Paris – The Louvre: Modern Pictures And Other Treasures

FRENCH pictures early and late now await us. On our way down the Grand Galerie we passed on the right two entrances to other rooms. Taking that one which is nearer the British School, we find ourselves in Salle IX., leading to Salle X. and so on to Galerie XVI., which completes the series. In Salle X. the beginnings of French art may be studied, and in particular the curious Japanese effects of the Ëcole d’Avignon. Here also is very interesting work by Le Maître de Moulins and a remarkable series of drawings in the case in the middle, representing the siege of Troy. Salle XI. is notable for its portraits by Clouet and others; in Salle XII. we find Le Sueur, and in Salle XIII. the curious brothers Le Nain, of whom there are very interesting examples at the Ionides collection at South Kensington, but nothing better than the haymaking scene here, No. 542.

French painting of the seventeenth century bursts upon us in the great Salle XIV. or Galerie Mollien, of which Nicolas Poussin and Ausonian Claude are the giants, thus completing Landor’s pleasant list with which we entered the Grand Galerie in the last chapter. There are wonderful things here, but so crowded are they that I always feel lost and confused. There is, however, compensation and relief, for the room also contains one minute masterpiece which perhaps not more than five out of every thousand visitors have seen and yet which can be studied with perfect quietness and leisure. This is a tiny water-colour in the revolving screen in the middle. There is much delicate work in this screen, dainty aquatint effects by the Dutchmen Ostade and Van de Heyden, Weenix and Borssom, and so forth; but finest of all (as so often happens) is a little richly-coloured drawing of Nottingham by Boning-ton, who as we shall see, has a way of cropping up unsuspectedly and graciously in this great collection — and very rightly, since he owed so much to that Gallery. He was one of the youngest students ever admitted, being allowed to copy there at the age of fifteen, while at the Beaux Arts. That was in the year after Waterloo. There may in the history of the Gallery have been copyists equally young, but there can never have been one more distinguished or who had deeper influence on French art. Paris not only made Bonington’s career but ended it, for it was while sketching in its streets ten years or more later that he met with the sunstroke which brought about his death when he was only twenty-seven, and stilled the marvellous hand for ever.

Salle XV. is given up to portraits, among them — and shall I say chief of them, certainly chief of them in point of popularity — the adorable portrait of Madame Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and her daughter, painted by herself, which is perhaps the best-known French picture, and of which I give a reproduction opposite page 246. On a screen in this room are placed the latest acquisitions. When last I was there the more noticeable pictures were a portrait by Romney of him-self, rich and melancholy, recalling to the mind Tennyson’s monologue, and a sweet and ancient religieuse by Memling. There were also some Corot drawings, not perhaps so good as those in the Moreau collection, but very beautiful, and a charming old-world lady by Fragonard. These probably are by this time distributed over the galleries, and other new arrivals have taken their place. I hope so.

Galerie XVI., which leads out of the Salle de Portraits, brings us to French art of the eighteenth century — to Greuze and David, to Fragonard and Watteau, to Lancret and Boucher, and, to my mind, most charming, most pleasure-giving of all, to Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, who is to be seen in perfection here and in the distant room which contains the Collection La Caze.

It is probable that no painter ever had quite so much charm as this kindly Frenchman, whose loving task it was to sweeten and refine homely Dutch art. Chardin is the most winsome of all painters : his brush laid a bloom on domestic life. The Louvre has twenty-eight of his canvases, mostly still-life, distributed between the Salle La Caze and Salle No. XVI., where we now are. The most charming of all, which is to be seen in the Salle La Caze, is reproduced opposite page 234.

Having walked down the left wall of the Salle, it is well to slip out at the door at the end for a moment and refresh oneself with another view of Botticelli’s fresco, which is just outside, before returning by the other wall, as we have to go back through the Salle des Portraits in order to examine Galerie VIII., a vast room wholly filled with French paintings of the first half of the nineteenth century, bringing the nation’s art to the period more or less at which the Luxembourg takes it up, though there is a certain amount of over-lapping. No room in the Louvre so wants weeding and re-hanging as this, for it is a sad jumble, the hard studio brilliance of Ingres conflicting with the charm of Corot, the iron Manet with the gentle Millet, Delacroix with Scheffer. There are pictures here which if they were only isolated would be unforgettable; but as it is they are not even to be seen.

