruined finally by his love of the beautiful, he was obliged to sell at a great sacrifice. Part went to Mazarin, and part, mostly drawings, was bought by the King of France. At the death of Mazarin, Colbert purchased for Louis XIV. all the objects of art left by the minister. These consisted or 546 original paintings, 92 copies, 130 statues, 196 busts, etc. Other acquisitions made in various ways and various countries included works of masters not in this or Jabach’s collection. For awhile the king’s cabinet was taken over to Paris and lodged in the Louvre, in the very place where, more than a century later, the Convention created and organized the National Museum.
The Mercure Galant of December, 1681, gives this account of the opening of the gallery : ” On Friday, the 5th of the month, the king graced Paris with his presence, and carne to the old Louvre to visit his cabinet of pictures. It is in a new apartment near the splendid gallery called ` Galerie d’Apollon.’ . . . What is called the cabinet of his Majesty’s pictures, in the old Louvre, comprises seven large and very high halls, some of which are more than fifty feet in length. Besides those, there are four others in the old Hôtel de Grammont, that adjoins the Louvre . . . Among the greatest of the pictures are sixteen by Raphael, six by Correggio, ten by Leonardo, eight by Giorgione, four by Palma Vecchio, twenty-three by Titian, eighteen by Paolo Veronese, fourteen by Van Dyck, etc.” So that one would say, even while it held Napoleon’s spoils, the Louvre was scarcely richer in the works of the masters of the Renaissance.
Not long, however, did it keep these marvels. Louis wished them where he could see them oftener, and where his view would be undisturbed by the public. He there-fore moved most of them to Versailles, where they were scattered in different rooms, and were of little use for the instruction of artists or public.
During the reign of Louis XV., a critic, La Font de Saint Yenne, discoursed loudly against this burying of these great treasures of France, and claimed they should be put where the people might have a chance to see them, and where artists and students could study them. Four years later this was really done under orders of the Marquis de Marigny, director of buildings, he who attempted to restore the Louvre to something of its original noble estate. He charged Bailly, guardian of the pictures of the king, to put them into the apartments of the Luxembourg, which the Queen of Spain had occupied. Here, on October 14, 1750, were opened to the public about one hundred and ten pictures. Few as the number, they represented at least the most valuable part of the king’s entire collection. On Wednesday and Saturday the public in general were granted admittance. Other days were reserved for artists and students. On the same days and hours Rubens’s Medici gallery was also open.
Up to the time of Louis XVI. the collection remained divided, part in the Luxembourg, another and much larger part at Versailles. At the Louvre, meanwhile, were about ten thousand drawings, and in the Galerie d’Apollon, which served as a studio for six protégés of the king, were the Battles of Alexander, and certain other pictures of Le Brun, Mignard and Rigaud. This continued till 1775. About that time Comte d’Angiviller, director of the palaces, wished to collect all the great works in painting or sculpture owned by the king, and to put them all into the Louvre. The writers of the day highly praised his plan, especially M. de la Condamine. But nothing was actually done, and, the Luxembourg being at the same time given over to other uses, the pictures were all taken back once more to Versailles.
It was left for the Revolution to act upon M. d’Angiviller’s suggestion. The National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, the Convention, one after another dealt with the question, and finally carried it out as far as they were able. The Louvre was called first the Muséum de la République, then the Muséum Français, and the Musée. Central des Arts. It was opened to the public November 8, 1793. It was doubtless a good deal of a helter-skelter placing, in rooms where there was no proper arrangement. The painters still retained their studios, and everywhere remained the confusion and dirt of the old days. Etienne Délécluse, who was a pupil of David, and later critic of arts of the Débats, gives a vivid description of the deplorable state of affairs both within and without the building.
Meanwhile the city of Versailles had seriously objected to losing its art treasures, and for some time the collection that was opened in the Louvre lacked many of the masterpieces which were there. ” It was not till the month of ` Thermidor,’ year II., that Varon, a member of the Conservatoire, or board of trustees of the museum, obtained the delivery of these pictures.” It is interesting to note that the Republic subscribed one hundred thousand livres per annum for the purpose of buying pictures exposed at private sales in foreign countries, or which were likely to go there, a sum considerably larger than the budgets of later times have allowed for such purpose.
This interest in preserving and adding to the art treasures that France, having guillotined their owners, could claim for her own, is the more amazing when one reflects upon the times which gave it expression. Almost, one is tempted to say, it was the only sane, creditable, and intelligent act of that entire bloody reign.
After Napoleon’s wars, the museum was named for him, and well it might be. From Italy, Holland, Austria, and Spain came the caravans of precious objects which he had pillaged. Immense wagons, carts, vans of every description were laden with boxes and bales to the number of thousands. As they were landed from the ships on the Seine, the Parisians swarmed over the quays in vast herds, greeting each new arrival with cheers. The huge crates were all marked with the names of their contents, and as one after another was carried away, the crowds would fall in behind, screaming a welcome to the pictures or statues, and escort them in triumph to the Louvre. These processions have been likened to Caesar’s triumphal returns to Rome, laden with the spoils and captives of his conquered countries. Rather, perhaps, to our modern vision do they suggest a mammoth circus parade, where, instead of the fearsome inscriptions of Lion or Tiger upon the great travelling arks, one might read, ” Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin,” ” Miracle of St. Mark, Tintoretto,” ” Descent from the Cross, Rubens,” ” Communion of St. Jerome, Domenichino.”
