It was 1190 AD under the reign of King Philippe Auguste when a small fortress was built on the banks of the Seine in Paris. The ever-changing city soon outgrew the wall, and it was transformed into a royal residence. It housed many great French monarchs and underwent many renovations until Aug. 10, 1793, when it opened as what would become one of the greatest museums in history.
Almost exactly 220 years later, on Aug. 7, 2013, I went to the Louvre. I found myself surrounded by art and history, and I could swear my mom was practically squealing with delight. She has a master’s degree in art history and taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Diego and Sonoma State, specializing in Medieval and American art. As you can imagine, she was very excited, having not been to Paris in nearly 10 years. I was 13 at the time, and I remember how she and my father discussed art and its importance while we waited outside in a ghastly line for admission.
I, on the other hand, was plugged into my headphones, listening to Ed Sheeran, and completely oblivious to the wonders I was about to see. Even the courtyard in which we were queued was full of history, which I’m sure my mother would have been happy to tell me had I asked. The walls around the courtyard had been home to many monarchs and figures of power, of course, but even more impressive was the giant glass pyramid standing majestically in the center of the courtyard.
Upon entering the museum itself, I was immediately taken aback by the vastness of the place. There were signs pointed in every direction directing traffic to areas dedicated to different types and eras of art. It was incredibly hectic, but the 13 year-old me was surprisingly at peace. I took out my headphones, but the music kept playing in my head; I knew that I was nothing compared to the people and pieces in this magnificent building, but I couldn’t help feeling that this was an experience made just for me. I could see thousands of anonymous tourists thinking exactly the same thing.
This was over a year ago, so I can’t remember everything I saw and learned, but a few things stayed with me as particularly great experiences. The Louvre is home to the famous Mona Lisa, and the crowd surrounding the smirking woman was impermeable, except to my little brother (sixth grader Nate), who struggled to get photos of it for the sake of proof for his family. Of all the things in the Louvre, however, the Mona Lisa is probably one of the least spectacular.
Van Gogh’s work is great in photos, but up close in real life it jumps from the page, enveloping you in the unthinkable world of one of history’s greatest tortured artists. A wheat field becomes a twisted reality of flames and monotony. A city skyline stands ominous and knowing against a swirling and mysterious sky. A café bathed in yellow light becomes warm and welcoming for the lonely and tired traveller searching for a cup of tea and a place to sleep.
And it all seems so real. The gloppy paint and deliberate brushstrokes are so much more than a picture. They are a story and a tiny window into the mind of an unappreciated madman.
I cannot even begin to explain how gorgeous the Winged Victory is. When you walk into the hall that houses it, you can barely see the top, but as you walk up the stairs, the figure of a flawless, headless, and winged woman slowly ascends into view. Her wings are contorted behind her with her legs staggered as if about to take flight over the heads of the curious tourists. Her body is illuminated in a glowing yellow light at the end of the hall, and no matter how many photographs you take of her, nothing can ever compare to the sight of her figure silhouetted against the marble stairways of the Louvre.
There are also whole halls of Greek and Roman statues, and I remember marveling at the sheer talent of the sculptors who turned marble and rock into gossamer and facial features. A room of paintings by French artist and dwarf Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was empty and dark, with only dim lights revealing stunning colors and images of prostitutes, bohemians, and can-can dancers.
I wandered through certain halls nearly 20 times, finding some new Babylonian statue to engross myself in every time. I saw the first laws ever inscribed in Hammurabi’s law code. I witnessed the death of Christ and the betrayal of Judas about a million times in the Renaissance rooms.
For one whole day, I was enveloped into the entirety of history through the eyes of the artists. The paintings, sculptures, mosaics, talismans, murals and sketches gave me something that I could not get anywhere else, and may never find again. No history class, art course, Internet search, or book could give you the same feeling as being connected to the tiny pieces of history immortalized in the art inside that monumental building.
Never pass up a chance to go to an art museum. Nowhere else can you be so surrounded by beauty and so at peace with your own insignificance in comparison.