Paris – The Louvre – The Old Masters

IT is on the first landing of the Escalier Daru, at the end of the Galerie Denon, that one of the most priceless treasures of the Louvre — one of the most splendid things in the world — is to be found : it has been before us all the way along the Galerie Denon, that avenue of noble bronzes, the first thing that caught the eye : I mean the “Winged Victory of Samothrace.” Every one has seen photographs or models of this majestic and exquisite figure, but it must be studied here if one is to form a true estimate of the magical mastery of the sculptor. The Victory is headless and armless and much mutilated ; but that matters little. She stands on the prow of the trireme, and for everyone who sees her with any imagination must for all time be the symbol of triumphant and splendid onset. The figure no doubt weighs more than a ton — and is as light as air. The “Meteor” in a strong breeze with all her sails set and her prow foaming through the waves does not convey a more exciting idea of commanding and buoyant progress. But that comparison wholly omits the element of conquest — for this is essential Victory as well.

The statue dates from the fourth century B.C. It was not discovered until 1863, in Samothrace. Paris is fortunate indeed to possess not only the Venus of Milo but this wonder of art — both in the same building.

Before entering the picture galleries proper, let us look at two other exceedingly beautiful things also on this staircase — the two frescoes from the Villa Lemmi, but particularly No. 1297 on the left of the entrance to Gallery XVI., which represents Giovanna Tornabuoni and the Three Graces and is by Sandro Filipepi, whom we call Botticelli. For this exquisite work alone would I willingly cross the Channel even in a gale, such is its charm. A reproduction of it will be found opposite page 6, but it gives no impression of the soft delicacy of colouring : its gentle pinks and greens and purples, its kindly reds and chestnut browns. One should make a point of looking at these frescoes whenever one is on the staircase, which will be often.

The ordinary entrance to the picture galleries of the Louvre is through the photographic vestibule on the right of the Winged Victory as you face it, leading to the Salle Duchâtel, notable for such differing works as frescoes by Luini and two pictures by Ingres — representing the beginning and end of his long and austere career. The Luinis are delightful — very gay and, as always with this tender master, sweet — especially ” The Nativity,” which is reproduced opposite page 16. The Ingres’ (which were bequeathed by the Comtesse Duchâtel after whom the room is named) are the”OEdipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx,” dated 1808, when the painter was twenty-eight, and the ” Spring,” which some consider his masterpiece, painted in 1856. He lived to be eighty-six. English people have so few opportunities of seeing the work of this master (we have in oils only a little doubtful portrait of Malibran, very recently acquired, which hangs in the National Gallery) that he comes as a totally new craftsman to most of us; and his severity may not always please. But as a draughtsman he almost takes the breath away, and no one should miss the pencil heads, particularly a little saucy lady, from his hand in the His de la Salle collection of drawings in another part of the Louvre.

In the Salle Duchâtel is also a screen of drawings with a very beautiful head by Botticelli in it — No. 48. From the rooms we then pass to the Salon Carré (so called because it is square, and not, as I heard one American explaining to another, after the celebrated collector Carré who had left these pictures to the nation), and this is, I suppose, for its size, the most valuable gallery in the world. It is doubtful if any other combination of collections, each contributing of its choicest, could compile as remarkable a room, for the “Monna Lisa,” or “LaJoconde,” Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the wife of his friend Francesco del Giocondo, which is its greatest glory and perhaps the greatest glory of all Paris too, would necessarily be missing.

Paris without this picture would not be the Paris that we know, or the Paris that has been since 1793 when “La Joconde”first became the nation’s property — ever more to smile her inscrutable smile and exert her quiet mysterious sway, not only for kings and courtiers but for all. When all is said, it is Leonardo who gives the Louvre its special distinction as a picture gallery. Without him it would still be magnificent : with him it is priceless and sublime. For not only are there the ” Monna Lisa” and (also in the Salon Carré) the sweet and beautiful “Madonna and Saint Anne,” but in the next, the Grande Galerie, are his ” Virgin of the Rocks,” a variant of the only Leonardo in our National Gallery, and the “Bacchus ” (so like the ” John the Baptist “) and the “John the Baptist” (so like the “Bacchus “) and the portrait of the demure yet mischievous Italian lady who is supposed to be Lucrezia Crivelli and who (in spite of the yellowing ravages of time) once seen is never forgotten.

