Paris’s Musée du Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, and has been since it opened in 1793 – minus that great glass pyramid. Over 8-million visitors flock here every year to lay their eyes on the Mona Lisa, and more than 35,000 other works of art.
From prehistory to contemporary works, some 600,000 square feet of exhibition space is packed with cultural wonders, so as you can imagine, it really helps to narrow down what you’re looking for. Here’s what you definitely shouldn’t miss in the Musée du Louvre
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci
Seeing the world’s most famous painting is a pain in the butt, thanks to the crowds who all want to know exactly what it is about this woman’s smile. Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911 and during the two years that she was missing, both the French poet Apollinaire and Picasso were suspects! The drama around the case made her even more famous, and by the time the thief, Peruggia (a former Louvre guard) was caught, the whole world wanted a piece of her. The painting, finished in the early 1500s, is known for its cutting-edge illusionist style. It has been on display at the Louvre since 1797 and you can find it in the 13th-15th century Italian paintings section on the first floor.
Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, Anonymous
The artist behind this painting from the School of Fontainebleau is anonymous and we think it’s even more intriguing because of it. In it are sisters Gabrielle d’Éstrées and the Duchess of Villars, the former of which was a favorite lover of Henri IV. It’s often said that the painting is a subtle hint of Gabrielle’s pregnancy with Henri IV’s illegitimate child – a bit of nipple pinching is a clear indication, apparently. The lady sewing in the background could also be crafting a baby’s layette. What do you make of it?
Venus de Milo, Alexandros of Antioch
This is the Louvre’s second most visited piece of art after the Mona Lisa and it’s just as elusive. The Milos Aphrodite (better known as the Venus de Milo) is an ancient Greek statue discovered in 1820, and it’s also one of the Western art world’s finest examples of feminine grace. But exactly where her arms are, no one knows. It’s been speculated that she may even represent a prostitute, whose arms were once spinning. Spinning was an ancient Greek sex worker’s trade. It’s not like she can defend herself, so we may never know for sure.
The Louvre was once a fortress and home to French royalty, and while most of the rooms are now crammed with art, the rooms enjoyed by Napoleon are intact and as decadent as they were in his day. You’ll be able to tour his apartment in about 30-minutes and it’s well worth a pit-stop. When you see those luxurious loveseats designed for three people, you’ll almost be able to hear the women who once sat there spreading gossip. And you might also picture the illicit kisses that became top secret in the ornate dining room. Ssssh.
The Valpinçon Bather, Jean Auguste Ingres
Anyone with an interest in the human body, in all its shapes and sizes, has pondered over ‘The Valpinçon Bather’ including Lucian Freud and Man Ray, whose famous photo of a female violinist is called ‘Violon d’Ingres’, after the artist. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a French Neoclassical painter and his female nude redefined the form at the time, making him a master of painting flesh. As one of the most influential paintings on the planet, it still shapes how women are depicted in art today.
The Dying Slave, Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Dying Slave, created between 1513 and 1516, is as emotional and complex as his statue of David in Florence – his other most famous piece. With equal parts ecstasy and agony eeking from the statue, it’s a moving thing to look at, and you can see why a book and movie of the same name were produced and became so successful. Michelangelo went straight from finishing the Sistine Chapel to producing this stunning piece, proving his total genius within the Renaissance period and beyond.
The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault
This epic painting measures 5 meters by 7 meters and basically takes up an entire room. It’ll be a moving moment if you find yourself the only one there, so arrive early. Théodore Géricault was just 27 when he painted what became a rather gory icon of French Romanticism, and the painting was born as a result of his study in a series of morgues. Depicting a shipwreck and its survivors resorting to cannibalism, The Raft of the Medusa showed a stunned 17th century audience how far man will go under pressure – something people didn’t really think much about in the days before reality TV, perhaps?
17th and 19th Century Dutch Artists
A bit niche for Paris, and for those visiting Paris in general, but what’s great about this section for 17th and 19th Century Dutch Artists is that you’ll probably have the entire place to yourself. The art is spectacular too – think landscapes with cows, windmills and grass – and the portraits depict a lot of drunk men and women. Or are they stoned? Either way, they’re interesting and it’s nice to have a break from religious paintings and armless statues.
The Medieval Louvre
This isn’t anything arty at all, but it’s definitely a part of the Louvre you shouldn’t miss. Under the museum itself, Medieval Louvre takes you on a fascinating underground walk around the original 12th-century foundations. Step onto a long wooden walkway in a somewhat dark and spooky tunnel and look at the huge exposed stones that hold the whole building up. It’s very calm and quiet down here, not to mention fascinating.
Top tips when visiting the Louvre
- Remember, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. They’re open every other day of the week, but try to arrive as early as possible to see the art with less crowds
- Stay away from the expensive food court in the Louvre and bring your own sandwiches for lunch. There are some nice places to sit and eat, and you can admire the art at the same time