What to see at the Louvre: The Masterpieces

What are the must see-paintings and sculptures at the Louvre? To answer this question read through our selection of must-see masterpieces you won’t want to miss on your next visit to the Louvre.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1517)

When an elderly Leonardo da Vinci moved to France on the invitation of Francois I in 1516, he brought with him what was to become one of the most famous paintings in the history of art. What is it that draws the crowds in their thousands to this mysterious portrait? Is it her enigmatic smile? Perhaps it’s the legends that have been inspired by her? Whatever it is, the Mona Lisa has the kind of celebrity that has become an enduring part of her appeal. If we forget about her celebrity and try to look at her with fresh eyes, however, the painting will reveal some interesting clues about who she might be. She is dressed simply, meaning she is not aristocratic. Her hands are free from jewellery, which may mean she has swollen fingers - a sign that she was pregnant. The background appears to be fantastical or imaginary. It is thought that the landscape was invented by Leonardo and does not correspond to any real landscape in Italy or elsewhere. The smile, which is difficult to read, as though it’s changing all the time, was created by a shadowing effect developed by Leonardo know as chiaroscuro.

Venus de Milo (130 BC)

This emblematic Greek sculpture was found on the island of Melos. It is thought to represent the goddess Aphrodite but because she is missing both her arms, and consequently the objects she would have been holding in her hands therefore it is much more difficult for art historians to be certain about this attribution. The beauty of her half naked body and curvaceous proportions have been espoused as the ideal female form since she was first discovered at the turn of the 19th century.

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese (1562-63)

The Wedding Feast at Cana is a monumental work befitting of the Louvre’s great galleries in which it is found. With its life-like figures gathered around the central figures of Jesus and his mother Mary, it dwarfs everything else around it, including the Mona Lisa, who smiles from the opposite side of the room. This late-Renaissance painting was created in Venice and formed part of the loot taken by the French revolutionary armies, which swept through Italy in the early 1790s. The painting had to be cut in two in order to transport it by mule over the Alps.

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Gericault (1818-1819)

One of the great treasures of the Louvre, the Raft of the Medusa, recounts a dark story in France’s seafaring history. The painting represents the aftermath of the sinking of the French frigate, Méduse, off the coast of Mauritania. The incompetence of the inexperienced captain, who drove the ship into a sandbank, and his subsequent escape on the only lifeboat available, was to blame for the disaster. The painting depicts the horrific aftermath. It shows human bodies piled up in the form of a pyramid, a macabre image of the survivors and the dead who had climbed atop the raft. They drifted for days on the open sea, without food or water. Many died and those who survived them were driven to cannibalism. News of the event shocked the nation and Gericault’s rendering of it the event is seen as an allegory for the French state. The historian Jules Michelet noted: “our whole society in aboard the raft of Medusa”.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC)

The great Greek sculpture of the Goddess Victory (Nike) is thought to have been created by the people of Rhodes to celebrate a navel battle. It was found on the island of Samothrace where it overlooked the sanctuary of the gods. It still impresses today (even in its battered state) as it stands overlooking the magnificent Denon staircase.

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