It is time to bust the Louvre myth, despite how alluring it is to romanticize the Louvre’s origins — rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the French Revolution — to became the art museum’s paragon. How gratifying it is to tell a story about a deposed king’s art collection rehung in his vacated palace. How satisfying it must be to link the museum enterprise with the French Revolution’s progressive ambitions. If only that was the full story. Certain inconvenient truths about the Louvre can no longer be relegated to specialist literature. These untweetable nuances and uninstagramable complexities need a hearing.
The bottom line is that when the Louvre Museum opened in 1793, several forms of essentialism were ensconced into the art world’s psyche. About 228 years later, curators still cherish these essentialist sacred cows — above public cries for cultural and social justice. As a contribution towards understanding why the calls of many BIPOC, #MeToo, and other activists committed to decolonizing the museum go unheeded, let’s revisit the Louvre’s unvarnished story. Why does it still cast a shadow over today’s museums?
Soon after King Louis XVI‘s coronation in 1774 he directed his advisors to go on an art buying binge to fill perceived lacunae in the royal collection he inherited. The king and his courtiers aspired to transform the Louvre palace into a museum that trumpeted France’s grandeur and supremacy. They did not care to be outdone by recently opened museums in rival countries (more on that soon). In the late 1770s, the French crown’s agents fanned out across Europe, buying coveted paintings and sculptures from dealers and at auction. When the market for a desired artist ran dry, they were not above pressuring churches and monasteries to sell. During this time, some 200 old master paintings entered the royal collection. Approximately 1,000,000 livres were spent — a gargantuan sum at the time. A comprehensive collection emerged of the “best” specimens of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and French painting, among other schools. After the king was guillotined on January 21, 1793, the Louvre opened on August 10.
Perhaps King Louis XVI might have lived longer if he fed his people instead of rapaciously buying art. But the King was locked in fierce competition with the Pope, the Holy Roman Empire (neither Holy, nor Roman), and various aristocrats in England, modern day Germany, and elsewhere to acquire art. Big structural changes unfolding in the world, beyond the scope of this essay, put enticing art on the market. Monasteries were dwindling and broke aristocratic families were selling family heirlooms to shore up their fortunes. What better way to flaunt your wealth amidst this upheaval than a new comprehensive art collection reflecting the emerging historicizing discipline of art history? A toxic mix of moxie, rivalry, and shifting wealth inspired Louis XVI to go big. The French were going to do it bigger and better than everyone else.
In Florence, Italy, the Uffizi Gallery was undergoing a dramatic reorganization. In 1765, the newly coronated Grand Duke of Tuscany, Peter Leopold, decided to live in Florence and focus his energies there. One of his major initiatives was turning the Uffizi into the premier painting gallery of Florence. Over the next few decades, masterpieces that once were scattered at various old Medici palaces were all moved to the Uffizi, vastly improving its holdings and centralizing the grand duke’s collection under one roof. Arms, armor, scientific instruments, and other curio were sent away, narrowing Uffizi’s focus into an art museum. In 1780, the grande duke created a commission to formally reorient the Uffizi towards Italian paintings and sculpture, and away from the antiquities and rarities that had intrigued earlier generations. The DNA of today’s Uffizi results from his plan. Further acquisitions from prominent families as well as churches were made to present a more complete picture of the school of Florentine painting. This cabinet of ancient paintings roughly began with Cimbaue and Giotto di Bondone and ended with Masaccio and Paolo Uccello.
The goal of this new chronological hang was to concretize the ideas in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists (1550) in a physical installation, and to reveal a chronology of progress. Meanwhile, the cabinet of modern sculptures showcased the Florentine school of sculpture — Donatello, Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, and Giambologna. Some prized Greek and Roman statues remained in the new space. Another motive was to keep artworks in Tuscany. Foreign aristocrats were more than happy to purchase them from Italian nobles fallen on hard times. By the time of the reorganization was completed in 1782, the Uffizi offered the most systematic presentation of Italian art ever seen in one space. The French did not care to be outdone.
