I did quite a bit of research about the Louvre before I left for Europe. The Louvre website has photos of many of their famous paintings and sculptures, which is a good start. I also bought a small book that had many of the Louvre's paintings and sculptures in it, which made it easy to thumb through and find works I might like to see. It can also help to keep in mind what the Louvre's collection is about--older, nearly all European, paintings and sculptures. Many visitors go expecting to see works by Renoir or Van Gogh, not realizing that the Louvre doesn't have any art more recent than about 1850. From looking online or in my book, I was able to discover a few works that I would have never known were at the Louvre. Here are a few examples:
- "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss" by Antonio Canova
- "Rebellious Slave" and "Dying Slave" by Michelangelo
- "Diana of Versailles"
- "The Sarcophagus of the Spouses"
- "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix
- "The Lacemaker" by Jan Vermeer
And of course, the famed "Winged Victory (or Nike) of Samothrace" and the "Venus de Milo" can't be missed either!
When I visited the Louvre, I found that I was much more interested in the sculptures than the paintings. Most of the paintings were, as I mentioned before, older, and so many were pretty dark and almost all had religious themes. The sculptures (both the ancient Grecian and Roman sculptures and those of the Renaissance area) were much more interesting to me, especially as it was a photography tour, and photographing a 2D painting is not the most exciting thing to do. If you know what you're most interested in before you get to the Louvre, you can make the most of your time there.
Many people don't realize that there are multiple entrances into the Louvre, and they then end up spending a lot of valuable museum art-absorbing time waiting in the long line at the Pyramid entrance. There are three other entrances--the Carousel, Passage Richelieu, and Portes de Lions entrances. The Carousel entrance is open at all the same times as the Pyramid entrance, so that's the one I would recommend, and it was the one we used when I visited the Louvre. There was barely a line there at all, and, as a bonus, the entrance is in the Carousel mall, where you can get some really high-quality Louvre souvenirs. That said, some people really feel that going through the Pyramid is "part of the experience" of visiting the Louvre. If you feel that way as well, you could enter through the Carousel entrance and exit through the Pyramid, effectively getting the best of both worlds.
When you buy your ticket, they will give you a map of the Louvre. This map is your best friend! It has pictures and locations of many of the most famous paintings and sculptures so that you can plan a route that includes your highlights that you researched in Step 1. A word of caution though--the Louvre is a multi-floor palace, and not all of the wings are connected on every floor. There are large parts of the palace that are off-limits and do not have any artwork in them. When I went, my friend Mickey and I traveled down this very long, long hall of paintings we didn't like much, then took the elevator down to the floor below, thinking we would walk back down a hallway full of different paintings to get back to where we started. We ended up in the miscellaneous art section, technically called "Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas". (Remember: know the Louvre. It's basically all European art). Anyways, this section does not connect to anything else on that floor, or to anything else in the museum, actually, except for the elevator we took down into it. So we then had to go back down the long hall of paintings we didn't exactly love to get back to where we started. Lesson learned: plan your route ahead of time, and it might even be a good idea to draw it out with a pen to make sure your route connects between different wings and floors of the Louvre.
I traveled to Europe on a trip organized through a university, so I didn't get to plan most of what we did. And so I was basically flabbergasted when the group leaders told us, upon entrance to the Louvre, that we would meet back in two hours. Two hours?! At the Louvre? The largest, most-visited, basically overall superlative art museum in the world? Well, my list of things I'd researched that I wanted to see got cut down pretty quickly, basically just to pieces that were labeled on our map. But we ended up being able to see everything on the shortened list--and we even ran into a few things on my longer list along the way--despite getting lost in the miscellaneous section. We managed to do this because I'd researched what I wanted to see and we planned our route ahead of time. If you are planning your own trip though, I highly recommend planning much more than two hours at the Louvre. You could explore the museum for weeks and not see everything, but it would be nice to give yourself at least five or six hours. If that's just too much art-ogling for you in one day, you can break it into chunks--your Louvre ticket will get back into the museum as many times as you like in one day. So go to a cafe, walk along the Seine, sketch the Eiffel Tower en plein aire, shop at a flea market, or take some other kind of Parisian break, and then head back to the Louvre to soak in some more masterpieces. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, but open until 10pm on Wednesdays and Fridays, so those would be good options for days to go if you'd like to stop multiple times. Also, as you walk around the Louvre, be sure you are looking up at the ceilings as well as at the paintings and sculptures. It was, after all, a palace, and in some of the rooms the ceilings were more beautiful than the art!
Seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre is a bucket list cliche, but I'd warn visitors not to get their hopes up too high about the painting. The name for the Mona Lisa in French is La Jaconde, so if you want to see her, all you have to do is follow the signs and the mass of tourists making a beeline for the famous Da Vinci painting. It is a very skillfully done painting, but keep in mind that it wasn't the posterchild for masterpieces until the mishap in which it was stolen in 1911, and returned two years later. It is quite small, dark, and covered by glass, unlike the other paintings at the Louvre. Don't plan on getting too great of a photograph, or a photograph with her, either, as she is constantly surrounded by tourists, who will then be reflected on the glass covering the painting (as in the picture below). Is it worth it to see this painting? Of course, but just have some idea of what it is before you go, and make sure you don't miss all the other great works of art at the Louvre! For example, facing the Mona Lisa is "The Wedding Feast at Cana" by Veronese, an exquisitely detailed wall-size painting that seems to be oft-overlooked by tourists in their tizzy to photograph the small, dark, glass-encased Mona Lisa.
Note: Photography is permitted in the Louvre, but not flash photography. You will see plenty of tourists using flash to photograph the Mona Lisa anyway. Don't be one of those tourists. :)