We leave the room by the door opposite that through which we came and find ourselves again in the Grande Galerie. The way now is to the left, through the Italian Schools, through the Salle Carré (why not stay there and let French art go hang?) through the Galerie d’Apollon (of which more anon), through the Rotunda and the Salle des Bijoux (whither we shall return), to another crowded late eighteenth and early nineteenth century French room chiefly notable for David’s Madame Récamier on her joyless little sofa. (Why didn’t we stay in the Salon Carré?) In this room also are two large Napoleonic pictures — one by Gros representing General Buonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa in 1799 ; the other, by David, of the consecration service in Notre Dame, described in an earlier chapter. To see this kind of picture, at which the French have for many years been extremely apt, one must of course go to Versailles, where the history of France is spread lavishly over many square miles of canvas.

From this room — La Salle des Sept Cheminées — we pass through a little vestibule, with Courbet’s great village funeral in it, to the very pleasant Salle La Caze, containing the greater part of the collection of the late Dr. La Caze, and notable chiefly for the Chardins of which I have already spoken, and also, by the further door, for a haunting “Bust de femme” attributed to the Milanese School. But there are other admirable pictures here, including a Velasquez, and it repays study.

Leaving by the further door and walking for some distance, we come to the His de la Salle collection of drawings, from which we gain the Collection Thiers, which should perhaps be referred to here, although there is not the slightest necessity to see it at all. The Thiers collection, which occupies two rooms, is remark-able chiefly for its water-colour copies of great paintings. The first President of the Republic employed patient artists to make copies suitable for hanging upon his walls of such inaccessible works as the “Last Judgment” of Michael Angelo and Raphael’s Dresden Madonna. The results are certainly extraordinary, even if they are not precisely la guerre. The Arundel Society perhaps found its inspiration in this collection. Among the originals there is a fine Terburg.

On leaving the Thiers collection, one comes to a narrow passage with a little huddle of water-colours, very badly treated as to light and space, and well worth more consideration. These pictures should not be missed, for among them are two Boningtons, a windmill in a sombre landscape, which I reproduce opposite page 274, and next to it a masterly drawing of the statue of Bartolommé Colleoni at Venice, which Ruskin called the finest equestrian group in the world. Bonington, who had the special gift of painting great pictures in small compass (just as there are men who can use a whole wall to paint a little picture on), has made a drawing in which the original sculptor would have rejoiced. It would do the Louvre authorities good if these Boningtons, which they treat so carelessly, were stolen. Nothing could be easier; I worked out the felony as I stood there. All that one would need would be a few friends equally concerned to teach the Louvre a lesson, behind whose broad backs one could ply the diamond and the knife. Were I a company promoter this is how I should spend my leisure hours. Such theft is very nigh virtue.

Among other pictures in these bad little rooms — Nos. XVII. and XVIII. — are some Millets and Decamps.

Two more collections — and these really more interesting than anything we saw in Galeries XIV. or XVI., or the Salle des Sept Cheminées — await us; but they need considerable powers of perambulation. Chronology having got us under his thumb, we must make the longer journey first — to the Collection Moreau. The Collection Moreau is to be found at the top of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, the entrance to which is in the Rue de Rivoli. In the lower part of this building are held periodical exhibitions; but the upper parts are likely at any rate for a long time to remain unchanged, and here are wonderful collections of furniture, and here hang the few but select canvases brought together by Adolph Moreau and his son, and presented to the nation by M. Etienne Moreau-Nelaton.

In the Thomy-Thierret collection in another top storey of the same inexhaustible palace (to which our fainting feet are bound) are Corots of the late period; M. Moreau bought the earlier. Here, among nearly forty others, you may see that portrait of Corot painted in 1825, just before he left for Rome, which his parents exacted from him in return for their consent to his new career and the abandonment of their rosy dreams of his success as a draper. Here you may see ” Un Moine,” one of the first pictures he was able to sell — for five hundred francs (twenty. pounds). Here is the charming marine “La Rochelle” painted in 1851 and given by Corot to Desbarolles and by Desbarolles to the younger Dumas. Here is the very beautiful Ponte de Nantes, reproduced opposite page 252, belonging to his later manner, and here also is an exceptionally merry little sketch, ” Bateau de pêche à marée basse.” I mention these only, since selection is necessary; but everything that Corot painted becomes in time satisfying to the student and indispensable to its owner. Among the pencil drawings we find this exquisite lover of nature once more, with fifteen studies of his Mistress.

