The Louvre, home to half a million works of art, is a work of art in itself. Built, altered, expanded, and renovated over the centuries, it retains elements from its 12th-century beginnings, found underground around the lobby area, but Renaissance and French classical styles prevail. The Louvre is said to have inspired the architecture of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Originally constructed in 1190 as a fortress, the Louvre was turned by Francis I into the main residence of French kings in 1546 and remained so until Louis XIV moved to the Palace of Versailles in 1682. Almost every monarch contributed to its expansion over the centuries, including Louis XIII and Louis XIV, both avid art collectors who made major additions. In 1793 the National Assembly decided that the entire building should be used as a museum to hold and display France’s masterpieces. Most recently, as part of a 1980s renovation, I. M. Pei’s now-iconic glass and metal pyramid was built in the museum’s expansive courtyard to serve as the main entrance.
At any given time, some 38,000 works from the museum’s holdings are on view. This impressive collection is divided into eight curatorial departments. Egyptian Antiquities; Near Eastern Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; and Prints and Drawings. Millions of visitors come each year to have at least a peek at them. But there is so much beauty around that it may seem impossible to decide where to start. ARTnews is here to help, with our pick of 24 must-see artworks displayed at the Louvre.
Note: The location of each artwork is listed below its description. You can refer to the Louvre’s interactive map to navigate.
The Code of Hammurabi
The department of Near Eastern Antiquities holds the Code of Hammurabi, said to have been composed around 1755–1750 BC by the sixth sovereign of the First Dynasty of Babylon. It is the longest, best-organized, and best-preserved legal text from the ancient Near East, engraved on a 7.4-foot basalt stele, or pillar, discovered in 1901 at the site of Susa in present-day Iran.
The top of the stele features an image of King Hammurabi himself with Shamash, the Babylonian sun god and god of justice. Below this figurative relief are about 4,130 lines of cuneiform text, most of it setting forth a wide range of criminal, family, property, and commercial laws, including the famous lex talionis: the eye-for-an-eye principle.
There are replicas of the stele in numerous institutions, including the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Near Eastern Antiquities, Room 227, Richelieu Wing, Level 0
Winged Bulls of Khorsabad
King Sargon II reigned over the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE. In about 713 BCE, he founded Dûr-Sharrukin (the “fortress of Sargon”) in the north of present-day Iraq, a new capital meant to become the largest city in the ancient world. His palace, intended as a symbol of omnipotence, was decorated with benevolent genii called aladlammû (“protective spirit”) or lamassu (“bull-man”). These 28-ton creatures, depicted from the front or the side, were each carved from a single alabaster block. They have the body and ears of a bull, the wings of an eagle, and a human face.
Their protective role was questioned when King Sargon II died in battle in 705 BCE. His body was never found, which led some to believe he was cursed; this is why his son and successor, King Sennacherib, decided to move the capital to Nineveh. The unfinished city of Khorsabad was rediscovered in 1843 by Paul Émile Botta, the French vice-consul in Mosul. The excavation conducted under his aegis led to the rediscovery of a lost civilization, known only from the Bible and other ancient texts. Some of Botta’s finds, including this pair of bulls, made their way to the Louvre, where the world’s first Assyrian museum was inaugurated on May 1, 1847.
Near Eastern Antiquities, Room 229, Richelieu Wing, Level 0
Frieze of Archers
Welcome to Susa, one of the oldest cities in the world. The capital of Elam, an ancient civilization centered in the far west and southwest of modern-day Iran, it was annexed in the 6th century BCE by the Achaemenid Persian empire. This is where Darius I (c. 550–486 BCE) built a palace, the walls of which featured a polychrome brick frieze of bearded archers marching in profile with spears in both hands and bows on their backs.
Many believe them to be part of the elite infantry of 10,000 soldiers whom Herodotus named the Immortals. The frieze is made of siliceous brick with glazes of brown, white, and yellow, separated by thin cloisons (wires) to keep the colors from mixing. It was discovered in 1884 by French archaeologists Jane and Marcel Dieulafoy. Another 20 soldiers, found by Roland de Mecquenem toward the end of the excavation campaign, are also showcased in this wing of the Louvre.
Near Eastern Antiquities, Room 307, Sully Wing, Level 0
Statue of Ebih-II
This 25th-century-BCE statue of a blue-eyed masculine figure sitting in a praying position. According to a proto-cuneiform inscription on the back of the piece, it depicts Ebih-II, superintendent of the ancient city-state of Mari in modern-day eastern Syria.
The 20.7-inch figurine is made of gypsum with inlays of schist, shells, and lapis lazuli. It was discovered in two pieces during excavations conducted in 1933 by French archaeologist André Parrot, the head on the pavement of the outer court at the Temple of Ishtar, and the body a few meters away.
