While the cruelties of the French Revolution were taking place, and the young Republic was fighting for survival, the National Convention did not forget its museum. On August 10, 1793, the Grand Galerie was opened, and not only were masterpieces of the old Louvre collection shown but also “new precious spoils taken from our tyrants, or from other enemies of our country.”
Throughout France churches were emptied of works of art, such as Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. The residences of noblemen were ransacked: two of Michelangelo’s sculptures of slaves, for example, were found in the Paris townhouse of the Duc de Richelieu. Some of these works were placed in storage, some went to provincial museums, but the majority of famous masterpieces eventually came to the exhibition rooms of the Louvre.
Of course, as Napoleon advanced through Italy, the museum’s collection of both antique and Renaissance art was expanded almost exponentially with this high-end booty of war, the spoils of conquest and the rape of a culture. Not surprisingly, very littel of this artistic loot was ever returned. Napoleon revived his grand ambitions, only stopped by Waterloo and the collapse of empire. But the Louvre soldiered on, though in 1830 and 1848, the Tuileries were pillaged and the Louvre invaded and momentarily threatened with destruction. The new Louvre of Napoleon III was one of the extraordinary architectural achievements of the 19th century, its richness and gusto make it one of the great works of romantic architecture, a testament not to slavish eclecticism but prodigious originality. However, the regime of Napoleon III, like its predecessors, also disappeared in violence n 1870…
Of the almost 250,000 works of art housed in the Louvre, none lend it more color, grace, and impact than the paintings of women, chiefly Frenchwomen by Frenchmen. There is a world of difference between the classically poised portraits of an Ingres, the playful exuberance of a Fragonard, the scandalous boldness of a Manet. And lets not avoid the psychological insight of a Degas and Renoir’s sheer delight in atmosphere and light. They are all so different, only held together and comprehensible within the context of a Gallic warmth of feeling.
…The Paris designed streets of Haussmann were for the express purpose of controlling the populace. To avoid the barricades appearing in twisted medieval streets where guns and cannon could not be brought against them and the populace could rise up with the figure of Liberty at their head, as in the Delacroix painting. But during the Commune of 1871, the short lived insurgent government mistakenly thought by Marx as as the first design of proletarian rule; the people again stormed out of ancient hovels and attacked the home of the sovereign. On the night of May 23-24 the Tuileries was torched.
If the architectural loss was great, though not as great as fervent French antiquarians maintained, the liberation of urban space was a significant gain. As the ruins were demolished, the tremendous vista opened, giving the denter of the city its exhilarating sense of civilized freedom, surrounded, but not confined to the past.