Ask any non-French person to name an art gallery in Paris and you can bet that they’ll scream out “the Louvre!” faster than you can imagine. The Louvre is one of the most famous art galleries in the world, but what is it that attracts the attention of art enthusiasts? Is it all in the name? That oh so famous, oh so tricky to pronounce name. Or is the Louvre a beautiful haven housing some of the world’s most fantastic art, deserving of all the praise it gets?
The Louvre has dominated the winding streets of Paris since its beginnings as the “fortress of Paris” in the 12th century. It has undergone many transformations, from city fortress, to the extravagant palace of the equally extravagant Sun King, and today it is one of the most loved museums in the world.
Having just returned (rather reluctantly!) from a much-needed break in the City of Light, I made that almost obligatory pilgrimage to the Louvre. Waltzing in to the over-heated, over-crowded glass pyramid for the billionth time you’d think I’d be fed up of the place, but there is something about it that keeps drawing me back like a moth to a flame. When I lived in Paris last year I’d find myself walking round aimlessly once or twice a week, comforted by the smells and the noise. The Louvre is free for students from the EU, conveniently positioned in the centre of Paris, but not somewhere to go if you’re looking for a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
One of its most famous pieces of art and probably the main source of income for the museum is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. This tiny, underwhelming painting is not difficult to find despite the fact it looks like a postage stamp, lost in its grandiose surroundings. Just follow the footprints of everyone else in the museum and you’ll find yourself trapped in a large room packed with tourists, cameras hanging round their neck, gleefully ignoring the NO FLASH sign branded across the museum walls throughout. Look a bit closer and you might, just maybe, catch a glimpse of the popular lady herself in all her eerie glory. Maybe it’s that nonchalant “so what” glare she shoots everyone in the room, the way her eyes follow you, wherever you go or the fact she manages to stay so calm behind her glass shield, whilst everyone else in the room is struggling to hear and see, blinded by the paparazzi flashes – surely she wins the prize for most accommodating celebrity?
But I dare you to walk away from the Denon wing of the Louvre on your next visit. Leave behind the comforting familiarity of Leonardo and take the time to venture into the unknown. Split into three different wings to house the immense number of pieces of art (around 35,000), the Louvre becomes Paris’ own indoor maze and you need over a week to look at and appreciate each piece fully. One of the most peaceful places in the Louvre (maybe the ONLY peaceful place there) is the courtyard of the Richelieu wing. This is light and airy hall houses French sculptures from the 19th century. Unlike other parts of the Louvre it is not overcrowded, either with people or with artwork, there is space to appreciate the beautiful pieces, and rather spookily, whatever the weather it always seems to be sunny in the courtyard.
In terms of its architecture, the Louvre is one of the most striking buildings in Paris. The old palace is awesomely beautiful and if you sit in the courtyard and look through one of the arches you can see the glass pyramid glinting enticingly in the distance. Although the modern glass pyramid caused a lot of stir upon completion in 1989, it is now the most famous part of the Louvre, outshining even the grand palace. A building of contradictions, the hyper-modern pyramid compliments the 12th-century building and the surrounding Jardin des Tuileries perfectly.
But Paris is overflowing with art galleries and it seems that maybe the most controversial thing to do would be to avoid a trip to the Louvre all together. One of my favourite galleries in Paris is the Rodin Museum. Situated in the south-west of Paris this is far away enough from the busy centre, and the two-mile radius most tourists don’t dare pass in Paris, yet near enough not to be too much of a trek. The peaceful gardens are home to some of his most famous sculptures like The Thinker, separated off from the rest of the gardens in a small world of its own. This seclusion really allows the viewer to appreciate and think about (’scuse the pun) Rodin’s statue. The museum itself is filled to the brim with sculptures, some extremely famous, some not so famous, and only takes two hours to walk around and explore Rodin’s fascinating world. This museum offers a rare quiet moment away from the lively city. Another haven, this time well and truly inside the city centre, is Sainte Chapelle. Brave the long queue, even for a glimpse of the chapel – trust me, it’s worth it. Not an art gallery per se, the chapel is hidden behind the Palais de Justice and is one of Paris’ hidden gems. I cannot do justice to the beauty of the chapel, and when the light streams through the windows, as much as I hate this word, the sight is simply breathtaking.
But avoid the Louvre at all costs on a trip to Paris? Impossible! While the Louvre might not be my favourite place in Paris and I don’t think it quite deserves the title of greatest art gallery in the world, it is without a doubt a spectacular, unavoidable building, housing spectacular art. Walk around aimlessly for half a day and try to break past the magnetic force of the Mona Lisa – seriously, a whole world of incredible art lies beyond her creepy face. Appreciate the other galleries and buildings Paris has scattered around it and maybe we could call Paris itself one of the greatest art galleries in the world.