Near Eastern Antiquities, Room 234, Richelieu Wing, Level 0
Statue of Karomama, Divine Adoratrice of Amon
“I bring to the Louvre the most beautiful bronze ever discovered in Egypt,” wrote French philologist and orientalist Jean-François Champollion (1730–1832) soon after discovering this 1.9-foot masterpiece in 1829 at the Karnak Temple Complex near Luxor. Champollion thought the gracious effigy, adorned with gold, silver, and electrum, and dating back to 870 BCE, depicted Queen Karomama II, wife of pharaoh Takelot II of the 23rd Dynasty, when she in fact embodies Karomama I, daughter of the pharaoh Takelot I and wife of Osorkon II of the 22nd Dynasty.
Egyptian Antiquities, Room 337, Sully Wing, Level 0
The Great Sphinx of Tanis
Towering more than 15 feet, the Great Sphinx of Tanis— a granite sculpture that may date back to the 26th century BCE—is the biggest sphinx preserved outside Egypt. Discovered in the ruins of the Temple of Amun-Ra in Tanis, the country’s capital under Dynasties 21 and 23, it was created much earlier, perhaps as early as the 4th Dynasty (c. 2620–2500 BCE).
All that is left of its original inscription are mentions of pharaohs Amenemhat II (Dynasty 12), Merneptah (Dynasty 19) and Shoshenq I (Dynasty 22). The Louvre acquired this mythical creature with a human face, a lion’s body, and the wings of a falcon in 1826 from the collection of treasures amassed by Henry Salt, a British Egyptologist.
The sphinx was exhibited in the museum’s courtyard (today known as the Cour du Sphinx) between 1828 and 1848. In the mid-1930s it was transferred into the crypt designed by architect Albert Ferran to connect the two sections of the southern side of the Louvre’s Cour Carrée.
Egyptian Antiquities, Room 338, Sully Wing, Level 0
This sitting man—clad in a white skirt, with a half-rolled papyrus on his lap and a penetrating look on his face—is one of the Louvre’s icons. In ancient Egypt many pharaohs would have their servants immortalized as works of art so they could still benefit from their knowledge and services in the afterlife.
This male figure was sculpted in limestone probably around the period of the Old Kingdom, either under Dynasty 5 (c. 2450–2325 BCE) or under Dynasty 4 (2620–2500 BCE). It was discovered in 1860 near a tomb at Saqqara by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette.
The rock crystal, magnesite, and copper-arsenic inlays are what makes the scribe’s gaze so intense. Following its recent return from the Louvre-Lens, the Louvre’s sister museum in the north of France, you can lock eyes with the statue in Paris.
Egyptian Antiquities, Room 635, Sully Wing, Level 1
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
Look how graceful she is, standing aloft a pedestal in the middle of the Daru staircase. The Winged Victory of Samothrace was named after the Greek island on which it was discovered in 1863 by French diplomat and archaeologist Charles Champoiseau.
A marble representation of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, the sculpture was probably commissioned to thank the gods for a naval victory, and may date back to 190 BCE. It was found broken into 110 fragments—minus head and hands—and subsequently put back together.
Champoiseau returned to Greece in 1879 to look for the missing parts, but in vain. Much of the right hand was eventually recovered, however—one half of the ring finger in 1875, the other half, along with the palm, in 1950. Victory!
Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities, Room 703 (Daru Staircase), Denon Wing, Level 1
The Venus de Milo
Like the Winged Victory, this armless marble statue was named after the Aegean island where it was found, Melos, in 1820. Also like the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo is one of the Louvre’s “three great ladies,” as the museum terms them (the third is the Mona Lisa). No sooner was the statue discovered than it was purchased by the Marquis de Rivière, the French ambassador to Greece at the time, who donated it to the museum in 1821. The statue’s missing arms made her identification difficult, since Greek gods are usually recognizable by the objects in their hands. She was at first thought to be Amphitrite, the queen of the sea, but is believed to have held an apple, one of the attributes of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Who is she really? No one knows for sure.
Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities, Room 345, Sully Wing, Level 0
Sarcophagus of the Spouses
A woman and her husband are lying on their sides on a sort of dining couch called a triclinium. He lays his arm across her shoulders, as she appears to be pouring perfume into his palm with one hand and holding a piece of fruit in the other (perhaps a pomegranate, symbol of eternity).
This 6th-century-BCE sculpture is a monumental cinerarium, a receptacle for the ashes of the dead. A masterpiece of Etruscan art famous for its creative use of terra-cotta, it was found in 1845 during excavations conducted by Marquis Campana in the ancient city of Cerveteri, and acquired in 1861 by Napoleon III specifically for the Louvre.
Etruscan Antiquities Galleries, Rooms 660, 662, 663, Denon Wing, Level 0
The Diana of Gabii
This marble statue captures the simple gesture of a woman pinning her cloak on. It was unearthed in 1792 by Gavin Hamilton at Gabii, not far from Rome, on the property of Prince Borghese. It has been on display at the Louvre since 1820.
