After more than two centuries as a royal palace, the Louvre is opened as a public museum in Paris by the French revolutionary government. Today, the Louvre’s collection is one of the richest in the world, with artwork and artifacts representative of 11,000 years of human civilization and culture.
The Louvre palace was begun by King Francis I in 1546 on the site of a 12th-century fortress built by King Philip II. Francis was a great art collector, and the Louvre was to serve as his royal residence. The work, which was supervised by the architect Pierre Lescot, continued after Francis’ death and into the reigns of kings Henry II and Charles IX. Almost every subsequent French monarch extended the Louvre and its grounds, and major additions were made by Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Both of these kings also greatly expanded the crown’s art holdings, and Louis XIV acquired the art collection of Charles I of England after his execution in the English Civil War. In 1682, Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles, and the Louvre ceased to be the main royal residence.
In the spirit of the Enlightenment, many in France began calling for the public display of the royal collections. Denis Diderot, the French writer and philosopher, was among the first to propose a national art museum for the public. Although King Louis XV temporarily displayed a selection of paintings at the Luxembourg Palace in 1750, it was not until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 that real progress was made in establishing a permanent museum. On August 10, 1793, the revolutionary government opened the Musée Central des Arts in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.
The collection at the Louvre grew rapidly, and the French army seized art and archaeological items from territory and nations conquered in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Much of this plundered art was returned after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, but the Louvre’s current Egyptian antiquities collections and other departments owe much to Napoleon’s conquests. Two new wings were added in the 19th century, and the multi-building Louvre complex was completed in 1857, during the reign of Napoleon III.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Grand Louvre, as the museum is officially known, underwent major remodeling. Modern museum amenities were added and thousands of square meters of new exhibition space were opened. The Chinese American architect I.M. Pei built a steel-and-glass pyramid in the center of the Napoleon courtyard. Traditionalists called it an outrage. In 1993, on the 200th anniversary of the museum, a rebuilt wing formerly occupied by the French ministry of finance was opened to the public. It was the first time that the entire Louvre was devoted to museum purposes.