Here’s my guide to the secrets and history of the Louvre Museum.
The Louvre is considered the best museums in Paris and one of the City of Light’s most unmissable sites. It’s the largest, busiest, most visited museum in the world. It has 35,000 works of art and is a palace itself.
But what do you really know about the museum’s history? Here are 12 quirky interesting facts about the Louvre to know in advance of your visit.
1. The Louvre Was The Product Of The Guillotine
“The origin of the modern museum … is linked to the development of the guillotine,” says cultural critic Georges Bataille. And he’s not wrong. The Louvre was a product of the French Revolution, a period famous for mass executions during the Reign of Terror. The most famous executions were of King Lous XVI and Marie Antoinette.
In the Reign of Terror, led by Robespierre, people were imprisoned in the Conciergerie and then carted off to the guillotine.
After their victory in 1789, the blood soaked revolutionaries sought to control the display of art. They looted the collections of noblemen and took control of historic and sacred sites. They decreed the Louvre building to be public property.
On August 10, 1793, the Louvre, then called the Musée Central des Arts in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, opened on the one year anniversary of the expulsion of King Louis XVI.
Stolen paintings were on display. The revolutionaries’ message was clear: “the monarchy is dead, its fortress breached, and its material possessions are the property of the people.”
2. Napoleon Renamed The Louvre
Napoleon Bonaparte treated the Louvre in a similarly cavalier and symbolic fashion. Crowned Emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon understood that art was a sign of majesty. He ornamented the Louvre with his personal insignia. He filled it with stolen booty from his grand military campaigns.
In typical egomaniacal fashion, Napoleon also rechristened the Louvre. It was renamed, quite predictably, Le Musée Napoléon. Napoleon even kept the Mona Lisa in his private bedroom.
Napoleon’s avowed goal was to have the world’s best art museum. He sought to “create a museum of France with a wonderful collection of art from all around the world.” He enlarged the museum’s collection through military trophies, private donations, and personal commissions.
When Napoleon abdicated in 1815, the museum reverted to its previous name. Many, but not all, looted objects were returned. The Louvre’s Egyptian collection is from Napoleon’s conquests. You can actually see what the Louvre looked like during Napoleon II’s time. There are drawings in the Napoleon apartment so the Richelieu wing.
3. The Louvre Spurned Art Collector Peggy Guggenheim
Before Germany invaded France in 1941, 20th century art collector Peggy Guggenheim asked the Louvre to store and safeguard her collection of avant garde modern art. Lacking any prescience, the Louvre refused, claiming the collection wasn’t “worth saving.”
Instead, Guggenheim shipped her precious works to New York under a pseudonym to save them from Nazi looting. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is now one of the world’s most seminal and priceless private art collections, on display in Guggenheim’s former palazzo in Venice.
The Louvre got that wrong. But Guggenheim’s artworks were perhaps safer in the U.S. than in France anyway.
4. Nazis Used The Louvre For Art Theft
During WWII, the Nazis commandeered the Louvre. But it was essentially empty. Beginning in 1938, Louvre personnel had secreted out over 10,000 artworks. They stashed them in villas in the countryside, which were unlikely to be bombed. Anything left was simply too heavy to move.
Nonetheless, the Nazis set up shop inside the Louvre. They used the museum as a clearinghouse for cultural art theft. There, they categorized, stored, and then shipped stolen art back to Germany. This period is known as the “Louvre Sequestration.”
And the Louvre Sequestration wasn’t even the largest art theft operation in Paris. Under the command of Herman Goering, the nearby Jeu de Paume museum also processed myriad confiscated masterpieces.
Like the Louvre art works, many were earmarked for the personal collections of the Nazi high command. Morally degenerate works were sold to non-German collectors or burned.
5. The Mona Lisa May Be A Copy
Without question, the Louvre’s most famous work is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, who draws hordes of visitors with her enigmatic smile and fame. The painting was among the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape using an aerial perspective.
But did you know that the Louvre’s Mona Lisa may be a copy of an earlier version? There’s another painting of the same woman, Lisa del Giocondo, allegedly painted a decade or so before the Louvre’s version.
