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A Week to Remember: The Louvre

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
The Louvre Museum at night
The collection of the Louvre includes more than 350,000 objects, of which about one-tenth are on display at any given moment

On August 10, 1793, the Louvre Museum opened in Paris. The Louvre is the world’s largest art museum, and its most visited; more than 9.5 million people viewed its collections in 2019.

The building was built as a fortress during the reign of King Philip II in the late 12th and early 13th century. In 1546, Francis I made it the primary residence of French kings. When Louis XIV chose to make his home at Versailles in 1682, the Louvre took on a museum-like quality, hosting displays of the royal art collection.

During the French Revolution of the 1790s, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be permanently made a museum, a home for the treasures which were now the property of the nation, not of royal families.

The size of the Louvre’s collection expanded greatly during the reign of Napoleon in the early 19th century, largely through the taking of artworks in territory conquered during Napoleon’s military campaigns. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, many of the former owners of those works sought their return. The Louvre’s managers were reluctant to return the art, and many countries turned to England for help in regaining their property. After long negotiations, much (though not all) of the art that had been taken in war was returned to its original owners.

The French kings who followed Napoleon in the 19th century greatly expanded the Louvre’s collection through more legitimate acquisitions. Expansion slowed in the early 20th century, especially after World War I.

As World War II began, the French government began to remove art from the Louvre, hiding it in various estates throughout the country. When war was formally declared with Germany in the fall of 1939, a series of truck convoys began moving the pieces that remained; by December, the only things left in the Louvre were sculptures too heavy to move and paintings that the administrators thought to be relatively worthless. The art was returned to the museum in 1945.

After the war, the Louvre found itself once again involved in the problem of returning art seized during wartime; this time, they were serving as a repository for works that had been taken from French owners. Some 2,000 works were displayed as a collection in the early 1950s, in the hopes that their original owners could be identified. Many of them have been returned to their rightful owners, but the Louvre remains in possession of several hundred works; as time passes, it becomes less likely that they will ever be claimed.

By the 1980s, the number of visitors to the Louvre had grown so large that it was difficult to accommodate them all through the building’s existing entrances. Architect I. M. Pei was commissioned to create a new entry into the museum, and his Louvre Pyramid was completed in 1989. From the glass pyramid in the museum’s central courtyard, visitors descend into the main lobby, and from there ascend into the main buildings. The structure achieved its goal, and by 2002, the number of annual visitors to the Louvre had doubled.

The collection of the Louvre now includes more than 350,000 objects, of which about one-tenth are on display at any given moment. It hosts 15,000 visitors each day, two-thirds of them foreign tourists. The museum has about 650,000 square feet of space, and it continues to expand; a new pavilion dedicated to Islamic art was built in 2012.

The Louvre is owned by the French government, but since the 1990s, it has gradually been asked to generate more of its own operating funds through ticket sales and other revenue; the government now provides only about half of the museum’s annual income. In the last twenty years, the museum has changed its policies, allowing it to borrow from and loan to other museums more frequently.

Two satellite facilities have opened in recent years. The Louvre-Lens opened in Lens, a former mining town in northern France, in 2012; it has room to display about 600 pieces. In 2017 the Louvre Abu Dhabi was opened.

The Louvre
Gardner, James

James Gardner’s The Louvre is a history of the building through its many incarnations, and you can take a virtual tour with a video also called The Louvre. The documentary Louvre City follows the museum and its staff of 2,000 through a typical day.

The Louvre
John J. Sughrue, JR.

The effort to protect the Louvre’s collection during World War II is the subject of Gerri Chanel’s book Saving Mona Lisa, and of the documentary Francofonia. The video series 1000 Masterpieces from the Great Museums includes 10-minute introductions to five of the Louvre’s greatest paintings.

Saving Mona Lisa
Chanel, Gerri

And no matter the topic, there is always a relevant murder mystery, in this case, Elliot Paul’s Hugger-Mugger in the Louvre.

Also This Week

August 12, 1910

Jane Wyatt was born. Wyatt had a twenty-year career in movies beginning in the 1930s; her best known films include the 1937 version of Lost Horizon and 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement. In television, she became an important part of the Star Trek universe when she played Spock’s mother, Amanda, in the original series. And for six seasons, she played Margaret Anderson in the prototypical family sitcom Father Knows Best; most of the series is available for streaming at Hoopla.

August 11, 1942

Actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil received a patent for radio technology designed to keep American radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed by the Germans. The United States Navy didn’t implement their ideas until the early 1960s. The Lamarr-Antheil patent, and technologies descended from it, are at the heart of much of today’s wireless communication. Richard Rhodes tells the story of Lamarr’s scientific career in Hedy’s Folly.

August 12, 1950

August Darnell was born. Darnell was the co-founder of the 1970s swing-meets-disco group Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, whose biggest hit was “Cherchez La Femme.” He went on to lead Kid Creole and the Coconuts, whose music fused salsa, disco, and big bands; they were popular in dance clubs in the early 1980s. Best-of collections for Dr. Buzzard and Kid Creole are available for streaming.

August 10, 1971

The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) was founded. SABR is devoted to the study of baseball history and presents a variety of annual awards to outstanding works of research, history, or biography. They have become best known for “sabermetrics,” the use of mathematical and statistical analysis to better understand and evaluate the game and its players. John Thorn and Pete Palmer are the authors of The Hidden Game of Baseball, one of the seminal books on sabermetrics.