The Louvre has all these (together with many drawings), but above all it has the Monna Lisa, of which what shall I say ? I feel that I can say nothing. But here are two descriptions of the picture, or rather two descriptions of the emotions produced by the picture on two very different minds. These I may quote as expressing, between them, all. I will begin with that of Walter Pater: “As we have seen him using incidents of sacred story, not for their own sake, or as mere subjects for pictorial realisation, but as a cryptic language for fancies all his own, so now he found a vent for his thought in taking one of these languid women, and raising her, as Leda or Pomona, as Modesty or Vanity, to the seventh heaven of symbolical expression.

“La Gioconda is, in the truest sense, Leonardo’s masterpiece, the revealing instance of his mode of thought and work. In suggestiveness, only the Melancholia of Dürer is comparable to it; and no crude symbolism disturbs the effect of its subdued and graceful mystery. We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least.’ As often happens with works in which invention seems to reach its limit, there is an element in it given to, not invented by, the master. In that inestimable folio of drawings, once in the possession of Vasari, were certain designs by Verrocchio, faces of such impressive beauty that Leonardo in his boyhood copied them many times. It is hard not to connect with these designs of the elder, by-past master, as with its germinal principle, the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister on it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work. Besides, the picture is a portrait. From childhood we see this image defining itself on the fabric of his dreams; and but for express historical testimony, we might fancy that this was but his ideal lady, embodied and beheld at last. What was the relationship of a living Florentine to this creature of his thought ? By what strange affinities had the dream and the person grown up thus apart, and yet so closely together? Present from the first incorporeally in Leonardo’s brain, dimly traced in the designs of Verrocchio, she is found present at last in Il Giocondo’s house. That there is much of mere portraiture in the picture is attested by the legend that by artificial means, the presence of mimes and flute-players, that subtle expression was protracted on the face. Again, was it in four years and by renewed labour never really completed, or in four months and as by stroke of magic, that the image was projected ?

“The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all `the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek Goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed ! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits ; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave ; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants ; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the hanging lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.”

This was what the picture meant for Pater ; whether too much, is beside the mark. Pater thought it and Pater wrote it, and that is enough. To others, who are not as Pater, it says less, and possibly more. This, for example, is what “Monna Lisa” suggested to one of the most distinguished and civilised minds of our time — James Russell Lowell : —

She gave me all that woman can, Nor her soul’s nunnery forego, A confidence that man to man Without remorse can never show.

Rare art, that can the sense refine Till not a pulse rebellious stirs, And, since she never can be mine, Makes it seem sweeter to be hers!

Finally, since we cannot (I believe) spend too much time upon this picture, let me quote Vasari’s account of it. “For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook to paint the portrait of Monna Lisa, his wife, but, after loitering over it for four years, he finally left it unfinished. This work is now in the possession of the King Francis of France, and is at Fontainebleau. Whoever shall desire to see how far art can imitate nature may do so to perfection in this head, wherein every peculiarity that could be depicted by the utmost subtlety of the pencil has been faithfully reproduced. The eyes have the lustrous brightness and moisture which is seen in life, and around them are those pale, red, and slightly livid circles, also proper to nature, with the lashes, which can only be copied, as these are, with the greatest difficulty; the eyebrows also are represented with the closest exactitude, where fuller and where more thinly set, with the separate hairs delineated as they issue from the skin, every turn being followed, and all the pores exhibited in a manner that could not be more natural than it is: the nose, with its beautiful and delicately roseate nostrils, might be easily believed to be alive; the mouth, admirable in its outline, has the lips uniting the rose-tints of their colour with that of the face, in the utmost perfection, and the carnation of the cheek does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood ; he who looks earnestly at the pit of the throat cannot but believe that he sees the beating of the pulses, and it may be truly said that this work is painted in a manner well calculated to make the boldest master tremble, and astonishes all who behold it, how-ever well accustomed to the marvels of art.

“Monna Lisa was exceedingly beautiful, and while Leonardo was painting her portrait, he took the pre-caution of keeping someone constantly near her, to sing or play on instruments, or to jest and otherwise amuse her, to the end that she might continue cheerful, and so that her face might not exhibit the melancholy expression often imparted by painters to the likenesses they take. In this portrait of Leonardo’s, on the contrary, there is so pleasing an expression, and a smile so sweet, that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human, and it has ever been esteemed a wonderful work, since life itself could exhibit no other appearance.

