10 Underrated Masterpieces at the Louvre & Tips for Visiting
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Here's my guide to discovering the Louvre's secret underrated masterpieces. I also give you tips and tricks for visiting the Louvre, to make your visit more efficient.
If you love art, the Louvre is likely on your Paris bucket list. It's a fascinating palace, to be sure. But the Louvre is the largest, busiest, most visited museum in the world. It has 35,000 works of art and is a palace itself. It's downright intimidating.
And the Louvre is a madhouse -- a bacchanalia of crowds, flashes, selfie sticks, languages, and people trying to skip queues and touch the art. It can be overwhelming, especially for a first time visitor.
Plan a Strategy for the Louvre
Don't expect to "conquer" the Louvre in one day. Lonely Planet estimates “it would take nine months to glance at every piece” inside.
If you're ambitious enough to brave the august limestone fortress, have a solid strategy in advance. An all day, drive by marathon is decidedly not the way to go. The Louvre is best experienced in bite sized pieces to avoid brain sapping overstimulation and a distaste for rest for the rest of mankind. After all, who likes being shoved and bumped in a mass herd?
For starters, don't enter via the famous I.M. Pei Pyramid. It's the most crowded entrance. There are much quieter entrances in the Carousel du Louvre shopping centre and the Passage Richelieu.
Get online tickets well in advance. This strategy will at least enable you to skip the ticket queue. You'll still have to clear the security queue.
I'd advice skipping the Mona Lisa. The da Vinci masterpiece has been sacrificed to the masses and will likely seem less magical in person.
Then, you can either pick one of the three interconnected wings (Denon, Sully, or Richilieu) or do a highlights tour.
Skip Overcrowded "Must See" Artworks at the Louvre
The problem with the conventional highlights, the "must see" gems of the Louvre, is that every tourist wants to tick these seminal works of art off their list.
You know the ones I refer to: the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Michaelangelo's Slaves, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Raphaels, Napoleon's Coronation, Vermeer's The Lacemaker, etc.
You're more likely to get a camera in your photo, rather than an actual photo of the art itself.
Instead, I offer you an alternative highlights tour. I present 10 works of art, which are also all masterpieces in their own right, but perhaps ever so slightly underrated. And I sneak in an extra one for good measure.
So if you're inclined to skip the glaringly obvious, seek out some Paris hidden gems, and forgo Paris tourist traps, this list is for you.
More tips and tricks for visiting the Louve are at the end of the post.
Tour of the Underrated Masterpieces of the Louvre:
Here's what you should really see inside the Louvre:
1. The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, Georges de la Tour,
1635, Location: Sully Wing, 2nd Floor, Room 912
I love this mysterious Georges de la Tour painting. It's one of my favorites in the Louvre. It feels like it is suspended in motion. With its dark backgrounds and refracted light, it's reminiscent of Caravaggio only with diamond precise outlines. It depicts a psychological drama, a card game where a foppish, expensively dressed youth on the right is about to be cheated by a card shark on the left.
It's unclear who's complicit in the cheating. They may all be. It's also unclear where the card game takes place. There's just a blank black background, perhaps suggesting amorality. Each character's eyes are shifty. They don't look at each other.
But the tense scene feels set for tragedy, and the victim is doubtless the feathered- headed young man who has naively succumbed to the triple temptations of wine, women, and gambling. While it's a moralizing painting, The Cheat is also comedic with its bright colors, sidelong glances, and surprising elements of composition.
2. Grande Odalisque, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 181
Location: Denon Wing, 1st Floor, Room 702
Ingres was strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance. He represents the conservative strand of French painting. He was a salon painter and neoclassicist.
So it's hard to believe the student of the very proper Jaques-Louis David could cause a scandal with a painting, but he did. Ingres' career was not as tidy as his salon categorization would have you believe.
In 1814, Ingres unveiled Grand Odalisque to ridicule and complaints that she was deformed and anatomically inaccurate. The subject of the painting, an exotic nude harem girl, was also decried as inappropriate.
The Oriental style painting might have marked Ingres' transition from pure Neoclassicism to a more romantic style. Or it could be indicative of his embrace of Venetian painting.
One thing is sure. In Grande Odalisque, grace not accuracy is the goal. The lines are explicitly sinuous and sensual, not rigid. Ingres continued to be attacked over his painting until the mid-1820s. But Grand Odalisque helped lay the foundation for the more expressive Romanticism movement, led by a young Eugene Delacroix.
3. Cy Twombley Ceiling, 2010, Location: Sully Wing, 1st
Floor, Salon des Bronzes, Room 663
Who knew a ceiling could be an underrated Louvre masterpiece? But it absolutely is.
As you walk up the stairway to the Sully wing, you'll find a massive 4300 square foot ceiling of vivid azure blue in the Salon des Bronzes. It's a work painted in 2010 by the cerebral American artist Cy Twombley.