The subject’s outfit gives away her divinity: A short tunic with large sleeves, it is typical of depictions of the Greek deity Artemis (the Roman Diana), virgin goddess of hunting. The statue is attributed to Praxiteles, the most renowned 4th-century sculptor on the Attic Peninsula; her features are similar to those of other sculptures by Praxiteles, the Aphrodite of Cnidus and the Apollo Sauroktonos. Though the identification has been questioned on several grounds, there is no question that the Diana of Gabii is a strikingly high-quality example of the Praxitelian style, executed by the artist himself or perhaps one of his sons.
Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities, Room 529, Sully Wing, Level 0
The Pyxis of al-Mughira
“Blessing from God, goodwill, happiness and prosperity to al-Mughīra, son of the Commander of the Faithful, may God’s mercy [be upon him], made in the year 357.”
This inscription indicates the date and the recipient of this ivory vessel called a pyxis. It is believed to have been carved in one of the Madinat al-Zahra workshops, near modern-day Cordoba, Spain, but the identity of the giver remains unknown. Some think it was a coming-of-age present from a father to his son; others, a way to mock a prince who would never be next in line to rule. One thing is certain: The workmanship on this piece and particularly on its medallions—featuring two men picking up eggs from a falcon’s nest, two riders picking clusters of dates from a tree, two seated figures flanking a presumed servant, and a bull fighting a lion—is so refined that whoever commissioned it could only have been a wealthy man in a position of power.
Islamic Art, Room 185, Denon Wing, Level 1
The Monzon Lion
Is it purely decorative, or did it serve as a waterspout in a country—Islamic Spain—where fountains were of particular aesthetic importance? We cannot say. This bronze lion dating back to the 10th or 11th century CE was found in the 19th century by Spanish painter and fashion designer Mariano Fortuny in Monzón de Campos in northern Spain. On the animal’s back is a Kufic inscription, written in an alphabet often used to transcribe the Quran or wishes of good fortune. Baraka kamila/Ni’ma shamila means “Perfect blessing/Total happiness.” What more could anyone want?
Islamic Art, Room 185, Denon Wing, Level 1
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Does she really need an introduction? Her enigmatic smile may be the most photographed in the world. Millions of visitors flock to the Louvre each year only to see her. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is thought to be the portrait of Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo; hence her French name “La Joconde.”
Da Vinci (1452–1519) started the painting in 1503 or 1506 and finished it two years before his death. Acquired by King Francis I of France in 1518, this work is the only one to undergo a complete check-up every year at the C2RMF, the restoration and research center located beneath the Louvre, which speaks to how precious it is.
Paintings, Room 711, Denon Wing, Level 1
The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer
This young woman clad in a yellow bodice, holding a pair of bobbins in one hand and a pin in the other, seems engrossed in her work. Is she a noblewoman or a professional lacemaker? Nothing in the composition really gives it away. The book next to her could be the Bible, but the background is a blank wall.
This portrait was completed around 1669 by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). It is often compared to a painting with the same title by Caspar Netscher, another Dutch artist. Vermeer’s canvas first came to light at an Amsterdam auction in 1696. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1870.
Paintings, Room 837, Richelieu Wing, Level 2
The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David
This is how it looked when Napoleon became emperor—or so you would be led to think. He commissioned this massive composition (33 by 20 feet) in 1804, and oversaw its execution closely. Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), freshly appointed first painter of the court, took two years to complete it, and some changes were made along the way.
David had originally represented Napoleon with his hands down, but in the finished work he holds high the crown that he is about to put on Josephine’s head. Though his mother could not attend the ceremony, there she is standing right in the center. This work of propaganda entered the royal collections in 1819. When it was transferred to the Louvre in 1889, a copy by the neoclassical master himself replaced it at Versailles.
Paintings, Room 702, Denon Wing, Level 1
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix
This iconic oil by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) is often wrongly thought to depict a scene from the 1789 French Revolution. It actually commemorates the 1830 revolution, which toppled King Charles X.
A woman clad in a loose yellow gown is leading a group of people over a pile of corpses, holding a bayonetted musket that conveys her passion and determination. The tricolor flag in her other hand and the Phrygian cap on her head make her the personification of France, also known as Marianne.
This masterpiece is currently undergoing a minor restoration.
Paintings, Room 700, Denon Wing, Level 1
The Slaves by Michelangelo
Commissioned in 1505 by Pope Jules II for his tomb in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave were sculpted by Michelangelo (1475–1564) between 1513 and 1515. The pope died before he could see the finished works, which the artist ended up offering in 1546 to his friend Roberto Strozzi, who in turn gave them to King Francis I.
