Once upon a time, I met a handsome American in Paris who said that he loved art. I suggested we visit the Louvre together. He said he had already seen it.
"All 300 rooms, all 35,000 works of art? In one visit?" I asked.
"Yup, the whole thing."
"Hmmm," was all I could muster in reply.
The big museums of the world including the Louvre, British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art have worlds within worlds to discover. It is impossible to see them all in one visit and trying to do so would be torture. Next in my series "Breaking Down" a suggested itinerary for a fun and meaningful visit to the Louvre when you have just one afternoon to do so.
But let's get one thing out of the way.
Yes, the Mona Lisa is at the Louvre. There are signs all over the museum pointing towards it. You know you are close when you suddenly hear what sounds like a press conference. Turn a corner and there she is, behind bullet-proof glass. Like most celebrities, she's smaller than you thought she looked in pictures. But the Mona Lisa may leave your cold and make you wonder what's the big deal about this painting anyway. Let me give you permission right now to skip the Mona Lisa. Really.
With that out of the way, these 10 works of art you must see when visiting the Louvre have been chosen based on their role in world history. These are the pieces you may remember from the freshman art history class you either loved or half slept through.
"Winged Victory of Samothrace"
There are some works of art for which no photo does them any justice. The Winged Victory of Samothrace may have been made for a naval monument in 190 BCE and displayed with water blowing against her continuously. She may be even more beautiful as a ruin. Put on a red dress and have your "Funny Face" moment.
"Virgin of the Rocks" Leonardo da Vinci
This is the Leonardo painting worth chasing. Here you can gaze into the hazy sfumato of a mysterious grotto where the Virgin Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist and an angel are grouped together. Observe how the Virgin's hand seems to protrude right through the surface of the painting. Not to be missed, dear friends.
"Dying Slaves" by Michelangelo
Made for the tomb of Pope Julius II, these incomplete works by Michelangelo are among only three works of the great master outside of Italy. This is also a great place to take a break and admire these works from a nearby bench.
"Victory Stele of Naram-Sin"
As the Akkadian ruler Naram-Sin ascends to the top of the mountain, he literally steps on the heads of his enemies. This is the first piece you learned about in Art History 101 right after cave paintings.
"Death of the Virgin," Caravaggio
This work was rejected by the men who commissioned it for the church of Santa Maria della Scala. It was too full of what we know love about Caravaggio —ordinary or vulgar details in divine scenes. Instead of glowing eternal rest, the Virgin Mary here is a bloated corpse. The apostles mourn her in a dark room that shows off the chiaroscuro (light and dark) that Caravaggio had so mastered. Legend is that the artist viewed the body of a drowned woman when composing the painting.
"Raft of the Medusa," Théodore Géricault
One of the most influential paintings in western art, the "Raft of the Medusa" was despised when it was first exhibited in the 1819 Salon in Paris next to paintings of a far less gruesome subject. Ripped from the headlines, the painting tells the story of the surviving sailors who after 12 days on a raft finally see land off the coast of Senegal. The bodies spill off the canvas which makes the experience of seeing this painting up close unforgettable.
" The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin" Jan van Eyck
Perhaps the greatest master of the Renaissance in the North, Jan van Eyck's oil paintings exhibit minute detail that can never be fully appreciated in reproductions. Here the Chancellor of Burgundy places himself right next to the Virgin and Christ Child in a contemporary landscape and setting.
"The Lacemaker" Jan Vermeer
One of the most famous painters in history is also one of the most elusive. The Louvre has two works by Vermeer who played with light and optics as though he were a photographer. "The Lacemaker" is small and pale but draws all your attention to the work at her hands.
"Legal Code of Hammurabi"
Made in 18th century B.C.E. Babylonia, this stele contains the legal pronouncements that include "an eye for an eye." On top, King Hammurabi is shown speaking directly to the god Shamash whose horns symbolize divinity and who also has lightening bolts on his shoulders. Anyone who has gone to law school will instantly recognize this famous work.
"Portrait of Louis XIV" Hyacinthe Rigaud
This portrait shows the Sun King in all his royal splendor. Imagine him swanning around the palace at Versailles in those red heeled shoes.