King Francis I. (who met our Henry VIII. on the Field of the Cloth of Gold) bought the picture of Monna Lisa from the artist for a sum of money equal now to £20,000. It was on a visit to Francis that Leonardo died. “Monna Lisa” was the most valuable picture in the cabinet of Francis I. and was first hung there in 1545. It is very interesting to think that this work, the peculiar glory of the Gallery, should also be its nucleus, so to speak. The Venus of Milo and the Winged Victory, which I have grouped with ” Monna Lisa” as its chief treasures, were not added until the last century.

Among other pictures in the Louvre which date from the inception of a royal collection in the brain of Francis I. are the “Virgin of the Rocks” by Leonardo, Raphael’s “Sainte Famille” (No. 1498) and “Saint Michael,” Andrea del Sarto’s “Charité” and Piombo’s “Visitation.” Louis XIII. began his reign with about fifty pictures and increased them to two hundred, while under Louis XIV., the Louvre’s most conspicuous friend, the royal collection grew from these two hundred to two thousand — assisted greatly by Colbert the financier, who bought for the Crown not only much of the collection of the banker Jabach of Cologne, the Pier-pont Morgan of his day, who had acquired the art treasures of our own Charles I., but also the Mazarin bibelots. Under Louis XIV. and succeeding monarchs the pictures oscillated between the Louvre, the Luxembourg and Versailles. The Revolution centralised them in the Louvre, and on 8th November, 1793, the collection was made over to the public. During the first Republic one hundred thousand francs a year were set aside for the purchase of pictures.

But we are in the Salon Carré. Close beside “La Joconde” is that Raphael which gives me personally more pleasure than any of his pictures — the portrait, beautiful in greys and blacks, of Count Baldassare Castiglione, reproduced opposite page 52; here is a Correggio (No. 1117) bathed in a glory of light; here is a golden Giorgione; here is an allegory by Titian (No. 1589), not so miraculously coloured as the Correggio but wonderfully rich and beautiful; here is a little princess by Velasquez; and near it a haunting portrait of a young man (No. 1644) which has been attributed to many hands, but rests now as the work of Francia Bigio. I reproduce it opposite page 70. And that is but a fraction of the treasures of the Salon Carré. For there are other Titians, notably the portrait (No. 1592) of a young man with a glove (reproduced opposite page 64), marked by a beautiful gravity; other Raphaels more characteristic, including “La Belle Jardinière” (No. 1496), filled with a rich deep calm; the sweetest Luini that I remember (No. 1354), and the immense “Marriage at Cana” by Paolo Veronese, which when I saw it recently was being laboriously engraved on copper by a gentleman in the middle of the room. It was odd to watch so careful a piece of translation in the actual making — to see Veronese’s vast scene with its rich colouring and tremendous energy coming down into spider-like scratches on two square feet of hard metal. I did not know that such patience was any longer exercised. This picture, by the way, has a double interest — the general and the particular. As Whistler said of Switzerland, you may both admire the mountain and recognise the tourist on the top. It is full of portraits. The bride at the end of the table is Eleanor of Austria; at her side is Francis I. (who found his way into as many pictures as most men) ; next to him, in yellow, is Mary of England. The Sultan Suliman I. and the Emperor Charles V. are not absent. The musicians are the artist and his friends — Paul himself playing the ‘cello, Tintoretto the piccolo, Titian the bass viol, and Bassano the flute. The lady with a toothpick is (alas !) Vittoria Colonna.

It is, by the way, always student-day at the Louvre — at least I never remember to have been there, except on Sundays, when copyists were not at work. Many of the copies are being made to order as altar pieces in new churches and for other definite purposes. Not all, however ! A newspaper paragraph lying before me states that the authorities of the Louvre have five hundred unfinished copies on their hands, abandoned by their authors so thoroughly as never to be inquired for again. I am not surprised.