One of the most interesting of the Moreau pictures is Fantin-Latour’s “Hommage à Delacroix,” with its figures of certain of the great and more daring writers and painters of the day, 1864, the year after Delacroix’s death. They are grouped about his framed portrait — Manet, red haired and red bearded, a little like Mr. Meredith in feature; Whistler, with his white feather black and vigorous, and his hand on the historical cane ; Legros (the only member of the group who is still living, and long may he live !) and Baudelaire, for all the world like an innocent professor. Manet himself is represented here by his famous ” Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” which the scandalised Salon of 1863 refused to hang, and three smaller canvases. Among the remaining pictures which gave me most pleasure are Couture’s portrait of Adolphe Moreau the younger; Daumier’s “La République”; Carrière’s “L’enfant à la soupière” (notice the white bowl) ; Decamps’ La Battue,” curiously like a Koninck ; and Troyon’s “Le Passage du Gué,” so rich and sweet.

From the Collection Moreau, with its early Barbizon pictures, one ought to pass to the collection Thorny-Thierret; but it needs courage and endurance, for the room which contains these exquisite pictures is only to be reached on foot after climbing many stairs and walking for what seem to be many miles among models of ships and other neglected curiosities on the Louvre’s top-most floor. But once the room is reached one is perfectly happy, for every picture is a gem and there is no one there. M. Thomy-Thierret, who died quite recently, was a collector who liked pictures to be small, to be rich in colour, and to be painted by the Barbizon and Romantic Schools. Here you may see twelve Corots, all of a much later period than those bequeathed by M. Moreau, among them such masterpieces as ” La Vallon” (No. 2801), reproduced opposite the next page, “Le Chemin de Sèvres” (No. 2803), “Entrée de Village” (No. 2808), “Les Chaumières” (No. 2809), and “La Route d’Arras” (No. 2810). Here are thirteen Daubignys, including “Les Graves de Villerville” (No. 28,177), and one sombre and haunting English scene — ” La Tamise Erith” (No. 2821). Here are ten Diaz’, most beautiful of which to my eyes is ” L’Éplorée ” (No. 2863).

Here are ten Rousseaus, among them ” Le Printemps” (No. 2903), with its rapturous freshness, which I reproduce opposite page 116, and “Les Chênes” (No. 2900), such a group of trees as Rousseau alone could paint. Here are six Millets, my favourite being the “Précaution Maternelle” (No. 2894), with its lovely blues, which again reappear in “Le Vanneur” (No. 28’93). Here are eleven Troyons, of which “La Provende des poules” (No. 2907), with its bustle of turkeys and chickens around the gay peasant girl beneath a burning sky, reproduced opposite page 266, is one of the first pictures to which my feet carry me on my visits to Paris. Here are twelve Duprés, most memorable of which is “Les Landes” (No. 2871). And here also are Delacroixs, Isabeys and Meissoniers. I suppose it is the best permanent collection of these masters.

So much for the pictures. There remains an immense variety of beautiful and interesting objects to be seen : so immense that it is almost ridiculous to attempt to write of them in such a book as this.

The sculpture alone.

Let us at any rate walk through the sculpture galleries. To write about painting is sufficiently difficult and unsatisfactory; to write about sculpture is practically impossible. Another obstacle is that the numbers in the official catalogue that is sold in the Louvre and the numbers on the statues do not correspond, so that one becomes as perplexed and irritated as the King and Queen in Andersen’s story of “The Tinder Box” after the dog with eyes as big as saucers had chalked the same figure on every house in the street.

