Introduction to French Painting
   From "The Louvre European paintings" by Michel Laclotte and
   Jean-Pierre Cuzin (Published by Editions Scala - 1993)

Woman in blue, 1874 The French paintings in the Louvre represent well over half the Museum's entire collection; their quality and fame make them by far the most important extant collection of such works. It was therefore decided to divide the Louvre's great paintings into two parts, and that the first of them should be devoted solely to the French School. It should, however, be emphasised that the Museum's other collections, such as the Italian, could well have merited this preeminence, since chronologically the scope of these two parts does not go much beyond the middle of the nineteenth century and, therefore, excludes the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The second part, European Paintings in the Louvre, covers the Museum's wealth of works from countries other than France and with the first provides for the reader a balanced view of the collection as a whole. In the following pages we shall trace the history of the Louvre itself and of its unique range of French paintings from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Apart from Watteau in the Wallace Collection in London and in Berlin-Charlottenburg, and Bourdon in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, there is scarcely any French artist that can be more fully studied elsewhere than in the Louvre.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Paris, 1796 - Paris, 1875
Woman in blue, 1874
Canvas 80 x 50.5 cm
Purchased in 1912
We know that Francois I brought artists from Italy to decorate the Chateau de Fontainebleau and that he collected Italian paintings. He chose works by Leonardo da Vinci rather than contemporary ones by French artists, such as the Master of Moulins. Probably the only French paintings we would have found in the royal collection would have been family portraits. One still exists and is preserved in the Louvre - the portrait of Francois I himself, attributed to Jean Clouet, which has now become the symbol of the continuity of the Louvre, a national collection which grew out of the royal collection.

It was not until the reign of Henri IV, after a long period of civil war, that another king was interested in art and commissioned paintings; some of those by Dubreuil which decorated the Chateau Neuf, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, have survived, but we can really only talk about vestiges of a decorative scheme rather than a collection of paintings. Louis XIII commissioned works from Simon Vouet and asked Nicolas Poussin to decorate the Grande Galerie in the Louvre, as well as commissioning a large altar-piece from him, although Louis XIII was not really a collector.

It was Louis XIV who enthusiastically resumed the traditional role of patron of the arts that had been established by Francois I. His reign saw the true beginnings of the Louvre's collection of French paintings, and it was dominated by four contemporary artists, two living in Rome, Poussin and Claude, and the King's two official painters, Le Brun and Mignard. After the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, 546 of the former Prime Minister's most beautiful paintings became part of the King's collection. Of these 77 were French, although unfortunately their titles are not known. Throughout Louis XIV's reign many marvelous works by Poussin and Claude were bought or given to the king. Le Brun, Garde des tableaux du Roi until his death, prepared the first inventory of the royal collection in 1683 and another more systematic one was produced by the miniaturist Bailly in 1710. He catalogued 2,376 paintings of which 898 were copies, anonymous, of dubious attribution, or by Le Brun, Verdier and Mignard. Of the 1,478 paintings which constituted the main collection, the vast majority were French. Many, however, were not easel paintings but decorative works for the royal chateau. The Cabinet du Roi (the King's art collection) was in the new part of the Louvre created by Le Vau, but these paintings were gradually dispersed to Versailles and other royal residences.

Louis XV, unlike his contemporaries the King of Prussia, the German princes, the Tsarina and the Queen of Sweden, was not a great lover of paintings; in 1770 the fabulous Crozat collection belonging to Baron de Thiers was sold in its entirety to Catherine the Great of Russia. Apart from a few paintings purchased from the Carignan estate, the royal collection was augmented only by canvases or tapestry cartoons commissioned to decorate the royal residences. Nevertheless, this means that the Louvre now owns important paintings by Boucher, Lancret, Vernet, Oudry, Van Loo and Fragonard.

