On this date in 1793, the Louvre opened its doors to the public as the first true art museum. Today, more visitors walk through its doors than those of any other museum in the world. From the Mona Lisa on down, the Louvre defines what a comprehensive, survey museum should be. Traveling there can be daunting for any art lover, overwhelmed by all the choices and unavoidably lacking in enough time to see them all. Since its opening, nearly every great artist has made a pilgrimage to the Louvre to commune with art history itself. Born of the pillaging of the Napoleonic wars, the Louvre has more than paid for its original sin through its continual inspiration to artists and art lovers.
My strongest memory of the Louvre isn’t of the Mona Lisa itself but the mad dash to get there. Everyone puts that on the top of their list and becomes hell-bent on seeing it to the exclusion of everything else. Almost all the signage from the moment you get inside directs you to Da Vinci’s leading lady. Sadly, while hot on the trail, people rush by such wonders as The Nike of Samothrace (above). Annie and I actually took a moment and paused near the Nike, which is much bigger than I imagined. Soon, however, the magnetic pull of Mona called and we joined the rest of the sea of humanity flowing towards her. The Louvre fairly recently moved the Mona to a larger room to accommodate the crowds, which now pack into the equivalent of a human cattle chute and slowly churn towards the eternal masterpiece. The rate of the flashbulbs increases exponentially as you get closer, blinding you slightly. The tininess of the Mona Lisa seems almost absurd when you finally do get close enough to appreciate it. Both the physical and peer pressure of the crowd encourages a quick perusal—another cultural landmark checked off a list—but I tried to look at it with “fresh eyes,” as if that was possible post-Pater and post-Da Vinci Code. As I’ve said before, the Mona Lisa underwhelmed me, but that’s more me than her. A lifetime of hype can never be erased by a moment in a museum.
After enduring the Mona experience, Annie and I wandered around looking for some other favorites. I found it amusing that other Da Vincis in the collection just a room away went relatively unnoticed by the crowds. Even the grand, epic Davids gathered small crowds or none before them. In a museum as huge as the Louvre, it was ridiculously easy to find wide open spaces to look at and appreciate the art. Here and there, individuals, many who appeared to be students, stopped and looked at the art in a way that intimated that they were artists or truly loved art. I only allowed myself a moment of people watching, but I wondered what great future artist might have been in our midst that day. One of my favorite works by Degas shows Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, leaning on her umbrella and scrutinizing a masterpiece—a great artist painting another great artist contemplating yet another great artist. In the religion of art history, the Louvre is the Mecca for all pilgrims seeking enlightenment.