The Founding Of The Louvre Museum And How The Napoleonic Wars Affected Its Collections

June 23, 2009

by Bruno Zabaglio

In France during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, like in most of the Western world, royalties, aristocrats, and wealthy individuals collected and accumulated treasures and works of art in order to impress foreign and local visitors with their wealth, their social and political status, and their artistic and intellectual education.  On this account, art historian Carol Duncan, in her essay titled “From the Princely Gallery to the Public Art Museum: The Louvre Museum and the National Gallery, London”, states that: ‘Typically, princely galleries functioned as reception rooms, providing sumptuous settings for official ceremonies and framing of the prince’.  She also adds that by the end of the seventeenth century these types of art collections were widespread throughout Europe.

The Storming of The Bastille

The Storming of The Bastille

July 14, 1789, the starting of the French Revolution, would be a turning point, not just in French social-political history, but also in the way museums were going to be established and perceived in the future by most of the European nations.
The opening of the Louvre in August 1793 as a public museum was not just the product of the fall of the monarchy in France; it was also an instrument necessary to support the development of the state authority and national identity, and therefore for the survival of the new government.  According to Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, author of “Museums And The Shaping Of Knowledge”, the French Revolution was a significant event because it brought to an end a society built on a hierarchic system and on the disparity in social and economic standings, and because it ended the old way of envisioning the world as a set of classification determined by religious and political reasoning.  The new society, which originally was supposed to be ruled by the people, ended up under the political control of the bourgeoisie and it introduced a set of new laws based on a democratic way of life.  The museum would become a political instrument for the new Republic, as well as a reminder of the oppression and decadence of the past regime.  Ms. Hooper-Greenhill states that the Louvre became one of the symbols of this new way of life.
Carol Duncan, who describes the Louvre as ‘the prototypical public art museum’, concurs with Hooper-Greenhill’s opinions on the social and political correlation in the creation of the French museum.  In her essay, she examines the history of the Louvre and the National Museum in London, and describes their influence on modern museums.  Ms. Duncan believes that even though the French museum was not the first one to use a royal art collection for a public art museum, it represents the most politically important and socially significant conversion of a princely collection into a civic one.  She describes the creation of the museum as ‘an opportunity to dramatize the creation of the new Republic state, nationalize the king’s art collection and declare the Louvre a public institution’.
Duncan asserts that the transformation of a royal palace into a public space and the display of royal possessions as public property denoted the new government’s commitment to the basic principles of egalitarianism.  At the opening of the Louvre, to emphasize these social-political changes, a commemorative plaque was installed above the entrance to the Galerie D’Apollon with the dates of the founding (September 16, 1792) and of the official opening of the museum (August 10, 1793), and a footnote that underlined and connected its creation to a decree approved by the L’Assemblée Législative (Legislative Committee).

The Entrance to The Apollo Gallery

The Entrance to The Apollo Gallery

Another politically advantageous decision made by the new government was that the admission to the museum was free and that the entrance was allowed to everyone, not matter their social status or educational level; this was a move that gave people the perception that in the museum, and therefore in France, every person was equal, at least in principal.   According to the writer, the decision, beside achieving positive results on the social level by providing something for everybody (educational goods for the cultured portion of population and a sense of marvel and reverence for the uneducated), it also created a popular venue beneficial in the reshaping of the political relationship between ‘the individual as citizen and the state as benefactor’.
On the same subject, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill says that the museum became one of the political tools of the state because it could ‘….direct the population into activities which would, without people being aware of it, transform the population into a useful resource for the state’. The correlation between the ruling government and the art world, which has its roots from the Egyptian times all the way to end of the Eighteenth Century, was used mostly to maintain social discipline, serving as a reminder that the ruling party was rightfully in power because of its social superiority.  Dr. Nick Prior in the book  “Museums & Modernity”, writing on the subject of Revolutionary Culture: Rituals of Ceremony and State Art Museums, says that the state-art world relationship is directly connected to ‘the preservation of social order and to the consecration of a national culture’.  Dr. Prior points out that the liberal governments in Europe only started to be involved as supporters of the arts in the early nineteenth century because by sponsoring art related projects they came across as a benevolent guardian and a protector of the arts.  Carol Duncan believes that public projects such as museums help make a state ‘look good: progressive, concerned about the spiritual life of its citizens, a preserver of past achievements and a provider for the common good’.
Dr. Prior writes that the Louvre opened as a ‘Monument Dedicated to the Love and Study of the Arts’ with a collection totaling to 537 paintings and 184 objects displayed on tables.  In order to complete the symbolic message, the new museum had to adopt a new way of displaying its collection.  Duncan explains that the museum’s directors organized the collections into art-historical schools and exhibited them in a way that enhanced the progress and achievements of each school and its most prominent artists.  Contrary to the old gentlemanly culture in which the artists and the work would have to be identified by the cultured guest, each and every art object, because it was educationally addressed to ‘the people’, was properly identified and labeled.  This new system of art displaying has been considered by many museum history scholars as a more developed and logical thinking.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

After Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, from around 1799 to 1815, the museum collections increased due to the looting from countries that he invaded and conquered.  Famous valuable paintings and sculptures were taken from Italy, Egypt, Greece, Belgium, and the Netherlands and taken back to France.  According to Dr. Prior, with the justification of cultural security and a special requisition committee led by artist and archeologist Vivant Denon, Napoleon appropriated famous art works such as the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, Raphael’s Transfiguration, Correggio’s St. Jerome, and many others. The precious cargos were safely transported back to Paris and brought to the Louvre with organized festive processions where supposedly the artworks would find their ‘natural’ place at the source of ‘liberty, creativity, and genius’.

Due to the sizeable contribution of artworks to the collections of the Louvre by Napoleon’s war acquisitions, in 1803 the museum was renamed the “Musée Napoléon”, and in 1810 it reopened under the management of Vivant Denon.   Both Carol Duncan and Nick Prior state that by this time the display of the paintings was systematically arranged by schools, such as the Italian, French, Dutch, and Flemish.  Ms Duncan adds that a new meaning was acquired by the iconographic possessions of the past, such as the trophies, the treasures, and the valuable works of art.  What once symbolized material wealth, power, and social status, now was being transformed by the power of the new museum into ‘spiritual treasures’: spiritual and cultural treasures gained and protected by the state for its citizens.
Dr. Nick Prior points out that by 1803, in the Musée Napoléon, the layout of the artworks was more in line with rules dictated in the Enlightenment.  The paintings were still exhibited by schools and also had related explanatory texts.  Furthermore, an official museum catalogue was introduced which was available and prepared for the common citizen.  She states that by then France seemed to have developed a museum that emerged as entirely secular, public and national, as ‘a monument to democracy, civilization and international cultural domination’.
In conclusion, Duncan observes that the museum of Louvre became the model for most of the new public museums founded later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in many European cities and even in the United States, in cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland.


  1. Excellent piece Bruno, particularly in capturing the impact of the Napoleonic period.

  2. Cool!

  3. Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

  4. The best information i have found exactly here. Keep going Thank you

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