On the other hand, it was during Louis XV's reign that it was decided to show part of the royal collection to artists and the public, a real innovation. From 1750-79, 110 paintings were exhibited in rooms in the Palais du Luxembourg, open at the same time as Rubens' Galerie Me'dicis, two half-days a week. Among the canvases displayed in this embryo museum, forerunner of the Louvre's, were a variety of French paintings - eleven by Poussin, four each by Claude and Valentin, and one or two each by Vouet, Le Sueur, Le Brun, Rigaud, Antoine and Noel Coypel, Mignard, La Fosse, Santerre, Vivien and Lemoyne.

Louis XVI's reign was decisive for the royal collection and would certainly have seen the opening of the Louvre museum had it not been for the French Revolution. In 1774, the year of the King's accession to the throne, the Comte d'Angiviller became Surintendant des Batiments du Roi, an appointment which included control of the royal collection. He realised the role that earlier master-pieces could play in "reviving" French painting and to this end plannned to open a "Museum" in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. He tried to fill the gaps in the collection and systematically ordered works to be reframed in an attempt to unify the paintings. This constituted the birth in France of modern theories of museum conservation and display. French paintings were often purchased: not only history paintings commissioned from contemporaries, but also earlier seventeenth-century works, notalbly the cycle depicting the life of St Bruno by Le Sueur.

The Museum Central des Arts finally opened in the summer of 1793, during the Convention. Louis XVI's collection became that of the nation, and the revolutionary leaders, despite enormous immediate difficulties, were sufficiently enthusiastic to bring to fruition an enterprise that had begun under the monarchy. The concept of the museum, which had been growing throughout Europe, now came to fruition. At the Louvre, however, its realisation took on proportions which no-one could have dreamed of during the Ancien Re'gime. To the royal collection were added vast numbers of works seized from churches, convents and the nobility, as well as the works which had constituted the collection of the Acade'mie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. A museum committe, consisting chiefly of artists, decided which works to keep for the Louvre. When the museum opened the paintings were hung in a very surprising mixture of periods and schools. Among the French paintings were several by Le Sueur and Vernet, examples by Poussin, Vouet, Patel, Champaigne, Valentin, Dughet, Bourdon, Mignard, Jouvenet and Desportes, two by Tre'molie`res, a small Subleyras, a Vignon (now a Grenoble) and even a work by Tournier, then attributed to Manfredi (now in Le Mans). The earliest French painting was The Last Judment by Jean Cousin the Younger, which had come from the convent of the Minimes, Vincennes.

So many works had now been gathered that from 1793 a second museum had to be instigated at the Chateau de Versailles. This was the Musee Special de l'ecole Francaise, where in particular the election pieces of past and present Academicians were featured. The account of 1802 mentions 352 pictures: twenty-three by Poussin, ten by, Le Brun and seven by Mignard, also examples by Vouet, Bourdon, the cycle by Le Sueur, Claude, La Fosse, Lagrene'e and Vernet. Among the contemporaries were Fragonard, Greuze and Vien. In 1804 this short-lived museum was disbanded.

However, the enormous assemblage of paintings in depots and in the Louvre was only the beggining. The victorious armies of the Republic and then the Empire commandeered the most prestigious works of art from royal collections and religious establishments throughout Europe, notably from Italy and, later, Germany. During the Empire Vivant Denon was the organiser and oversser of this unique museum. Thus, for a short time the Muse'um, which had become the Musee Napoleon, owned a great part of Europe's heritage. It is interesting to note that at this stage the amount of space given to French paintings was small. In the Grande Galerie four bays were devoted to Northern Schools, four to Italian, but only one to the Frence.

After the Battle of Waterloo the Napoleonic dream evaporated and most of the booty in the museum was returned to its places of origin. Although the Louvre was singularly depleted, this dismantling was not fatal to the collection for, attached to the Civil List, the parliamentary allowance for sovereign's expenditure, it became once again the direct concern of the King. During the reign of Louis XVIII many of the works seized from the nobility and churches were retained by the Louvre, now seen as a great national institution. From this time on the collection turned more towards French painting; from the Palais du Luxembourg, at the same time as the Me'dicis series by Rubens, came the St Bruno cycle by Le Sueur and several of Vernet's Ports of France . Some contemporary canvases were also purchased (David, Girodet, Gue'rin), and housed in the Muse'e du Luxembourg, which had been opened in 1818 for the works of living artists.