In Rome, Pope Clement XIV was reorganizing and expanding the Vatican’s art collection. Art’s sumptuousness clashed with this Franciscan pontiff’s spartan simplicity. Jokes satirized him as “the Protestant pope.” With mounting pressures on Italy’s patrician families to sell their antiquities to foreigners, it became clear many revered statues many would go abroad unless the Vatican ponied up the money to keep them in Italy. So in 1770, a new Vatican museum was founded to house its growing cache of antiquities, which later became known as the Pio Clementino Museum. The ornate space was soon projecting the enduring power of the papacy, which the French were keen to counter.
The Pio Clementino was formed in part because the Capitoline Museum had no more room. Established in 1733, the Capitoline Museum is technically Europe’s first art museum. It was likewise created to keep antiquities in Rome. Pope Clement XIV’s predecessor, Pope Clement XII formed the museum in 1733 by purchasing an extensive collection of Greco-Roman statuary from Cardinal Alessandro Albani. These ancient works were then put on display in the Palazzo Nuovo on the Capitoline Hill. It opened to the public in 1734, becoming what scholars now recognize as the first museum of its kind. The collection soon grew beyond antiquities, and by the 1770s it was out of space. The museum’s lack of chronological organization doesn’t fit many modern definitions of an ordered collection, so it’s seldom extolled as the first art museum, which it actually is.
Other smaller museums — east of Paris — opened over the course of the 18th century. But these spaces largely reflected an aristocrat’s idiosyncratic tastes and did not offer systematic presentation of art history. In 1709, the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm commissioned a new building for his growing art collection in Düsseldorf , which was eventually opened to the public. In 1747, the collection of the Elector of Saxony was moved from Dresden castle to the stables building and soon opened to visitors. In 1751, a separate building for the art collection of the Wilhelm VIII of Hesse-Kassel welcomed viewers. In 1776, Archduchess Maria Theresa opened up the Hapsburg art collection at Vienna’s Belvedere palace to the people. In 1792, a museum opened its doors to everyone in Stockholm, presenting the Swedish royal art collection.
If so many museums opened before the Louvre in 1793, why do commentators incorrectly baptize the Louvre as the first art museum? The answer lies Louis XVI’s brute success in gathering exemplars from every lauded European school of painting and sculpture. No other museum had yet presented such a complete, comprehensive, and chronological picture of European art’s development. The Uffizi limited itself to Florentine art and antiquities. Every other existing collection was motley by comparison.
It is often overlooked that the Louvre closed soon after it opened. The first hanging was too haphazard and jumbled. In 1794, the Louvre reopened with a new hanging that was rigidly chronological, separated according to national schools. For the first time, the great ambition of many intellectuals and art historians to present a comprehensive timeline of European art history in a physical gallery had been realized. It was widely heralded moment. An ulterior revolutionary motive here was to distance works from their aristocratic or religious origins by embracing the chronology’s objectivity.
It might seem unfair to scapegoat the Louvre, when underlying shared ideologies of taxonomy and Eurocentrism are in play. And yet, nearly every institution seems beholden to the Louvre’s 1794 moment. “Look what the French pulled off; let’s prove we’re as good as them” was one rallying cry for founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, as well as others. The Louvre set the bar that many are still using to measure encyclopedic art museums. Under their watches, curators still aspire to fill perceived gaps in a collection with better works, leaving it more comprehensive than they found it. Yes, it’s broadened to include non-western and non-white artistic traditions that were excluded in 1794. Nevertheless, the premise remains to present an artistic essence of every national school deemed worthy. Debate rightfully ensues about who is in and who is out. However, is it not deeply fraught to reduce art to representative samples of a national school, or to a dot on the timeline of a highly nationalized art history? Are we obscuring artists’ original aspirations and what audiences first thought and felt before these works?
It gets even worse when attempts are made to incorporate BIPOC artists into this tendentious framework. These artists are inevitably turned into spokespersons for their races. This formula works out decently when artists set out to explore their otherness. Meanwhile, when BIPOC artists pursue other artistic, literary, or poetic vistas beyond their dances with identity, those works are seldom seen. Why don’t they fit in? The art historical meta-narrative subsumes all art, converting them into specimens of their cultural moment. No wall tag can fix this. The problem is the hanging itself and the logic it engenders.