We in England see so little statuary and know so little about it, that the visits of the English traveller to the sculpture galleries of the Louvre, chiefly made in order that he may say that he has seen the Venus of Milo, are few and hurried. To most of us all sculpture is equally good and equally cold ; but anyone who has an eye for the beauty of form will find these rooms a paradise. We have isolated figures in the British Museum that stand apart, and we have of course the Elgin marbles, which are as fine as anything in the Louvre, nor is there anything there with quite such a quality of tender charm as our new figure of a mourning woman; but when all is said the Louvre collection, as is only natural in a sculpture-loving nation, is vastly better than our own. The bronzes alone — in the Galerie Denon — leave us hopelessly behind.

You see the Venus of Milo before you all the way along her corridor : she stands quietly and glimmeringly beckoning at the very end of it, alone, before her dark red background. Why the Venus of Milo is so radiantly satisfying, so almost terribly beautiful, I cannot explain; but there it is. It is a cold beauty, but it is magical too; it dominates, controls. And with it there is peace ; a dove broods somewhere near. The strangest thing of all is that one never misses the arms. It is as though the arms were a defect in a perfect woman. How they can have been disposed by the sculptor I used once languidly to speculate; but I am interested no more. Those, however, that are should remember to look at the neighbouring glass case, where portions of hands and arms, discovered with the Venus in the soil of Milo in 1820 (the world has known this wonder only eighty-nine years : Napoleon never saw her) are preserved.

There is little room for me to enumerate the statues that should retard your steps to her; but the Borghese Mars is certainly one, in the midst of the rotunda, and I personally am attracted by the Silenus nursing Bacchus in the same room. In the Salle du Sarcophage de Medée there is a little torso of Amour on the left of Apollo, also with a beautiful back. In the Salle de l’Hermaphrodite de Velletri notice a draped figure lacking a head, close to the Hermaphrodite on the right.

From the Venus of Milo one turns to the Giant Melpomene keeping guard majestically over the mosaic pavement below her, which at first sight one thinks to be very old, but which dates only from the time of Napoleon, whose genius is symbolised by Minerva. There are few more lovely shades of colour in the Louvre than are preserved in this floor.

In the Salle des Caryatides, from which there is an exit into the courtyard of the old Louvre, there is a rugged Hercules, a boorish god with a club, that always fascinates me. The Hercules who carries Telèphe, just at the entrance, though fine, is a far less attractive figure. Also notice the child with the goose, dug up in the Appian Way in 1789 ; the towering Alexander the Great; the Jupiter de Versailles; the “Mercure at-tachant sa sandale”; the “Bacchus couronné de pampes”; the “Discobulus au repos.” I give no numbers for a reason explained above — a privation which I regret, since I cannot draw attention to two or three torsi with the most exquisite backs, one in one of the windows entitled “Amour avec les attributs d’Hercule.”

In the Salle des Héros Combattant note the mischievous head of the ” Jeune Satyre souriant,” in the middle.

In the Salle de la Pallas de Velletri, the ” Génie du repos éternel,” most feminine of youths, is alluring, and here are the Venus d’Arles and the Appollon Sauroctone after a bronze by Praxiteles. Note also the life and spirit of the ” Centaure dompté par l’Amour,” and there are beautiful torsi here, with fluid lines ; also a charming “Jeune homme casqué, dit Mars.” In the next room, the Salle du Tibre, are other examples of perfect modelling — in the two or three ” Jeunes Satyres vétûs de la nébride,” which are here, and in one or two figures in the window diagonally opposite to the door; and look also at the two Venuses “accroupit” in the middle, with the remains of little hands on their backs. But the colossal statue of old Father Tiber with Romulus and Remus is the dominating group.

I suspect that a census of the visitors to the modern sculpture in the Louvre would yield very low figures. This is not surprising for at least two reasons, one being that the sculpture displayed there is of poor quality, not made the less inferior by being adjacent to so much of the best sculpture in the world, and the other that it is so exceedingly difficult to find the way in. My advice to the reader is, Don’t find it. If, however, you insist, you will have the opportunity of selecting suitable adjectives for the work of Coyzevox and Puget, Coustou and Pigalle (after whom is named the roystering Place Pigalle to which so many cabs and motors urge their giddy way in the small hours), Houdon (who could be rather charming) and Ramly (who couldn’t) ; Jeraud and Rude, Chaudet and the vivid Carpeaux. Without the work of these men Paris would not be what it is, for we meet the creations of their mallet and chisel at every turn; and yet I know of few spots so depressing as the galleries that enshrine their indoor work. Carpeaux for example designed the group called “La Danse” on the wall of the Opera.