From the Salle Carré we enter the Grande Galerie, which begins with the Florentine School, and ends, a vast distance away, with Rembrandt. But first it is well to turn into the little Salle des Primitifs Italiens, a few steps on the right, for here are very rare and beautiful things: Botticelli’s “Madonna with a child and John the Baptist” (No. 196) ; Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of an old man and a boy” (Na 1322), which I reproduce opposite page 136, that triumph of early realism, and his “Visitation” (No. 1321), with its joyful colouring, culminating in a glorious orange gown; Benedetto Ghirlandaio’s “Christ on the way to Golgotha” (No. 1323, on the opposite wall), a fine hard red picture; two little Piero de Cosimos (on each side of the door), very mellow and gay — representing scenes in the marriage of Thetes and Peleus; Fra Filippo Lippi’s ” Madonna and Child with two sainted abbots” (No. 1344), and the “Nativity” next it (No. 1343) ; a sweet and lovely “Virgin and Child” (No. 1345) of the Fra Filippo Lippi school; another, also very beautiful, by Mainardi (No. 1367) ; a canvas of portraits, including Giotto and the painter himself, by Paolo Uccello (No. 1272), the very picture described by Vasari in the Lives; and Giotto’s scenes in the life of St. Francis, in the frame of which, as we shall see, I once, for historical comparison, slipped the photograph of M. Henri Pol, charmeur des oiseaux. These I name; but much remains that will appeal even more to others.

To walk along the Grande Galerie is practically to traverse the history of art: Italian, Spanish, British, German, Flemish and Dutch paintings all hang here. Nothing is missing but the French, which, however, are very near at hand. Some lines of Landor which always come to my mind in a picture gallery I may quote hereabouts with peculiar fitness, and also with a desire to transfer the haunting — a very good one even if one does not agree with the reference to Rembrandt, which I do not :—

First bring me Raphael, who alone hath seen In all her purity Heaven’s Virgin Queen, Alone hath felt true beauty; bring me then Titian, ennobler of the noblest men; And next the sweet Correggio, nor chastise His little Cupids for those wicked eyes. I want not Rubens’s pink puffy bloom, Nor Rembrandt’s glimmer in a dirty room With these, nor Poussin’s nymph-frequented woods, His templed heights and long-drawn solitudes. I am content, yet fain would look abroad On one warm sunset of Ausonian Claude.

It is no province of this book to take the place of a catalogue; but I must mention a few pictures. The left wall is throughout, I may say, except in the case of the British pictures, the better. Here, very early, is the lovely “Holy Family” of Andrea del Sarto (No. 1515) ; here hang the four Leonardos which I have mentioned and certain of his derivatives; a beautiful Andrea Solario (No. 1530) ; a Lotto, very modern in feeling (No. 1350) ; a very striking ” Salome” by Luini (1355), and the same painter’s “Holy Family” (No. 1353); Mantegna; a fine Palma; Bellini; Antonello de Messina; more Titians, including “The Madonna with the rabbit” (No. 1578) and ” Jupiter and Antiope” (No. 1587) ; a new portrait of a man in armour by Tintoretto, lately lent to the Louvre, one of his gravest and greatest ; and so on to the sweet Umbrians — to Perugino and to Raphael, among whose pictures are two or three examples of his gay romantic manner, the most pleasing of which (No. 1509), ” Apollo and Marsyas,” is only conjecturally attributed to him.

We pass then to Spain — to Murillo, who is represented here both in his rapturous saccharine and his realistic moods, “La Naissance de la Vierge” (No. 1710) and “Le Jeune Mendicant” (No. 1717); to Velasquez, who, however, is no longer credited with the lively sketch of Spanish gentlemen (No. 1734) ; and to Zurbaran, the strong and merciless.

The British pictures are few but choice, including a very fine Raeburn, and landscapes by Constable and Bonington, two painters whom the French elevated to the rank of master and influence while we were still de-bating their merits. Such a landscape as “Le Cottage” (No. 1806) by Constable, with its rich English simplicity, brings one up with a kind of start in the midst of so much grandiosity and pomp. It is out of place here, and yet one is very happy to see it. From Britain we pass to the Flemish and Germans — to perfect Holbeins, including an Erasmus and Dürer; to Rubens, who, how-ever, comes later in his full force, and to the gross and juicy Jordaens.

Then sublimity again; for here is Rembrandt of the Rhine. After Leonardo, Rembrandt is to me the glory of the Louvre, and especially the glory of the Grande Galerie, the last section of which is now hung with twenty-two of his works. Not one of them is perhaps superlative Rembrandt; there is nothing quite so fine as the portrait of Elizabeth Bas at the Ryks, or the ” School of Anatomy at the Mauritshuis, or the ” Unjust Steward” at Hertford House; but how wonderful they are ! Look at the miracle of the flying angel in the picture of Tobias — how real it is and how light ! Look closely at the two little pictures of the philosopher in meditation. I have chosen the beautiful “Venus et L’Amour” and the “Pèlerins d’Emmaus” for reproduction ; but I might equally have taken others. They will be found opposite 146 and 154.

