Paris: Behind the Louvre Doors

There’s more to the world’s most famous museum than the Mona Lisa. With some inside knowledge and a well-crafted plan of action, step off the tourist trail and discover this Parisian icon’s hidden masterpieces.

By Leo Schofield
"You're the top! You're the Colosseum. You're the top! You're the Louvre museum." Nothing much has changed since 1934 when Cole Porter wrote those lyrics for his hit show Anything Goes. The Louvre is still the top, one of the largest, oldest and best-known museums in the world. And it is far and away the most visited - almost eight million people passed through the turnstiles beneath the IM Pei-designed pyramid last year, 200,000 of them from Australia.
Saint Petersburg's Hermitage, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden and more modern institutions such as the national galleries in London and Washington have impressive homes and spectacular holdings, but the Louvre is, well, it's the Louvre. It doesn't even need the additional appellation of museum or gallery. As Gertrude Stein might have observed, as she did of the rose, the Louvre is the Louvre is the Louvre.
Like the Hermitage, it was a palace before it was a museum, enriched by the acquisition of vast royal collections - not just paintings but prints, drawings, silver, porcelain, furniture, jewellery, tapestries, sculpture, clothing, antiquities, the works. If man could make it, kings and tsars and princes collected it, and eventually their treasures passed into public ownership, often by way of a revolution. In the case of the Louvre, 1791 transformed the palace of the Kings of France into a palace for the public, opened to all in 1793.
According to its energetic director Henri Loyrette, the Louvre is "a mirror of human existence, passions and sentiments, a world in which we can all find something of ourselves, of our lives, thoughts and deeds". To the millions who flock there annually, it's simply the best art show there is. Behind its lavish exterior are thousands of iconic images - The Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix, Jacques-Louis David's immense canvas the Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I**and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804 and Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa. And, of course, the Louvre has the most famous painting ever created, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, that goddess for whom most visitors make a beeline, often bypassing less-familiar works of art that might surprise and delight them.
Too many people spend too little time in art museums. They do a victory lap of the galleries, then head off to the next destination. But museums demand time if one is to extract maximum pleasure from the experience, and nowhere is this truer than at the Louvre. By all means go and see the Mona Lisa. You should. But don't make it the sine qua non of your visit. There are several thousand paintings and other glorious works to discover. In its own way, the 30cm x 21cm painting by the great 15th-century Sicilian master Antonello da Messina, an anguished head of Christ with his crown of thorns and a rope around his neck, is an equally miraculous image, but it is too often bypassed. There are gates from ancient Babylon, marbles from ancient Greece and Rome and impassive stone figures hailing from ancient Egypt that many visitors never see.
And each curator (they insist on anonymity) has a favourite. Or in the case of Vermeer, two. The great 17th-century Dutch master painted only 34 works in his life (including The Girl with the Pearl Earring) and two are in the Louvre, The Astronomer and The Lacemaker. It's not unusual to see visitors sail straight by these wonderful paintings without a glance. Often overlooked, too, is a small work by John Glover, which shows a tribe of Aborigines dancing round a camp fire at night, painted in the first half of the 19th century.
But the Louvre isn't just about pictures. Ask the curator of jewellery what visitors should see and the answer is immediate: "La parure." A parure is a set of matching jewellery, and it's what Napoleon gave his second wife, the empress Marie Louise, when they married in 1810. It's one of the most fantastic suites ever to emerge from a jeweller's workshop, originally comprising a tiara, necklace, comb, belt buckle and earrings of emeralds and diamonds. In 2002, the Louvre bought the necklace and earrings for $6 million. Today, it's the star of the precious stones and jewels collection.
Sculpture? It's hard to miss the Winged Victory of Samothrace, standing in splendid isolation at the top of a staircase. But again, many visitors walk on by this fabulous three-metre-high marble figure carved circa 190BC, headless but possessed of incredible power as she hurtles into space, her chiton blown back against the body so the powerful legs are visible. Equally awe-inspiring is the ancient pair of Assyrian winged bulls, carved in Mesopotamia.
A favourite object of many scholars on the Louvre staff is the early Cycladic head from Keros, carved in the third millennium BC. At first glance this looks little more than a bland block of stone in the shape of a human head, stark and featureless apart from a tapering nose to imply human inspiration.
These are some of the discoveries to be made in the palace of wonders. So take your time, savour each visual delight. Drift into some of the less-visited parts of the museum. Up a series of stairs in what is known as the Sully wing is a gallery containing pictures from the Louvre's largest and most important bequest, The La Caze Collection, some 583 pictures, a good many of them masterpieces. The canniest of collectors, Dr Louis La Caze, who died in 1869, inherited a fortune from his stockbroker father and bought what was then unfashionable and is now irreplaceable: fabulous works including the finest Fragonard and the ultimate Watteau, one of the greatest Rembrandts and an extraordinary painting by Gerard ter Borch. La Caze collected Spanish pictures, Dutch pictures and grand baroque French portraits, buying whatever took his personal fancy.
Having had his or her fill of pictures, the visitor might experience the decorative arts. Wander through the luxurious Napoleon III apartments where, in a sumptuous black and gold dining room, under coru-scating chandeliers of immense size, the grandees of the Second Republic dined in splendour. There is no public dining on quite this scale in the Louvre but just as it is rich in art, it is also rich in food options. There seems to be restaurants on every side, some cafeteria style, others more upswept and elegant.
Restaurant Le Grand Louvre is an example of the latter, a swagger restaurant complete with mandatory contemporary accoutrements: classy lighting, sleek furniture, beautiful flowers and a full and flashy menu with main courses hovering around the $50 mark. Perhaps more atmospheric is Café Richelieu in the wing once occupied by the eponymous Cardinal.
Here one gets a little more period and a little less Pei, and the menu is simple, the service swift. On the first floor there's an outdoor terrace where lasagne and an espresso come with a hero view of the Paris skyline, Monsieur Eiffel's landmark tower visible between a parapet parade of statuary.
But the finest eating station within this vast complex is Le Café Marly, whose outdoor seating is the perfect vantage point to observe not only the harmonious integration of Pei's perfect pyramid but also the sculptural flourishes, the curlicues, the arches and columns of the older classical buildings that surround it. Run by Gilbert Costes, the man responsible, along with his brother Jean-Louis, for the uber-chic Hôtel Costes in rue St-Honoré and a chain of 50 hotels, restaurants and cafés throughout Paris. Marly has style in spades - from the comfy outdoor banquettes and chairs covered in freshly laundered white canvas, duck-piped in brown, lined up in formation along the tables under the colonnade to the rich, dark interior spaces.
This is a café for all seasons. You can roll up at Marly at 8am for breakfast of coffee, juice and a basket of the best viennoiseries, flaky croissants, delicious pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins, then head for the pyramid and be one of the first through the doors of the museum. Or look at art in the morning, re-fuel here with a mid-morning coffee or a late lunch of a club sandwich or lobster salad with a glass of good wine. Or have afternoon tea, dinner or a late supper - the café stays open until 2am, long after the Mona Lisa and her fellow occupants of this immense treasure house have turned in for the night.
  • Author: Leo Schofield