The most important project during the reign of Louis-Philippe was the formation of the Musee historique de Versailles, and the Louvre was somewhat abandoned. However, after the brief Republic of 1848, when it was again proposed, as it had been during the Revolution, to turn the Louvre into a "palace of the people" including the museum, the Bibliotheque National and temporary exhibition space, the Second Empire was to see one of the greatest epochs in the history of the

The interior of Sens cathedral, 1874
museum. With the impetus of the Emperor behind the project, the vast Tuileries/Louvre ensemble was completed in record time, including the gigantic painting galleries (Salle Mollien, Salle Daru and Salle des Etats) which were such a novely. Of the highly valuable acquisitions made during this period, the Denor La Caze collection in 1869 was the most important. Comprising some eight hundred paintings, it was the finest collection ever bequeathed to the Louvre. La Caze's contribution was inestimable in the field of French seventeenth- and eighteenth- century painting; one cannot imagine how, without him, the work of Largilliere, Watteau, Chardin or Fragonard would have been represented today. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Paris, 1796 - Paris, 1875
The interior of Sens cathedral, 1874
Canvas 61 x 40 cm
Gift of Jacques Zoubaloff, 1919

With the declaration of the Republic the Louvre became France's national museum and has remained so ever since; gone was the ambiguity of a museum funded by the Civil List of a sovereign. From that time on the purchase of paintings was gradual and methodical, acquisitions being make as knowledge of French paintings was extended by art historical research. The generosity of collectors continued; gifts and bequests increased. It was, for example, collectors such as Thomy Thie'ry (1906), Chauchard (1910) and Camondo (1911), whose gifts of whole rooms of paintings (often filling gaps left by official purchases) to a large extent formed the unrivalled collection of nineteenth-century art now owned by the Louvre. Also important are the collectors' contributions to early French painting such as those of: Schlichting (1914), Robert (1926), Croy (1930), Jamot (1941), Beistegui(1942), Gourgaud (1965), Lyon (1961) and Schlageter and Kaufman (1984).

Above all, the magnificent support of the Societe des Amis du Louvre, founded in 1897, has led to the acquisition of some of the greatest masterpieces of French Painting, from the Pieta` d'Avignon (1905) to La Tour's St Sebastian (1979). The recent law allowing the donation of works of art in lieu of death duties has meant that major works by Champaigne, Fragonard, Greuze, Prud'hon and courbet have been preserved for the nation.

The appearance of the rooms devoted to French paintings changed considerably in Spring 1989 with the opening of the new rooms on the second floor of the Cour Carre'e. Our collections from the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century are now more amply displayed with many works brought out from the reserve collections. the large_scale works of the seventeenth century, in particular, by Le Sueur, Philippe de Champaigne, Le Brun and Jouvenet, have at last been given the place they deserve. December 1992 saw the opening of the rooms in the East and South wings, designed by Italo Rota and devoted to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The visitor can now walk right round the Cour Carree taking in the whole history of French painting. The large-scale works of the nineteenth century remain in teh admirable Daru, Denon and Mollien rooms situated on the first floor. The Grand Louvre project had extended this programme by permitting access to the French paintings by I. M. Pei's monumental mechanical staircase in the Richelieu wing, to the east of the Pavillon Richelieu. The opening of new rooms in November 1993 has allowed us to rehang the Primitives and works of the sixteenth century, adding considerably to the space devoted to the seventeenth century.

These changes have significantly altered the whole perception of French painting, and enable a more completer exhibition of our treasures and presentation of the great showpieces. The significance of this lies in the fact that our concept of French painting depends so much on what is seen at the Louvre. That image today represents the most diverse aspects of French art and, although it may not be the definitive representation, it is more accurate and complete than in any other museum.