On the other wall are a few pictures by Rembrandt’s pupils and colleagues, such as Ferdinand Bol and Govaert Flinck, who were always on the track of the master; and more particularly Gerard Dou : note the old woman in his “Lecture de la Bible,” for it is Rembrandt’s mother, and also look carefully at “La Femme Hydro-pique,” one of his most miraculously finished works—a Rembrandt through the small end of a telescope.

From these we pass to the sumptuous Salle Van Dyck, which in its turn leads to the Salle Rubens, and one is again filled with wonder at the productivity of the twain — pupil and master. Did he never tire, this Peter Paul Rubens ? Did a new canvas never deter or abash him ? It seems not. No sooner was it set up in his studio than at it he must have gone like a charge of cavalry, magnificent in his courage, in his skill and in his brio. What a record ! Has Rubens’ square mileage ever been worked out, I wonder. He was very like a Frenchman : it is the vigour and spirit of Dumas at work with the brush. In the Louvre there are fifty-four attested works, besides many drawings; and it seems to me that I must have seen as many in Vienna, and as many in Dresden, and as many in Berlin, and as many in Antwerp, and as many in Brussels, to say nothing of the glorious landscape in Trafalgar Square. He is always overpowering ; but for me the quieter, gentler brushes. None the less the portrait of Heléne Fourment and their two children, in the Grande Galerie, although far from approaching that exquisite picture in the Lichtenstein Gallery in Vienna, when the boys were a little older, is a beautiful and living thing which one would not willingly miss.

Van Dyck was, of course, more austere, less boisterous and abundant, but his record is hardly less amazing, and he seems to have faced life-size equestrian groups, such as the Charles the First here, without a tremor. The Charles is superb in his distinction and disdain ; but for me, however, Van Dyck is the painter of single portraits, of which, no matter where I go, none seems more noble and satisfying than our own Cornelius Van Voorst in Trafalgar Square. But the “Dame et sa Fille,” which is reproduced on the opposite page, is very beautiful.

All round the Salle Rubens are arranged the little cabinets in which the small Dutch pictures hang — the Jan Steens and the Terburgs, the Hals’ and the Metsus, the Ruisdaels and the Karel du Jardins, the Ostades and the golden Poelenburghs. Of these what can I say ? There they are, in their hundreds, the least of them worth many minutes’ scrutiny. But a few may be picked out: the Jan van Eyck (No. 1986) “La Vierge au Donateur,” reproduced opposite page 166, in which the Chancellor Rollin reveres the Virgin on the roof of a tower, and small wild animals happily play around, and we see in the distance one of those little fairy cities so dear to the Flemish painter’s imagination; David’s “Noce de Cana”; Metsu’s “Vierge et Enfant” ; the Memling and the Rogier van der Weyden, close by;

Franz Hals’ “Bohémienne,” reproduced opposite page 186 ; Van der Heyden’s lovely ” Plain de Harlem” (No. 2382) ; Paul Potter’s “Bois de La Haye” (No. 2529), almost like a Diaz, and his little masterpiece No. 2526 ; the Terburgs : the ” Music Lesson ” (No. 2588) and the charming “Reading Lesson” (No. 2591) with the little touzled fair-haired boy in it, reproduced opposite page 206; Ruisdael’s “Paysage dit le Coup de Soleil” (No. 2560) ; Hobbema’s ” Moulin h eau ” (No. 2404) ; and, to my eyes, almost first of all, Vermeer of Delft’s ” Lace-maker” (No. 2587), reproduced opposite page 216. These are all I name.

So much for the paintings by the masters of the world. The Louvre also has drawings from the same hands, which hang in their thousands in a series of rooms on the first floor, overlooking the Rue de Rivoli. Here, as I have said, are other Leonardos (look particularly at No. 389), and here, too, are drawings by Raphael and Rembrandt, Correggio and Rubens (a child’s head in particular), Domenico Ghirlandaio and Chardin, Mantegna and Watteau, Dürer and Ingres. I re-produce only one, a study attributed to the school of Fabriano, opposite page 228. Here one may spend a month in daily visits and wish never to break the habit. We have in England hardly less valuable and interesting drawings, but they are not to be seen in this way. One must visit the Print Room of the British Museum and ask for them one by one in portfolios. The Louvre, I think, manages it better.