The Louvre Less Traveled
From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.
Many visitors of the Louvre don’t know that the right hand of Winged Victory sits to the left of the massive sculpture. It’s these looked over pieces of art that are the subject of “Louvre: Secret et Insolite.
I long ago stopped counting how many times I’ve seen the Mona Lisa. The most visited work of art at the Louvre is, alas, at the top of the must-see list of every houseguest on a first visit to Paris.
Mona is surprisingly small (30 by 21 inches), dark and hard to see behind the barriers and bulletproof glass. After a while, she gets — dare I say it — boring. So do the Winged Victory of Samothrace (No. 2 in popularity) and Vénus de Milo (No. 3).
So over the years, I’ve come up with my own Louvre must-see list from the museum’s permanent collection of 35,000 paintings, sculptures, furnishings and objects. And I am always on the lookout for more hidden treasures, an exercise made easier with the publication two weeks ago of “Louvre: Secret et Insolite” (Louvre: Secret and Unusual) by Louvre Editions/Parigramme. People who don’t speak French need not shy away: the 119 works of art are illustrated with color photos.
Who knew that the right hand of Winged Victory sits in a protective glass case to the left of the massive sculpture? The marble statue itself was discovered in more than 100 pieces in 1863, but the hand, which is powerful despite its three missing fingers, was dug up only in 1950. (The tip of her ring finger and her thumb turned up in a storage drawer in a museum in Vienna.)
Michaelangelo’s Dying Slave.
And what about Michelangelo’s two marble nude Slaves, commissioned as part of a grand tomb for Pope Julius II, and not quite finished? The Dying Slave is beautiful, smooth-skinned and young, his elbow raised, his left wrist strapped to the back of his neck; he seems to be in a deep slumber rather than on the verge of death. The Rebellious Slave is heavier, rougher and tormented. They exude such raw eroticism, you feel as if you should turn away.
Then there is the mid-14th-century portrait of Jean II le Bon in profile. It is the oldest French portrait painting of a single individual and perhaps the oldest in Western Europe. It sits alone, little noticed, on the second floor of the Richelieu wing.
So why don’t these works attract bigger crowds?
“There are plenty of secrets to be discovered,” said Daniel Soulié, an Egyptologist and the book’s author, as he led visitors on a museum tour. “Eighty percent of the visitors to the Louvre are neophytes. We want to make them feel like insiders — without making them do homework.”
Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s “View of an Interior or the Slippers.”
Soulié’s most delicious discovery in researching the book is a 17th-century painting by Samuel Van Hoogstraten, “View of an Interior or the Slippers.” The only signs that someone has been in the room are a key in the door, a book on a table and a pair of women’s slippers on the floor, as if the woman wearing them had left suddenly. A painting in the painting shows a father reprimanding his daughter. “The moral value of the picture is important,” Soulié said. “She left her things to do something else. It’s easy to imagine what. I find it the most astonishing work in the museum.”
As for my own discoveries, I never thought of the Louvre as a repository of Impressionist art, many of those paintings having been moved to places like the Musée d’Orsay. But one day I happened on one of the most beautiful Degas pastels I have ever seen — “La Sortie du Bain” — along with a Monet landscape of the Honfleur region covered in silvery snow.
The seldom visited pictures belong to a collection of 65 paintings and three pastels bequeathed to the museum in 1961 by Victor Lyon in honor of his wife, Hélène Loeb. The collection (featured in Soulié’s book) includes works from the 17th century to the end of the 19th century, by painters including Poussin, Canaletto, Van Dyck and Tiepolo. It was given to the Louvre under the condition that it would never be broken up, and given its chronological breadth, the Louvre seemed its best home.
Jean II le Bon in profile.
Another oasis of calm is the long, grand Salle des Bronzes, where most days you can have the collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan bronzes all to yourself. The room was transformed in 2010, when the Louvre unveiled a ceiling painting by Cy Twombly, a 3,750-square-foot work with planetlike circles and the names of some of the most celebrated classical Greek sculptors in Greek letters, set against a rich blue background.
The Salle des Bronzes is a fitting destination for the fashion crowd descending on Paris for fashion week. The ancient gold and bronze jewelry has the elegance of the modern. A fourth-century B.C. gold and bronze crown of delicate laurel leaves would look great worn as a necklace with anything black.
Other overlooked treasures:
• Charles V’s gold scepter carried by the kings on the day of their coronations. Most of France’s royal gold was melted down or disappeared during the wars of religion and the French Revolution. The scepter is a rare exception.
• Vestiges of Khorsabad Palace in what is now Iraq, including a colossal Assyrian hero choking a lion, lifting its head and baring its teeth, depicted on the facade of the throne room.
• Hermaphrodite Asleep, one of the most unsettling sculptures in the Louvre. A second century A.D. Roman copy probably inspired by a Greek original, the work is meant to be viewed from two vantage points. From behind, the figure is a sensuous female nude; the other side reveals male genitalia.
• A white marble sculpture of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, where the American expatriate novelist Edith Wharton met Morton Fullerton, her cad of a lover. Nude and reclining, her right arm wrapped around the neck of a stag, Diana sits atop a fountain in a quiet room up off the Richelieu wing on the main floor.
For the serious armchair adventurer, there is even headier stuff beyond “Louvre: Secret and Unusual”: “Le Louvre Nu” (The Nude Louvre), a coffee-table-size book published by Edition Lammerhuber, packaged in a red satin-lined black box and tied up with black grosgrain ribbons. Some of the most beautiful women in the Louvre are here, but not Mona Lisa.