More charming by far is the Renaissance Sculpture — the Della Robbias and Donatellos — in the Renaissance Galleries, also on the ground floor in the extreme South East Wing; but these are often closed.

In all the galleries of what may be called the secondary Louvre — the pictures and ancient sculpture coming first nothing gives me so much pleasure as the wall paintings from Rome and Pompeii, of such exquisite delicacy of colour and now and then of design, and the terra-cotta figures, in the rooms above the Renaissance Gallery : grotesque comedians, cheerful peasants, mothers and children as simple and sweet as Millet’s, merry Cupids, hooded ladies, and in Room B. two winged figures (Nos. 86 and 88) that are lighter than air. In Room L. look particularly at the statuette of a pedagogue. In the Salle de Clarac, containing the collection of M. Clarac, look also very particularly at the little marble statue, broken but perfect too, of the crouching woman — No. 2631 — who ought to be on a revolving table, so lovely must her back be.

I say nothing of the other famous collections of the Louvre — the Egyptian and Assyrian and Chaldean rooms, the furniture, the ceramics, the models of ships and so forth. The riches of this palace are too varied and too many. But the little room between the Rotunde d’Apollon and the Salle des Sept Cheminées I must refer to, because that contains one of the most beautiful objects in the whole building — the Etruscan funeral casque, the grey-green and gold of which, but particularly the grey-green — the hue of verdigris — catch the eye so often as one passes and repasses this spot. In this room also are miracles of goldsmith’s and silver-smith’s art from the ruins of Pompeii, the gift of Baron Edward de Rothschild in 1895; and in the Galerie d’Apollon one must of course spend time to study its priceless goldsmith’s work and carved jewels. But the pen swoons at the thought of describing them.

Further description of the Louvre collections is not practicable in this book; nor indeed could any book or any library, really do them justice; nor could one obtain more than a faint impression of these riches if one visited the Louvre every morning for a month. But that undoubtedly is what one ought to do. Every day one should for a while loiter there.

One entirely loses sight of the fact as one walks through the Louvre that it was ever anything but an interminable museum, so much so indeed that a separate visit is necessary merely to keep our thoughts fixed on the history of the palace, for in almost every room something of extraordinary interest has happened. Kings and Queens have lived, loved, suffered and died in them; statesmen have met there to declare war; banquets and balls have enlivened them. In the vestibule or rotunda at the head of the grand staircase on the left leading into the glorious steel gates of the Galerie d’Apollon, Henri IV., brought hither from the Rue de la Ferronerie where Ravaillac stabbed him, breathed his last. In the Salle La Caze, where we saw the Chard ins, were held the great fêtes under Charles IX. and Henri III. In the Salle des Caryatides, where now is only sculpture, once dangled from the ceiling the hanged assassin of President Bresson.

Another visit is necessary for the examination of the paintings on the ceilings, which one never sees or even thinks of when one is new to the rooms. But this is a duty which is by no means unavoidable.

The Louvre is to-day the most wonderful museum in the world; but what would one not give to be able to visit it as it was in 1814, when it was in some respects more wonderful still. For then it was filled with the spoils of Napoleon’s armies, who had instructions always to bring back from the conquered cities what they could see that was likely to beautify and enrich France. It is a reason for war in itself. I would support any war with Austria, for example, that would bring to London Count Czernin’s Vermeer and the Parmigianino in the Vienna National Gallery; any war with Germany that would put the Berlin National Gallery at our disposal. Napoleon had other things to fight for, but that comprehensive brain forgot nothing, and as he deposed a king he remembered a blank space in the Louvre that lacked a Raphael, an empty niche waiting for its Phidias. The Revolution decreed the Museum, but it was Napoleon who made it priceless and glorious. After the fall of this man a trumpery era of restitution set in. Many of his noble patriotic thefts were cancelled out. The world readjusted itself and shrank into its old pettiness. Priceless pictures and statues were carried again to Italy and Austria, Napoleon to St. Helena.