It is not at all to be wondered at, after the allies had finally overthrown Napoleon, that France bitterly objected to returning all these treasures to the countries from which they had been taken. She claimed that many had been ceded in the treaties of peace after Napoleon’s Italian wars, and as such were for ever hers. They were not pillage, she asserted, but honourable fruits of Napoleon’s victories. So reluctant were the directors of the museum to loosen their hold on these gems that all sorts of expedients were resorted to. Pictures and statues suddenly disappeared. Records as to where certain objects came from were lost; and when a country claimed this or that, the government stoutly maintained the impossibility of proof that it ever belonged to the nation claiming it. More than one foreign city and state sent in final desperation envoys to England or to Wellington, asking his aid in the recovery of their old-time possessions. And they did not ask in vain. In almost all important cases France was forced to disgorge. The priceless trophies were sent back, and the Louvre was left denuded. To read some of the old accounts of this time, it would seem as if the directors of fine arts, and curators of the Louvre more bitterly mourned this loss of their art spoils than they did the overthrow of the whole country.
To help fill up the vacant wall-spaces, the Louvre took from the Luxembourg the Rubens paintings, comprising the Medici gallery, Le Sueur’s Life of St. Bruno, Ports of France, by Joseph Vernet, and a few more that had been placed there in 1803.
From 1817 to 1824, under Louis XVIII., III pictures were added, costing 668,265 francs. Under Charles X., in six years, twenty-four more were acquired, at a cost of 62,790 francs. Louis Philippe spent at least eleven million francs on the Versailles museum, and the Louvre therefore gained little, costing the civil list only 74,132 francs, with thirty-three pictures bought.
The Second Republic in 1848 voted two million francs to repair, restore, and set up the Galerie d’Apollon, the Salon Carré, the Salle des Sept Cheminées, the Grande Galerie, the halls looking on the river and the halls of the Colonnade. By 1851 the pictures were chronologically arranged as well as possible in the different rooms. About as early appeared Fréderic Villot’s excellent catalogue, still a model. The Louvre had only fifty thousand francs yearly for purchase-money, but the National Assembly added to that sum whenever necessary, sub-scribing one hundred thousand francs at the time of the art sale of the King of the Low Countries, and twenty-five thousand francs for Gericault’s Hunter and Cuirassier. In 1852 the allowance was increased to one hundred thousand francs, and the president of the Republic, by a decree, granted 615,300 francs for purchasing at the Marshal Soult’s sale, Murillo’s Conception.
During the Second Empire, about two hundred paintings of early Italian schools came with the acquisition of the Campana Museum, in 1862. Besides these, from 1854 to 1870 133 pictures were either purchased or donated. This does not include the splendid Collection Lacaze of 265 pictures, which was presented to the museum in 1869. Since then the museum has continued to acquire most valuable works, both by purchase and donation, till, when the end of the nineteenth century approached, it became more and more apparent that the old rooms were all too crowded. For long, the student and artist, and even the tourist, had felt that many of the most important paintings were so badly lighted that any real knowledge of them was quite impossible.
Finally, in 1900, was completed what might well be called a “New Louvre.” Everything was perfectly arranged and accessible. It was possible to go from one room and one department to another without climbing stairs or, as in the old time, being forced to go outdoors from one big court to another to obtain entrance. Schools were hung together, overcrowded walls were thinned down, pictures hidden in dark corners were brought out into easy light and vision. Altogether it became to sight, as it was before in intrinsic value, the ” most splendid and attractive museum in Europe.”
There are still changes that could be made, especially to give the great French collection of pictures more room. M. Sandier, in a recent article in Scribner’s Magazine, points out that to accomplish this it may be necessary to unhouse the Ministry of the Colonies. That accomplished, the western door of the Rubens hall would open into what is known as the Galeries des Gardes, ” a gallery,” says M. Sandier, ” one hundred metres long, leading in a direct line to the Pavillon de Flore. This will then open another entrance to the Louvre, and will connect with the upper story by the great stairway named after its architect Lefuel, with its celebrated ceiling by Cabanel.”
To keep sufficient revenue for the enormous expenses of the museum, the buying and caring for collections, the salaries of officials, etc., the Louvre has the same right as the Luxembourg, Versailles and St. Germain-en Laye. This is called “la personalité civile,” and means that the museum can, like private individuals, ” possess, buy, and sell,” and thus has its own income, and can dispose of its own belongings. This revenue amounts to more than four hundred thousand francs a year. In spite of this it may happen that the Louvre does not have in hand enough money to purchase some important works for its collections. To guard against this, there is in Paris an association called ” La Société des Amis du Louvre,” “whose purpose is to help the museum to the possession of works of great importance, and worthy to appear in its galleries. Already, on different occasions, this association has been of great aid to the museum.”