The Louvre Museum: History & Facts

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Louvre is among the most important museums in the world and is an ever-evolving architectural and historical landmark. Learn more about how it went from a royal domain to a symbol of the French spirit.

What is the Louvre?

The Louvre is one of the most famous art museums in the world, located in Paris. While the objects that the Louvre houses showcase the span of human history, the building itself serves as a superb study of the last 500 years of French history. The building is a showcase of not only French political life, but also the reverence given to the arts.

Early History

The Louvre was originally a castle built by one of the first kings of France, Philip II, during the 1100s. According to linguistic analysis, there is some evidence to prove that the Louvre may be the site of a previous hunting lodge, but this is in question. At any rate, throughout the Middle Ages, French kings added to the site, making the building substantially larger.

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the French kings began to take a greater interest in the arts, buying numerous pieces, including the Mona Lisa. Louis XIV, after moving to Versailles, even opened the Louvre as a court exclusively for his favorite artists. Careful to store their newly acquired valuables, few could think of a better location to stash the masterpieces than the Louvre.

The Mona Lisa is the most famous work at the Louvre
Mona Lisa

French Revolution

By the end of the 1700s, trouble was on the horizon for the French kings. While the French people at large had demanded, among other requests, access to the artwork (as the British had just established the British Museum the same century), the king gave them access to only a handful.

Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the first acts of the French Revolution was the transformation of the whole of the Louvre into a new museum for all to enjoy. Also, during the Napoleonic Wars, pieces from abroad were brought back to Paris, including Laocoon and His Sons. Such action would cause problems once France had lost those wars, as many of the works were forcibly removed from the museum by the governments of their original countries.

Laocoon and His Sons
Laocoon and His Sons

Nineteenth Century

Despite the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Louvre remained a public point of pride, and the government made a point of further expanding the collection. It was during this time that Venus de Milo, among the most famous works of classical statuary, would arrive at the museum.

Even throughout the turmoil leading to the rule of Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s, the museum's collection continued to grow. By this point, the Louvre had started to solicit more private donations. Among the most generous would come from the Rothschild family of financiers.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo

The last 100 years

With the threat of war with Germany present throughout much of the early 1900s, the Louvre was unable to gain new items for its collection at the rate that it had once done. Days before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, French trucks were already escorting the best work of the Louvre away from Paris. Hidden away throughout houses in rural France was an incalculable wealth of art spanning the whole existence of human history. Only a few statues were left to the Germans.

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