On August 24th, 1911, Leonardo Da Vinci’s now-famous painting – the Mona Lisa – was stolen from the Louvre museum. Though the painting hadn’t nearly the iconic presence it does today, the media frenzy the fiasco kicked up saw the painting – and its museum – becoming involved the most discussed crime of the early 20th century (Freundschuh 274–82). The throngs of visitors staring at the empty frame where the Mona Lisa should have been in 1911 resembled the craning crowd of present-day desperate to get a glimpse of the iconic masterpiece. Tourism at the Louvre has changed greatly in the last few centuries, and today, its paintings are now commodified and mass-produced through obligatory pictures and selfies taken in the Louvre.
However, it wasn’t always so. The Louvre began as the Luxembourg Palace, built by Marie de Médicis, and displayed the royal collection of art as early as 1750. By far, the most stunning component to the museum was the sixteenth-century Grand Gallery, “450 yards along the Seine” river. When the French Revolution arrived, the important goals of both conservation and education were laid for the museum, and it became “the model for all public art museums to follow” (Levenstein, Seductive Journey 59–60). The immensely valuable galleries remained largely unharmed throughout the Napoleonic Wars – in fact, Napoleon’s exploits pillaging the castles of his defeated enemies brought vast additions to the museum’s growing collection, and he changed its name to the Musée Napoléon. In the 1830’s, the museum – now named the Louvre – contained more than fourteen hundred paintings arranged into the various artistic schools of the continent (Levenstein, Seductive Journey 59–60). Tourism to Paris before the mid-19th century was primarily composed of wealthy young British aristocratic men experiencing the “grand tour” – the “crowning of their classical education.” In more modern terms, these would be described as cultural tourists who went beyond simply looking and experiencing art in a foreign place – they actively sought to analyze and understand the art (Kaczmarek 9–10). This intimate and inherently privileged relationship with art changed as the grand tour became and disrespected. Monied British lads touring the continent became much more concerned with ditching their stuffy tutors and causing a ruckus fueled by alcohol abuse in Europe’s capitals (Levenstein, Seductive Journey 5). Already, a shift was beginning to occur away from serious scholarly study by the average museum visitor – however, the throngs of tourists you know today crowding around the Mona Lisa had yet to become the norm.
The innovations in transportation of the midcentury – steamships and railroads – began to allow for tourists of lower income brackets. A tour of Europe – once taking more than a year – now took just four weeks by the 1860’s (Levenstein, Seductive Journey 93–95). As a result, tourism became exponentially more financially feasible, and by the 1930’s, the Louvre was “the number one sight for foreign visitors to Paris.” This visit, however, was becoming rarely substantial – tourists would enter the Louvre, look at the Big Three – the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and the Mona Lisa – and promptly leave (Levenstein, We’ll Always Have Paris 42–126). In fact, by the 1950’s, many tourists were complaining about the lengthy stay at the Louvre, leading tour guides to make the stop as short as possible. One man – Peter Stone – tried for the “six-minute Louvre,” a sprint to see the Big Three and be out the door within six minutes, a testament to what most American tourists primarily sought in their obligatory trip to the Louvre (Levenstein, We’ll Always Have Paris 182). In the late 20th century, consumption of popular tourist landmarks and paintings occurred through postcards and cheap cameras – with the advent of the Internet, this shifted towards sharing on social media. In the present-day, over eight million tourists visit the Musée du Louvre each year to snap and share a photo of already ubiquitous works of art, constructing, as Sylwia Kaczmarek claims, a “superficial, simplified cultural model of global artistic heritage” (Kaczmarek 11).
What does this mean for the millions of tourists touring the Louvre today? In our present world, much of the way we log and validify our experiences is through social media. Many – if not most – tourists walking through the Louvre and other museums use their smart phones to guide the way, and modern museums have begun capitalizing on this by offering applications that augment users’ experiences by providing more information in an interactive experience. However, there are plenty valuing art tourism just as the privileged individuals of the grand tour did. Kaczmarek offers a compelling argument that a great number of tourists today seek only to collect mementos of an itemized list of must-see destinations – “box-tickers” (Kaczmarek 13). Many, on the other hand – like students, art connoisseurs, and artists – seek to actively interpret and understand the art of the Louvre, and in a capacity greater than simply looking at the Mona Lisa and snapping a picture.
Visiting the Louvre, you will undoubtedly be aware of the history encased in its Renaissance-style walls and architecture, as well as the iconic presence the museum holds in our collective imagining of what the city of Paris is. Its central location in the middle of the city along the Seine river provides easy access to everyone, and the sights it offers along the Champs-Élysées make it one of the most breathtaking venues. Though its magnificent halls are plagued by huge crowds of tourists (an average of more than 22,000 every day), the works of art it houses are some of the most recognizably masterful in the world.