Some experts, including the Mona Lisa Foundation, believe it’s a genuine da Vinci. The painting was initially dubbed the “Isleworth Mona Lisa.” Isleworth was the studio of maverick English connoisseur Hugh Blaker, who spotted the painting in an old manor house. It’s now been rebranded as the “Earlier Mona Lisa.” It’s owned by a consortium of Swiss businessmen.
the Earlier Version of the Mona Lisa (the “Isleworth Mona Lisa”), ca 1503-1506; detail of the background.
The two paintings bear a startling resemblance, though the “Earlier Mona Lisa” has been cleaned and restored. But many da Vinci experts still think it is a stilted copy, with a subpar background. It’s also painted on canvas, not wood. Da Vinci usually painted on wood.
Skepticism remains the order of the day.
There are, of course, numerous Mona Lisa knockoffs and dozens of copies from the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the most famous is in the Prado Museum in Madrid Spain. It’s recognized as the earliest replica of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Prior to its restoration, the painting was categorized as an anonymous copy. But when the Prado restored the painting, the striking background was unveiled. It was then reattributed to da Vinci’s workshop
6. The Mona Lisa Was Once Stolen
The Mona Lisa was once pilfered by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia worked for the Louvre and helped install the glass case around the painting. He knew its weaknesses.
On August 21, 1911, Peruggia walked in and hid in a broom closet overnight. The next day, he took the painting off the wall, hid it under his clothing, and waltzed out.
It was 28 hours before anyone noticed the painting was missing. The Mona Lisa was relatively unknown at the time. But news of her theft made headlines around the world, making the painting instantly famous. The Mona Lisa was missing for over two years.
Finally, Peruggia tried to sell the painting to an Italian art dealer. The dealer reported this contact to the police and the painting was recovered. Peruggia claimed he was merely a patriot who wanted to return the painting to its rightful place in Italy.
7. Pablo Picasso Was a Suspect in Louvre Thefts
For a time, Picasso was a suspect in the theft of the Mona Lisa. The Louvre offered a reward for information about the heist. A petty thief and con man named Joseph-Honoré Géry Pieret came forward, trying to collect the reward money.
Pieret had stolen Iberian statues from the Louvre before, some of which ended up in the possession of Pablo Picasso. Picasso was obsessed with the sculptures and purchased them from Pieret for a song.
The statues became the models for faces in Picasso’s famous pre-cubist masterpiece, Desmoiselles D’Avignon, one of the most famous works of modern art in Europe. It’s possible that Picasso even commissioned the crimes.
Though they were not terribly valuable, the theft of the Iberian sculptures didn’t go unnoticed. The Paris newspaper Le Matin complained about lax security at the Louvre.
It suggested that the theft was for “a possessive and discreet collector who has no interest in money, but keeps [the statues] in the most secret part of his apartment getting drunk on their beauty in solitude.” Sounds like Picasso, no?
When the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret went to the police with another stolen statue, implicating an unnamed artist and his own boss, art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
Picasso was frightened. He didn’t want to be targeted as the thief in chief. He attempted to throw his stolen statues, hidden in a sock drawer, into the Seine to get rid of incriminating evidence. But couldn’t bring himself to do it. He insisted Apollinaire return the statues discreetly to the authorities.
READ: Guide to the Paris Picasso Museum
The police questioned both Picasso and Apollinaire, who gave conflicting stories. Fortunately, for Picasso, the police found no connection between Picasso and the Mona Lisa. And they weren’t much interested in the theft of the Iberian statues. Picasso was off the hook.
8. Mona Lisa Vandalism
Not only has the Mona Lisa been stolen, it’s been vandalized on four occasions. But she’s a survivor.
In 1956, a vandal drenched the painting in acid while it was on display at a museum in Montauban France. The lower part of the painting was damaged and restored.
Later that same year, on December 30, a Bolivian man named Ungaza Villegas threw a rock at the Mona Lisa. The rock chipped off pigment near the left elbow. The Mona Lisa was later repainted.
In April 1974, a woman upset about the disabled policy in the museum, sprayed red paint in the direction of the Mona Lisa while it was on exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum. The woman was arrested and the painting was undamaged.
Most recently, on August 2, 2009, a Russian woman distraught over being denied French citizenship threw a terracotta mug at the painting. Screams erupted. Luckily, at that point, the Mona Lisa was tucked safely behind 1.5 inches of bulletproof glass in a hermetically sealed box.
READ: All the Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci
9. The I.M. Pei Pyramid Once Vanished
In 2016, street artist and muralist, JR, cast a spell over the Louvre’s famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. His monumental installation work made the three story glass pyramid “disappear,” recalling the Renaissance Period’s eye-fooling illusions. JR covered the pyramid with a black and white photographic mural that convincingly reproduced the facade of the Louvre.
JR, or Jean René, is a street artist dubbed the “French Banksy.” He creates works focusing on “space, reality, and the nature of representation.”
In this piece, JR references both the Renaissance, with a trompe l’oeil trick, and contemporary times, with a comment on our increasingly temporary and illusory world. His installation was left up for one month.
In April 2019, the Louvre commissioned JR to perform another installation trick. This one was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the I.M. Pei Pyramid. Like the Eiffel Tower, the pyramid was mocked and reviled when it was first unveiled and is now a beloved iconic symbol of Paris.
With the help of 400 volunteers, JR created a collaborative photographic montage that makes it seem as if the pyramid is sinking into a crater. The collage is made of paper strips and, seen from above, distorts the image of the pyramid.
10. What Exactly Does Louvre Mean?
No one knows what the word Louvre actually means. There are several theories.
One theory is that the word Louvre derived from the Latin word lupara meaning wolf. Wolves roamed the land before the famed building took on its current state. A second hypothesis is that Louvre has a Saxon origin meaning watchtower.
A third theory is that the name is French in derivation and comes from the word ourvrer or work. The former fortress transformed into a royal palace was a formidable “work.”
11. The Louvre Has Modern Art
Despite being a museum dedicated to art ranging from ancient civilization to the 19th century, the Louvre does have some modern art. It’s mostly used as decor though.
On the first floor of 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.
Right next to the Salle des Bronzes is a 1953 ceiling triptych, The Birds, by Cubist artist Georges Braques. Anselm Kiefer’s 2007 triptych lies in a stairwell between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian antiquities rooms.
Kiefer is a German Neo-Expressionist artist who explores themes of history, identity, mysticism, and mythology. It was the first permanent change made to the Louvre’s interior decor since The Birds.
12. The Louvre Wouldn’t Authenticate the Controversial Salvator Mundi
In 2017, a work attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, stunned the art world, selling for the almost cartoonish price of $450 million at Christie’s in New York. The buyer was Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia, who reputedly gifted it to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The shockingly high price reflected the extreme rarity of Leonardos.
But despite its high price tag, Salvator Mundi has been plagued with provenance and authenticity questions since its unlikely “rediscovery.” The painting exists in a blurry zone — stuck between being a bona fide Leonardo and a vastly less valuable Leonardo workshop piece.
Now, Salvator Mundi is MIA. It hasn’t been seen since Christie’s auction in 2017. When the Louvre held its Leonardo Retrospective in 2019-2020, it asked for the painting on loan. But it refused to designate it as an autograph Leonardo. The Louvre Abu Dhabi never responded and the painting is still missing.
13. Themed Route
The Louvre was featured in Dan Brown’s novel the Da Vinci Code. The 2006 movie, directed by Ron Howard, was partially filmed at the Louvre. The Louvre offers a themed Da Vinci Code route throughout the museum. You can follow in the footsteps of the two fictional protagonists Robert Langdon and Sophie Beveu.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Louvre:
Address: Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
Hours: Monday: 9:00 a.m–6:00 p.m. Tuesday: Closed Wednesday: 9:00 a.m–9:45 p.m. Thursday: 9:00 a.m–6:00 p.m. Friday: 9:00 a.m–9:45 p.m. Saturday: 9:00 a.m–6:00 p.m. Sunday: 9:00 a.m–6:00 p.m. Closed on the following French holidays: January 1, May 1, May 8, December 25
Entry Fees: Adults €15, Under 18 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
Metro: Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7)
Tel: +33 (0)1 40 20 53 17
You may enjoy these other Paris museum guides:
25 Masterpieces of the Musee d’Orsay
Underrated Masterpieces of the Louvre
The Best Painting in the Louvre
Louvre Survival Guide: How To Prepare
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