After moving around for two centuries from the castles of Écouen and Richelieu to the Hôtel d’Antin, both works entered the Louvre in 1794; a thorough restoration was recently completed. Now the pair is back for everyone to admire in the Michelangelo Gallery.
Sculptures, Room 403, Denon Wing, Level 0
Mary Magdalene by Gregor Erhart
This woman standing in a contrapposto is Mary Magdalene, a sinner who joined Jesus’s disciples after repenting. Legend has it she spent the rest of her life wrapped, not to say dressed, in her own hair. The limewood sculpture by Gregor Erhart (1470–1540) was probably intended for a church dedicated to the saint in the Dominican monastery in Augsburg, Germany. It later became part of German dealer Siegfried Lämmle’s collection, and the Louvre acquired it in 1902. It was taken to Germany during the Nazi occupation and returned to the Louvre after World War II. The base and front of the feet were restored in the 19th century.
Sculptures, Room 169, Denon Wing, Level 1
The Marly Horses by Guillaume Coustou
In 1739 Guillaume Coustou (1677–1746) began turning blocks of Carrara marble into two rearing horses, each managed by a vigorous groom. The sculptures were commissioned by Louis XV for the trough at the entrance of the Château de Marly, which Impressionist Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) would later paint.
In 1784 the horses were moved to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Exposed to damage during a July 14 military parade, they were replaced a decade later by copies by Michel Bourbon, and the originals were sent to the Louvre. Marly Court, where they are located today, was named after them.
The Marly Horses were an inspiration to the Romantics, especially to Théodore Géricault, known for his numerous depictions of horses. In 1985 Bourbon’s casts were placed where the originals had stood, at the entrance of the Château de Marly.
Sculptures, Room 102, Richelieu Wing, Level 1
Psyche and Cupid by Antonio Canova
The myth of Psyche and Cupid is a classic story of lovers separated, sorely tested, and finally reunited. In the climax, Psyche is awakened by Cupid’s kiss. Italian master sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822) was commissioned to capture this moment of rapture in 1787 by Colonel John Campbell, a Welsh politician and art collector. It was later acquired by a French military commander, Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and eventually found its way to the Louvre. A second version was made for Prince Nicholas Yussupov in 1796 and is now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, and the plaster model is now in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection. This sculpture is deemed a masterpiece of Neoclassical art, but the emotion conveyed by the lovers’ reunion foreshadows the emergence of Romanticism.
Sculptures, Room 403, Denon Wing, Level 0
The French Crown Jewels
Art within art: The room holding the Crown Jewels is just as extraordinary as the jewelry itself. These treasures were part of the 800-piece collection of King Louis XIV, who had the greatest painters, gilders, and sculptors of his time design a chamber in the Louvre to display them. The Galerie d’Apollon (named for the sun god Apollo, with whom the king identified) was completed in 1850 under the aegis of architect Félix Duban. For the ceiling, Eugène Delacroix created a 128-foot-wide painting, Apollo Slaying the Serpent Python.
The oldest gem here may be the “Côte de Bretagne” spinel; it belonged to Anne de Bretagne, who became the Duchess of Brittany in 1488. The display also includes the Regent, the Sancy, and the Hortensia diamonds, which used to adorn royal garments, as well as emerald pieces that once belonged to Empress Marie Louise, second wife of Napoleon, and elements carved from agate, amethyst, lapis lazuli, and jade.
Decorative Arts, Room 705, Denon Wing, Level 1
Marie Antoinette’s Cylinder Desk
The secretary or cylinder desk was invented around 1760 by Jean-François Oeben (1721–1763), cabinetmaker to Louis XV. This innovative writing desk was closed by a quarter-cylinder-shaped cover with flexible slats to hide the compartments and drawers inside.
In 1784 Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, commissioned Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806) to design a secretary for her new apartment in the Tuileries. With a wide range of motifs (floral garlands; laurel branches; ribbons in bronze frames; and allegories of Music, Painting and Sculpture) this sophisticated piece of cabinetry, made of amaranth, sycamore, and rosewood, reflects the ill-fated queen’s sophisticated taste. The Louvre acquired the desk in 1901.
Decorative Arts, Room 632, Sully Wing, Level 1
The Napoleon III Apartments
A visit to the Napoleon III apartments at the Louvre is a journey back in time. These sumptuous rooms, decorated with gold and velvet and filled with refined paintings, were created in 1861 for Achille Fould, the minister of state, as a residence in the brand-new Richelieu wing. A masked ball was thrown to inaugurate the apartments, and many festivities followed, often attended by the imperial couple themselves. The large drawing room could be transformed into a theater with a 250-guest capacity.
After an 1871 fire during the Paris Commune, the Ministry of Finance was forced to move into Fould’s apartments, and stayed there until 1989. The apartments, which had long been closed to the public, have been open to visitors since 1993.
Decorative Arts, Room 545, Richelieu Wing, Level 1