It's essentially a joyful sky depiction in the classical sense with moons and rectangular plaques featuring the names of ancient Greek sculptures. Though Twombley was a contemporary artist known for his thinking man's graffiti like scribbles, his work still featured ancient themes and classical mythology. This was a site specific creation and gift.
Twombly was the first American artist and one of the first living artists to donate a work of art to the Louvre. Naturally, it met with some controversy as an installation in an ancient French palace that houses mostly pre-1900 masterpieces.
But the director of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette disagrees with the curmudgeonly grousing. He's said that "a museum that dies is a museum that doesn't arouse contemporary creation." I wholly approve of this sentiment as the Louvre can seem stuffy and intimating to many people.
Besides, the vibrant ceiling is visually stunning and sets off the sculptures in the room marvelously. For another piece of modern art, right next to the Salle des Bronzes, is a Georges Braque ceiling triptych, installed in 1953.
4. Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, Anonymous,
circa 1594, Location: Richelieu Wing 2nd floor
You should wander to the Richelieu gallery just to have a snicker over this theatrical double portrait by an anonymous School of Fontainbleau artist. It's a nude bathing scene of Henry IV’s mistress and her sister, because that's apparently what the aristocracy did in the 16th century.
It's a private scene, as denoted by the overhanging vermillion satin drapes. Gabrielle is presumed to be pregnant and her sister's rather provocative gesture towards her sibling could be a symbol suggesting fertility.
The "Fontainebleau" style can be seen in the stylized faces and modeling of the two women. The painting was likely painted for the king and meant to hang in a private spot.
And what of the ring that Gabrielle is holding? Is it from Henry IV or perhaps his coronation ring? Henry IV apparently planned to marry Gabrielle, but she died in childbirth before he could do the deed. So it could suggest a tragic love story.
Contemporary critics also interpret the painting as an erotic portrait. Either way, tourists at the Louvre, if they come across it, seem to enjoy its unconventional nature and styling.
5. Young Martyr, Paul Deleroche, 1855, Location: Denon
Wing, 1st Floor, Room 700
This haunting painting was formerly hung in a gift shop before being moved into one of the Louvre's most popular rooms. Can you believe it?
It's a beautiful brooding depiction of the historical martyrdom of a Christian, with the dramatic touch of a halo.
The choice of a female martyr may reflect the recent death of Deleroche's own wife. Or the painting may symbolize the Diocletianic Persecution, when the Roman Emperor Diocletian systematically tortured and killed Christians for their religious beliefs. Delaroche was known for choosing historical topics.
Young Martyr combines academic and romantic themes. If you're in a melancholy state of mind, it will appeal. It's a moving painting, full of symbolism, exquisite techinque, and chiaroscuro lighting.
You feel as if the girl might still be alive, although she's obviously dead. (And I must confess that a portrait of it hung in my college dorm room, paradoxically with Andy Warhol's Flowers.)
I also recommend another exquisite Delaroche's painting -- The Children of Edward IV, in the adjacent Room 701. This dramatic painting, which had a hugely successful Salon debut, foretells the murder of King Edward IV's children, the "two princes in the tower," presumably on the orders of Richard III.
Imprisoned in the Tower of London, the children are pale and melancholy. They look anxious that something is about to happen. A tiny light shines under the door. The tale was made famous by Shakespeare's tragedy, Richard III, but not all historians agree that Richard was the villain. It's still an unsolved cold crime mystery.
6. Medieval Foundation of the Louvre
Location: Lower level of Sully Wing
Originally, the Louvre was a 12th century fortress built by King Philippe Auguste. Fearing an English invasion, the king built a fortified castle at the western entry to Paris. The castle was constructed around four large moats and defensive towers. An enormous keep, referred to as the Grosse Tower, stood at its center.
The lower levels are all that remain. Archeologists discovered and excavated the underground medieval remains during the construction of I.M. Pei's pyramid in 1983-85. It's a fascinating and rather quiet place in the Louvre.
Visitors can explore the ruins, including vestiges of the moat and dungeons, by following a footpath in the lower level of the Sully Wing. There's a large model of the medieval fortress, which was similar in style to La Conciergerie. It provides a complete and welcome change of scenery from the elaborate architecture just above.
7. Raft of the Medusa, Gericault, 1819
Location: Denon Wing, 1st floor, Room 700
Gericault's Raft of the Medusa is certainly not underrated with art students and art critics, just the general public. It may be my favorite painting at the Louvre. But most people in Room 700 are standing in front of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, which, to be sure, is beautiful and captivating. Instead, you can sidle up to the spectacularly dramatic Raft of the Medusa.
This isn't your typical salon painting. It was based on an international tragedy, when a French royal ship broke apart at sea due to a captain's error. The officers survived, but only by cruelly cutting loose a raft of 147 civilians, only 14 of whom survived. The public was horrified, especially when the king tried to cover it up the international scandal.
