After months of waiting, French museums and other cultural venues were finally permitted to open to the public on May 19th, signaling what many hope will be a definitive start to a post-pandemic era as vaccinations pick up speed.
In a museum-rich city like Paris, the forsaking of in-person cultural experiences was a test of wills for art-lovers, who rushed to reserve tickets to reopenings around town. Since most foreign tourists will not be permitted into the country until June 9, Parisians were among those visitors on opening day at the most famous museum in town. Since health restrictions limit attendance, there are none of the usual crowds milling through temporary exhibitions or clamoring for selfies in front of national treasures like the Mona Lisa.
We know, because we checked. Artnet News spoke to a host of visitors who were all in high spirits about why they chose to rush to the Louvre and what seeing art in-person meant to them.
Océane Pimpit, 22
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? Before Covid, I used to come here all the time to draw, so I’ve come back to start drawing again. The Louvre is my favorite museum because it encompasses everything—from sculpture to painting, it covers almost every period.
How does it feel having fewer people in the museum? I can sit down like this and draw, and there aren’t tons of people walking in front of the sculpture all the time.
What are you drawing? I’m going to start drawing this God—I’m not sure who it is—from Roman antiquity. I just graduated from a program in video game art, and I have to be able to draw anything and everything.
Emily Parnell, 31 with Yohan Chambaud, 31 and Eva, 4 months
Is this Eva’s first museum visit? [Emily] No, she was born in Rome, and museums were open not long after. She was the youngest visitor ever to the Galleria Borghese when she was 25 days old. She loved it.
What did you miss most about museums? The way you move through a museum is sort of meditative. You see things, and you appreciate the work that’s gone into things. It’s inspiring to see what a human being is capable of. It’s something you don’t see through the internet. There’s something about seeing things in real life that’s wonderful. And Eva likes the museums, because there are people, art, and light.
What was it like to get to see the Mona Lisa without the crowds? [Emily] Calm! You appreciate how wonderful it is, actually. [Yohan] Eva was not so interested by Mona Lisa, she was looking all around when we were trying to show her. She has different taste, for now.
Rodriguez Richard, 71
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? I had to come see the temporary exhibit [The Body and the Soul. From Donatello to Michelangelo]. It can’t be missed. It’s a magnificent exhibition and it would have been a shame not to experience it.
Did you get your tickets right away? Immediately. The first day. I was very impatient. Also, people will start to come, and there will be lines. It’s better to see exhibits like this calmly, when there aren’t too many people. I can’t stand the crowds.
Do you come to the Louvre often? Not just the Louvre, but other museums too—they’re my reason for living ever since I was little. My parents used to take me to Italy. I’d go to Venice and Florence, and it gave me this passion for art in general. I’m an art collector and became an early collector of work by [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, whom I met when he came to Paris.
Is culture essential for you, then? It’s the essential part of our very souls. Without it, we’d be reduced to animals. What would happen? We’d eat, work, sleep, and then ? It’s horrific. And we wonder why so many young people are depressed today. It’s essential for young people too.
Hêlène Sevilla, 28
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? Personally, I’ve suffered through the museum closures for a while now, because I think it’s a marvellous way to escape and to get a sense of history through objects—it’s really moving. That’s why I wanted to be here as soon as I could, and especially for this exhibit of sculptures [The Body and the Soul. From Donatello to Michelangelo]. The whole advantage of being able to see this in real life, is being able to walk around the artwork. It’s an exhibit I’ve wanted to see for a long time.
Why is it important for you to see artwork in-person? We’re made of flesh, after all, and we need experiences. And it’s an experience to see objects in all their three-dimensionality … It’s touching to see these objects that have persisted through time.
Do you have a favorite artwork here? Cruel question! Maybe Titian’s Woman with a Mirror, because there’s a whole playful dialogue between reflections [from different mirrors] and the gaze [of the woman, her “lover” and the viewer].
Benoît Kergo, 44 with Zoé, 9 and Oscar, 6
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? [Zoé] Since we don’t have school on Wednesdays, we thought it was a good idea to come. Also, in school we worked a lot on Egypt and history, so I was happy to come and be able to tell my class about that.
Had you seen the before today? [Zoé] No, I’d only seen pictures, but it was weird to see how small she is. I thought it would be more of a big deal. It’s funny how we walked around the whole Louvre, and then we finally get to the Mona Lisa, and we just see this little painting.
But at least there weren’t too many people crowded around it. How did you like that? [Benoît] Yes, that’s another reason we came. We’re so thrilled that French cultural venues are progressively opening. I was really happy to get to bring my kids to the Louvre today, and in the context of Covid, there are fewer tourists in Paris, so it’s also a chance to visit really touristy places that have a fewer people than usual.
Julie Guillaume, 34 and Pascale Guillaume, 60
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? [Julie] Because I missed it and I thought of the Louvre, because it had been a long time since I’d been, and we wanted to see it in real life, so we reserved tickets right away.
What did you miss most during the Louvre’s closure? The place itself, this space. The wooden floors that crackle, the calm. This morning it was pretty empty, it was so nice to have rooms to yourself, and that contact with the paintings and statues—of course without touching.
Do you feel relieved as things start to open? Absolutely. A lot of things are opening today, so it was important for me to be here, and say, ‘I was at the Louvre for the opening.’ And after we’ll go walk through the streets of Paris, and maybe sit at a café outside – if there’s room, and it’s not raining.
[Pascale interjects.] Rain or shine, we’re going!
Marlee Merson, 21
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? It was my birthday yesterday, and I’ve always loved the Louvre. So I thought, why not? It’s a perfect way to spend the day. I’m studying [art history and French] here at the Ecole du Louvre for Erasmus, so I wanted to come see the classroom, basically.
What did you miss most about not being able to come here? I’ve always really enjoyed art, so not being able to see it in person and sketch it and draw what comes into my head after seeing it—I really missed that. And it’s not the same on the internet, where you’re searching and looking for the images. It’s much better in-person.
Do you have a favorite artwork or wing here? I have to say the Greek Antiquities. I’ve always very much adored looking at the sculptures and seeing them from so many different angles. I love how the mythology is represented, and how they created the characters.
Jean-Michel Auclair, 56 and Cecile Auclair, 25
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? [Jean-Michel] To celebrate the opening. That said, we’re wondering why it was ever closed, because you’ll notice there are fewer people here than in a supermarket. Plus, we’re not touching anything, versus at a supermarket where you touch lots of things. They could have opened it with really tight restrictions, like this, for example.
What was it like to have the Mona Lisa practically to yourselves? [Cecile] We’re happy, because we could get close without any problem, and we’ve never seen her like this.
[Jean-Michel] I used to come to the Louvre regularly, when it was open, but I didn’t come to see the Mona Lisa in particular, because there are other things to see.
Do you have a favorite art piece here? Yes, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It’s a painting I knew about before I saw it, and when I came to the Louvre for the first time, a long time ago, I was struck by its dimensions, which I didn’t expect. Its story has always fascinated me, and its composition pulls me right into the heart of this tragic scene. I feel both that I want to be rescued along with the survivors, but also to share in their dramatic experience.
Esdras Ribeiro, 43 and Manuela, 8
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? [Manuela] My dad wanted to show me all these paintings.
Do you come here often? [Esdras] whenever family or friends come to visit, we take them here.
What did you miss most about being in museums? [Esdras] Contact with culture—we were so closed-in for so long. I even took a day off of work to come.
Did you take advantage of some of the online shows and content museums are offering? [Esdras] It’s complicated. I don’t really like seeing art that way. It’s like with film. I need to be in a movie theater—it’s not the same as seeing a movie at home.
Valérie Laribi, 51 and Michele Legay, 73
Why did you decide to visit the Louvre today? [Michele] We live near Paris, and usually we don’t come to the Louvre, because there are too many people, and tons of tourists. So we waited with impatience for the opening, and instead of going to [newly opened] bars and cafés, we booked our tickets to the Louvre as soon as we could. It’s been a long time since we’ve been here.
[Valérie] This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come before the tourists get here, because borders are still closed to a lot of countries. We didn’t hesitate. I haven’t been here in over 40 years.
What was it like to see the Mona Lisa on her own? [Valérie] It was a strange feeling. [Michele] A pleasure! But there wasn’t just La Joconde [Mona Lisa], there was also the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo—some of my favorites. And we started with the Antiquities, the Egyptian, Roman, Greek galleries—everything that tourists normally flock to. There are a lot of treasures here. It’s immense.
[Valérie] You need a week.