We all know the Louvre as the intimidating, miles-long monstrosity of a museum that draws tourists from every corner of the world with its dazzling collection of art. Before I went for the first time this past fall, I had been warned that the crowds would be overwhelming, that it costs a pretty penny to enter, and that getting a close-up view of the Mona Lisa was a pipe dream.
And all of that was true, for the most part (I actually got pretty darn close to Mona). But one thing I didn’t expect was the decorative arts element of the museum — specifically, the Napoleon III apartments in all of their over-the-top grandeur.
How these luxe rooms, gilded from top to bottom, could ever classify as apartments is beyond me. The word “apartment” brings to mind boxy, cookie-cutter dwellings, assigned parking spaces and annoying hallway smells. But this section of the Louvre is so richly appointed and eye-candy crazy that it’s a bit hard to take in, and even harder to imagine humans, with all of our inherent flaws, occupying such ornate spaces.
Here, rich colors reign, like a deep green paired with a bright pink, or one of my favorite combinations, crimson and gold. Chandeliers meant to light the enormous spaces compete with so many other details for your attention that at times it’s hard to identify the main focus of each room. If you’re one to squeal over an elegant, baby blue chair or a set of carefully painted tea cups, you just might enjoy the Napoleon III apartments more than some of the other, more well-known and celebrated collections in the Louvre.
Back in the Day
The thing about the Louvre that some of us (like me) didn’t realize is that long before it enjoyed its status as the world’s most visited museum, it was a fortress, and then served for many years as the royal palace, undergoing many renovations and additions along the way. When Louis XIV took off for the Palace of Versailles in 1692, he left behind the royal collection of art.
For the next hundred years after that, it was occupied by several art academies before finally being declared a national museum, opening in 1793.
The Napoleon III Apartments are an exceptional record of Second Empire decorative art.
The Louvre has been through quite a few transformations, and as it has played such a large role in many major aspects of French history and culture, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the awe-inspiring Napoleon III apartments are housed in this structure.
Still, I was disappointed by how little information was displayed about the grandiose rooms and how they were used. A plaque near the entrance provided the following meager account:
“The rooms today known as the Napoleon III apartments were refurbished during the Second Empire for the Ministry of State. They were part of that then brand-new wing of the Louvre built between 1852 and 1857 by the architects Louis Visconti (1791-1853) and later Hector-Martin Lefuel (1810-1882) to link the Louvre and Tuileries palaces. The work was overseen by Lefuel between 1856 and 1861, under the supervision of Achille Fould, Minister of State. Lefuel recruited a large team of artists, skillfully coordinating their work. The reception rooms, sumptuously designed in the Louis XIV style, have retained their original decoration and furniture. The private apartments are situated on either side of the main staircase. After the Paris Commune in 1871, these rooms were allocated to the Finance Ministry.”
The Louvre website doesn’t go into much detail, either, but it at least provides a basic description of the drawing room and dining room:
“The large drawing room of the Napoleon III Apartments typifies the taste of the period for opulent interiors. The ceiling features Charles-Raphaël Maréchal’s painting of The Reuniting of the Louvre and the Tuileries by Napoleon III. The lavish stucco decorations are by Tranchant.
The Napoleon III Apartments are an exceptional record of Second Empire decorative art. The state dining room features an imposing table and étagère sideboard in black-stained wood with gilt bronze decorations. The painted ceiling (a luminous sky traversed by exotic birds) is by Eugène Appert.”
The Louvre is open every day except Tuesday from 9 to 6. The Napoleon III apartments are located in the Richelieu wing on the 1st floor in Room 87.
Musée du Louvre, 75058 Paris – France
Métro: Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7)
Tel.: +33 (0)1 40 20 53 17