The building of the Louvre in its present form was begun in 1546 by François I , who also founded the royal collections, acquiring works by Leonardo , Raphael , and Titian . Louis XIV was both the most enthusiastic developer of the site and the most heroic art collector (buying in 1661 much of the Mazarin Collection that contained many paintings owned by Charles I of England), and under him the collection was briefly moved into the Louvre. When Versailles was established, however, the collection was dispersed.
In the half-century before the Revolution there had been inconclusive discussion about using the Louvre for displaying the royal pictures. A selection of—mostly Italian—masterpieces was put on show in the Palais du Luxembourg. In 1784 Hubert Robert was put in charge of setting up a ‘muséum’ in the Louvre but the project stalled.
In 1792 the monarchy fell. Roland, the Minister of the Interior, immediately decided to press on with installing the national museum in the Louvre, and it opened as the Muséum (later Musée) Central des Arts precisely one year later. Over 100 paintings were brought from Versailles , to join the ones from the Luxembourg, and there were several altarpieces from the huge accumulation of nationalized church property. (Additionally, the state had taken over the property left behind by émigrés and also the collection of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.)
The policy of expert official looting that went on throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars began at the outset, with the French occupation of Belgium in 1794 , when Belgium was immediately picked clean of all its most celebrated works—at that time mostly paintings by Rubens and van Dyck . While, therefore, Napoleon did not invent the looting policy, he continued to implement it with passionate enthusiasm during his Italian campaign beginning in 1796 . His motive was certainly not aesthetic—he preferred to walk resolutely past works of art in museums and was completely at a loss if he was forced to slow down and look at one. Beyond populist triumphalism, what took place seems to have been a political statement that the centre of the civilized world was moving from Rome to Paris, just as it had moved from Athens to Rome. That also lay behind the emphasis that was placed on conservation and on education. In 1800 over 800 pictures, including several confiscated Italian masterpieces, were distributed to French provincial museums.
By 1802 the Louvre’s Grande Galerie (then 30% longer than now) contained a high proportion of the most celebrated 16th- and 17th-century paintings from north and central Italy, Belgium, and Munich, as well as the masterpieces of the French royal collection. In other rooms the display of Antique sculpture included, amongst much else from Rome, all the most famous pieces from the Belvedere sculpture court in the Vatican (See under Rome). In that year Dominique Vivant-Denon became director of the museum, which was renamed Musée Napoléon the following year.
Vivant-Denon was a ruthless but inspired director, years ahead of his time in his view of art history and commitment to build a fully representative collection. After the battle of Jena in 1806 he swept through the princely collections of north Germany and selected more than 1,000, mainly Dutch and German, paintings to go to Paris. In 1811 the suppression of monasteries in Italy gave him a pretext for going there to collect a group of early paintings, beginning with a Cimabue Maestà from Pisa.
After the defeat of Napoleon Vivant-Denon did his best to keep the plunder but the majority of the most famous works still in Paris were eventually surrendered. Some of the allied negotiators were, however, prepared to write off a surprising amount of material, so that the Louvre kept about 100, mostly Italian, paintings (with as many again left in the provincial museums).
With the Restoration the Louvre became the direct responsibility of the monarch and both Charles X and Louis-Philippe opened up new exhibition space in it. Louis-Philippe had a particular enthusiasm for Spanish art and built up a huge Spanish collection (See Spanish art, patronage and collecting), rich in works by Zurbarán and Goya , as a result of Baron Taylor’s prospecting throughout Spain. From 1838 to 1848 this collection was displayed in the Louvre but it was returned to the Orléans family by the Second Republic and was eventually sold in London in 1853 . The next decisive time of expansion was under Napoleon III , when the enormous northern wing (albeit given over to the Ministry of Finance) was added along the Rue de Rivoli, and three huge painting galleries were added alongside the Grande Galerie to the south. With the Third Republic in 1871 the Louvre reverted to being France’s national museum, and acquisition policy was placed under the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in 1895 .
The period between 1815 and 1870 was when the Louvre acquired most of its ancient Greek sculptures. The Venus de Milo was bought from the local Turkish authorities as soon as it was discovered in 1820 , while the Nike of Samothrace was found by French excavators in 1863 . Meanwhile, the pieces that Napoleon had bought from Camillo Borghese in 1807 continued to form the nucleus of the collection of ancient Roman sculpture.
Although the encouragement and acquisition of French art was a major state objective throughout the 19th century, the authorities were slow to appreciate the kind of works that are now universally regarded as making the period one of the glories of French cultural history. No work by Courbet , for example, was accepted for the Louvre before 1878 , and when Caillebotte bequeathed 60 Impressionist paintings in 1894 , it took three years to persuade the Musées Nationaux to accept 40 of them. By the 1920s, however, a great deal of 19th-century French work was entering the Louvre through gifts and purchases, and it was progressively highlighted in the displays. From 1947 the Impressionist work was shown separately in the pavilion of the Jeu de Paume.
The ‘Grand Louvre’, which opened in 1993 , was one of the prestige projects taken forward in Paris under President François Mitterrand . The museum almost doubled its space by taking over the Second Empire north wing, within which vast glazed sculpture courts were constructed; much 19th-century painting and sculpture was transferred to the new Musée d’Orsay (which was devoted to the period 1848 – 1914 ); and a new entrance complex was built in the Cour Napoléon under the transparent pyramid designed by I. M. Pei ( 1917 – ). No other country has a central museum on such overwhelming scale. It is no accident that the south wing has been named after Vivant-Denon.