With this painting, Gericault became one of the first artists to document a grim event ripped from the headlines. Raft of the Medusa was a monumental salon work, but also an indictment of the French government.
It didn't open to glowing reviews. Rather, it was criticized for its repellent subject matter in an era when such canvases typically depicted heroic events, religion, or mythology.
The harrowing tale and visceral appeal of the Raft of the Medusa is enduring. It has since been reproduced in different styles by contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Max Ernst, and Frank Stella.
8. Anselm Kiefer Paintings and Installations
Location: Sully Wing, in a stairwell the links the
Egyptian and Mesopotamia Antiquities
Anselm Kiefer is a German Neo-Expressionist artist and sculptor who explores themes of history, identity, mysticism, and mythology. His 2007 Louvre triptych (above) lies in a stairwell between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian antiquities rooms. It was the first permanent change made to the Louvre’s interior decor since Georges Braque’s 1953 The Birds ceiling.
Kiefer likes to cross the boundaries between art and literature. Hence it's fitting that the he's in a "boundary" of the Louvre linking the past to the present.
The large painting, titled Athanor, shows a naked man lying recumbent under a stormy sky. Kiefer describes it as a self-portrait: the man is not dead, "but is in the universe."
Hortus Conclussus is an earth like mound of sunflowers representing metabolism and re-birth. When a flower dies, it produces seeds that results in more flowers. Danae is a giant blackened deflowered sunflower emerging from Kiefer's signature pile of lead books. It's based on an ancient Greek myth where Zeus deflowers a chaste princess.
9. Virgin and Child with St. Anne, Leonardo de Vinci, circa
1503-19, Location: Denon Wing, 1st Floor, Grand Gallery
Never heard of this one? Most people haven't. They're too busy waiting in line for the Mona Lisa.
This painting is one of Leonardo unsung triumphs, his last painting and one that he worked on for 20 years. It was meticulously cleaned and restored in 2010. The task was overseen by an international scientific committee of 20 specialists.
Then, the painting was given a celebratory exhibition at the Louvre in 2012 before being put back on permanent display in the Grand Gallery. It now glows luminously from the canvas, despite some controversy about possible over-cleaning.
It's just as compelling and mysterious as the Mona Lisa. But it's mostly ignored by the crowds, perhaps because, unlike the Mona Lisa, it was never stolen from Louvre with the ensuing publicity.
Virgin and Child is a remarkably human and universal depiction of the multi-generational tension between grandmother, mother, and child. It is full of movement and emotion. The dark line on the left side of Mary's shawl is evidence that Da Vinci left the work unfinished.
10. The Countess del Carpio, Marquesa de La Solana, 1793-
95, Location: Sully Wing, 1st Floor, Room 660
Though most of Goya's work is in the Prado in Madrid, including his mysterious Black Paintings, this Louvre painting is one of Goya's finest portraits. Typical of his portraits, it's simple, not overly flattering, and free of all rhetorical devices. The regal and elegant Countess is depicted as pale, feverish, and ghostlike, showing signs of the illness that she knew would soon claim her life.
The stark gray and black backgrounds give the painting a psychological or supernatural quality. This quality made Goya's portraits more intense and profound than other artists. Goya caricatured some of his subjects, but here you can see a respect and empathy between the dignified subject and the painter.
This desolate portrait belongs to Goya's "gray" period, just before an illness in 1792 that made him deaf and brought on his famous "black" period.
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting the Louvre
1. Address: Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
Closed on the following French holidays: January 1, May 1, May 8, and December 25.
3. Entry Fees:
Adults €15 and children under 18 are free. Admission is free for all visitors on the first Saturday of each month from 6:00 p.m. to 9:45 p.m, and, for those under 26, on Friday evenings from 6:00 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. But the free hours are extremely crowded.
4. Buy tickets for the Louvre online in advance. That will save you waiting in both a ticket line and security line. Online Ticket Website
5. Paris Museum Pass:
You can purchase the Paris Museum Pass for 2, 4, or 6 days. It covers over 60 museums and sites. The pass gives you free skip the line entry to, among other things, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, Conciergerie, Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame, Versailles, Les Invalides, Musee de l'Orangerie, Musee Rodin, etc. The fact that you can bypass the lengthy lines is hugely important.
But note, for the Louvre, even if you have the Paris Museum Pass, you may not get in unless you've reserved a time slot in advance. Once you've purchased your pass, you can book your time slot here.
Passes are valid for X number of consecutive days, not any X number of days when you might have the whim to go. Once you first use the pass, the consecutive day time clock starts clicking away.
6. Metro: Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7) and Pyramides (line 14)
7. Telephone: +33 (0)1 40 20 53 17
8. Louvre Entrances besides the I.M. Pei Pyramid: