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The Elusive Smile

Text by: Peri Musser

The Musée du Louvre (or The Louvre Museum) can become the site of a love affair for all who consider themselves the least bit art savvy. Romantically situated within Paris, the museum contains more than 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in eight curatorial departments with more than 60,600 square metres (652,000 sq. ft.) dedicated to the permanent collection*.

Of all the museum’s curated wonders, it’s foolish to deny that one piece alone seduces countless visitors with its unparalleled fame— The Mona Lisa. How is it that even those ignorant to art know this work, or that whenever someone relays their visit to the Louvre we promptly follow with, “Did you see the Mona Lisa?”

It is befuddling to try to comprehend the sweeping influence of such a small stretch of canvas, a couple of brushstrokes of paint, and an obscure, high-society woman. Somehow the compendium elevates it to something of a wonder. How can a piece of art within the extensive realm of history — like a small grain of sand in an ocean — persevere through time and insist on touching the thoughts of so many? It could have fallen through the cracks and drifted from the minds of those that looked upon it, but it did not. I would venture to say that a piece of art is not adored because it is ubiquitous, advertised, or even beautiful, but rather because it is a tribute to the human experience. She entices us with her fame, but she captivates us with her secrets. It might not be Mona Lisa herself, but the idea that you can never be sure of anything. You can never really know the complexities of a person. You can never really know the secrets of the world around you. That is the essence of any creation. Whatever it is within us that compels us to create something or attempt to understand another’s creation is up to your own definition. But to deny that we feel this inclination would be foolish.

It really comes down to the effect art can have on our paradigm. A piece of artwork bids you to be yourself. It asks you to explore within yourself. It does not judge you for your perspective or insights, but only asks you to develop them. It has a way of extracting a love and appreciation for the beauty that lies within our own human experience, as well as enticing us to explore that of another’s.

So what does the Mona Lisa bid from us? She bids us to relish in the complexities of ourselves and others. She implores us to look and ponder, speculate and inquire, search and develop. We may never know why she smiles, but we know why that smile draws so many.

Editors' Quick Tips to the Louvre

The Musée du Louvre of Paris (aka The Louvre) can be quite daunting and overwhelming if you have not done your homework and planned ahead. This is not a place to simply wander around unless you don’t plan on seeing much. Here, the editors of Polite Society Magazine have tried to compile a few small tried and true tips, as well as some basic information, and a few of our favorite must-see pieces, in order to help you experience The Louvre for the first time. We highly recommend, however, buying a Guidebook, such as “Rick Steves’ Guide to Paris” or “Frommer’s Irreverent Guide to Paris.” These books take you on a step-by-step tour of the museums of Paris (as well as other grand sites within the city) to see the most famous pieces, their history, and specific walking paths to help maximize your time.

Background

The Louvre is one of the city of Paris’ three world-class museums, each of which specializing in a specific period of art history: Musée du Louvre (ancient world to 1850), Musée d’Orsay (moo-say - dor-say) (1850-1914) and the Musée national d’Art modern-Centre Georges Pomidou (aka, the Pompidou, modern art). If you’re an art museum connoisseur, The Louvre is where you will want to start your journey inside the halls of the beginning of ancient world of art.

The Louvre has become the most famous of the three main Paris museums, with its specialties in Greek sculpture, Italian painting, and French painting. The three most famous works housed in The Louvre are: The Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Mona Lisa, however, it also stars many of the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, and the French painters, just some of the many other works that one must see while there. Look through your guidebook and read details on sections you are most compelled to tour.

Once you arrive at the ticket counter, obtain a tourist map in your native language, and you will be able to navigate your way through the museum. There are three wings in The Louvre: the Richelieu Wing, the Sully Wing, and the Denon Wing. The Richelieu Wing exhibits Oriental antiques, as well as French, Dutch and Northern art. The Sully Wing has a vast French painting and ancient Egyptian collection. Most of the famous works are in the Denon Wing, which exhibits ancient Greek sculpture, Italian Renaissance painting, and French Neoclassical and Romantic painting. We suggest turning your focus to the Denon Wing and visiting all there is to see here. If there is extra time, make a plan to visit the additional two wings.

Arriving at The Louvre
Anyone who has seen either The Davinci Code, or any pictures of this grand palace, has seen the giant, glass pyramid commissioned and completed in 1989. It has become representational of this famous museum (although previously hated by the Parisians) and serves as the main entrance to The Louvre where you will be required to pass through a security checkpoint and metal detector. You will descend the escalators to large atrium-like information area to buy your tickets. We suggest buying your tickets online, as it will save you time during busy seasons, or you can use the ticket kiosks rather than standing in the regular line.

Usually the longest line when entering The Louvre is going through security in the glass pyramid. If you’d like to enter a different way, without the grandeur of the front entrance, there are two other entrances. The first alternate entry is for those who have a Museum Pass (a special pass to the museums of Paris), where you may enter through the group entrance in the pedestrian passageway between the pyramid and rue de Rivoli (under the arches). The second alternate entry is through its underground entrance, accessed through the “Carrousel du Louvre” shopping mall at 99 rue de Rivoli (the door with the red awning). Here there are usually ticket kiosks with little to no wait, and you’ll be able to stroll through the stores and passed the cafés straight to where you can enter the museum.

Hours and Cost

The cost for The Louvre is 10 EURO with an additional fee to see the temporary exhibits. They are, however, open for FREE on the first Sunday of every month and on July 14 (a national holiday).

The hours are as follows:
 -Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
 -Wednesday, Friday: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
 -Rooms begin closing 30 minutes before museum closing time.

There are coat and bag checks located under the escalators to the Denon and Richelieu wings, however the coat check does not take bags and the bag check does not take coats (unless you can stuff it into your bag). For some reason the bag check usually has no line, where the coat check has a very slow line. We recommend leaving room in your bag to stuff your coat and check it all in at the bag check. One will only make the mistake once of needing both bag and coat check. One could be there for an hour trying to check in your items.

See their website for more information as well as the temporary exhibits:
http://www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home.jsp?bmLocale=en

Helpful Hints

Because of the vastness of the museum, it is a bit difficult to do with children. But if you do, especially with young ones, try to arm yourself with plenty of activities to keep them occupied (as they may not understand the art), and plan on carrying them wherever you go (as the elevators are located in hidden, inconvenient areas of the museum), including up the tall and immense staircases in some areas. If you can also try to go during the seasons or daily hours when it is less crowded, this is more preferable. As large as this museum is, it can become almost standing room only, very hot, and very crowded. Also, when the museum is crowded, the famous exhibits are virtually impossible to see (including the Mona Lisa), and many of the tours are full.

Famous Pieces

-Venus de Milo (DENON Wing, Greece 3,000 B.C.-A.D. 1), (see picture above) aka Aphrodite of Milos, is an ancient Greek statue created between 130 and 100 B.C. “Aphrodite” (or “Venus” to the Romans) and is the Greek goddess of love and beauty. It is one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture. It was discovered in 1820 by a peasant within a niche in the ancient city ruins of Milos (across the navel line). The two arms became missing when the ship was robbed during transport. It created a sensation in Europe as this statue seemed to sum up all that ancient Greece stood for. The Greeks pictured their gods in human form, and Aphrodite (Venus) embodied all that the Greeks and succeeding generations found beautiful. The twisting stance and strong projection of the knee, as well as the rich, three-dimensional quality of the drapery, and the softness of the skin on the upper torso are typical of Hellenistic art of the third century B.C.

-Winged Victory of Samothrace (DENON Wing, Greece 3,000 B.C.-A.D. 1), is one of a small number of statues in The Louvre that is very large in scale, standing almost 11 feet tall. A statute of a woman with wings (missing her arms and head) poised on the prow of a ship, built in honor of the goddess, Nike, once stood on a hilltop to commemorate a naval victory. Her clothes are windblown, appearing almost sea-sprayed, and clinging to her body. One should take special notice of the details in the folds of her dress around the navel, curving down her hips. Her poise, at one time, exuded a pillar of vertical strength as her feet stood firmly on the ground, but her wings (and missing arms) were thrown high in the air as if she was cheering on a victory. Unlike Venus de Milo, in the Golden Age of Greece, the people may have considered this statue ugly, as it is a far cry from the dainty Parthenon maidens and soft-focus beauty of Venus.

-Mona Lisa (DENON Wing, Medieval World, 1200-1500), a work of Italian Renaissance Art, and unarguably Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting. The Mona Lisa is much smaller and darker than one might imagine. The painting hangs on a stand-alone wall in the middle of one side of a large room. This painting is probably the most famous at The Louvre, but many, upon first glance, wonder what “the big deal is.” Be patient. It’s very hard to catch a glimpse of this painting, as there is usually a very large crowd drawn even during the slowest times of the year. Quickly take a picture in front of it and the move on to the next exhibit. Analyzing this painting as a true artist might be very difficult given the crowd.

Editors’ Favorite Hidden Treasure

The Louvre was originally a palace, built in the early 12th Century and was, through the years, added onto and improved upon by many different kings. Wings were connected, more modern architecture was constructed, and residences were fashioned for the royalty. In 1546, however, King Francis I razed the structure in favor of a larger royal residence. What one now sees as the “Musée du Louvre” is a structure built a few levels higher than the original palace. Our little secret tidbit that many do not know is to find your way underneath The Louvre where one will still be able to see remains of the original palace, including the walkways, tiny doorways, and foundations of the towers. There is also a model built of what the original palace used to resemble.

Outside The Louvre

Make sure you leave time at the end of your tour to be able to sit outside the museum within the courtyard. There are two fountains that are undeniably relaxing, and the view into the Tuileries Gardens is breathtaking. If you have enough energy, walk through the gardens, or even have something to eat to the grass on your way to the Champs Elysées walk (shahnz ay-lee-zay) (one of the most famous streets in Paris with cafes, high end stores, and huge sidewalks) to the Arc d’Triomphe. It’s a bit of a trek, but fantastically worth it.