To criticize the timeline of art history is controversial. Yes, there are undeniably stylistic differences between Italian Renaissance art, the Dutch Golden Age, and the Spanish Baroque. However, they all depict the Virgin Mary. Why group according to national racializing styles instead of affinities of form or subject matter? It is an old story that the Tate Modern has for many years subverted chronology in favor of thematic hangs. It is old news that MoMA is also bending the rules to juxtapose Faith Ringgold and Pablo Picasso. But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Let’s accelerate the pivot away from the chronological, nationalistic, and racializing timelines and hangings.
The legacy of the Louvre’s 1794 moment was lingering in the background of the recent imbroglio at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Selling works by Andy Warhol, Brice Marden and Clyfford Still was perceived as slaughtering sacred cows because the end result would be a less perfect and less representative timeline. Never mind that the “Last Supper” series was Warhol at his most copycatish, ridding on Leonardo’s coattails to make a point that hasn’t aged well and no longer seems profound. Nor would have parting with the Still or Marden deprived visitors from seeing the arc from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism given other holdings in the collection. But the perfect timeline can not be sacrificed.
Only when museums are relieved of this perfectionist pressure to display the best possible art by the best possible artists from every chapter of art history will breathing room emerge to address inequality and prioritize justice. Tragically adhering to the comprehensiveness doctrine, Glenn Lowry is keeping Leon Black on MoMA’s board. Getting Edvard Munch’s “The Scream of Nature” (1893) and other treasures trumps justice. Aren’t Black’s suspiciously high payments to Jeffrey Epstein out of character for a man who notoriously drives a hard bargain with everyone else? Doesn’t MoMA already have enough? Nagging feelings of inferiority before an unobtainable ideal hold museums back. Do viewers even want or need the perfect timeline during their visit? Posterity will judge Lowry harshly. He’s got more in common with Louis XVI than he thinks. Do such quasi–enlightened ends justify the mendacious means? What if the ends aren’t as enlightened or necessary as they think? Chris Bedford is challenging all museums to let go. Sometimes heeding calls for justice means letting gaps be.
It would be an error of omission not to name how deeply Napoleon’s Louvre further scarred art history by normalizing looting. In 1794, the revolutionary army began to confiscate artworks from northern European countries they invaded and sent them back to the Louvre. In 1797, the Treaty of Tolentino stipulated that the Laocoön Group as well as Apollo Belvedere would leave Italy and be reinstalled at the Louvre in Paris. Between 1798 and 1801, a campaign in Egypt looted numerous Egyptian antiquities and brought them to the Louvre. Napoleon smashed the moral compass that once pointed towards allowing works of art to remain in their countries of origin. Popes had self-interestingly pushed these moralizing arguments for centuries to preserve the draw of tourists to Rome. Taking that moral high ground now meant missing out. So in 1801, Lord Elgin began removing marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, and shipped them off to London. If he didn’t do it, the French soon would have anyway. In 1803, the Louvre was renamed the Musée Napoléon, taking on the role of trophy hall of conquests as its timeline of art history grew even more perfect. After Waterloo, the Museum eventually reverted to its old name and returned many but not all of the looted objects. But the damage done lingers to this day. For the next two centuries, museums engaged in numerous Machiavellian exploits in the pursuit of creating more comprehensive and perfect collections. If MoMA doesn’t take Munch’s “The Scream”, someone else will. It’s a race to the bottom.
The Louvre played a major role in normalizing several forms of racism and essentialism still haunting art museums today. Obviously, others have also perpetrated harm but it can’t be avoided that the Louvre led the way and set the bar. Instead of white, fragile responses defending the Louvre as a product of its time, it’s time to atone, move on, move forward, and evolve. How can any discipline take itself seriously when it clings so ardently to 18th century ideas? It’s time to release the grip of the Louvre’s 1794 hanging. Comprehensives is overrated. The quest for the best in every category can longer define progress. It is time to embrace new vistas, new hangings, new goals that actually honor the motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.