Letter from Paris: So You Wanna Knit the Louvre?
The Louvre and I did not get off to a swell start.
I first visited it in 2019, during what I figured would be my one and only trip to Paris.* I bought an advance ticket and was outside the pyramid thirty minutes before opening, fairly vibrating with excitement. Here I was, little me, about to experience the world’s largest art museum, a place stacked to the rafters with beautiful, historic objects I had only dreamt of seeing in person.
Four hours later, with cheeks the color of ashes, I was clawing my way toward the exit. I needed a pee and a drink and a nap, and was asking myself questions like, “Are museums stupid?” and “Is art stupid?” and “Am I stupid for liking art?”.
Listen. The Louvre is not an easy place to enjoy. It has three enormous flaws. It’s too big, it’s too crowded, and whatever you’re trying to see next, you can’t get there from here. That map they hand out at the entrance? It’s a placebo. Stick it in your handbag and forget it. It will in no way assist you in finding the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, or the restrooms.**
And Yet …
When I moved here, I joined the Amis du Louvre, the friends of the Louvre.
Trying to see the greatest hits in one visit had been miserable. But card holders can drop in whenever they like, as often as they like, without a ticket–through a private entrance, no less.
That meant I could treat the museum like a casual hangout, and so I did–and so I do. Especially in the darkest months of the winter, when the weather turns nasty and sitting outdoors is not an option, I often head to the Louvre just for a change of scenery.
It has become my favorite indoor place to knit. No joke.
Even in peak tourist season it’s possible to find peace, quiet, and a cozy place to sit at the Louvre. You just have to know where to go. Please join me, and my current Second Sock,*** on a guided tour of four of my favorite Louvre knitting spots.
May I Show You To Your Seat?
The Louvre has three wings: Richelieu, Sully, and Denon. Upon arrival, you enter whichever you choose by following signs in the entrance hall under the pyramid. This space will feel very familiar if you have ever been to a Westfield shopping center.
Each wing has lots of places to sit–far more than you might expect. But we want to knit, so we will insist upon seats that are a) reasonably comfortable with b) excellent lighting in c) quiet rooms.
That means we’re not going to bother with Denon.
Mona Lisa lives in Denon. The din and crush from the people waiting in line to take selfies with her turns every adjacent room into a den of misery. The famous Grand Gallery, right outside her door, is 945 feet long and crammed with other, better paintings by Leonardo and Raphael. It has lots of seats, but they’re all occupied in perpetuity by cranky people exhausted from waiting in line to see the [redacted] Mona Lisa.
Which leaves us with Richelieu and Sully. Let’s start with Sully.
Stop One: Near Eastern Antiquities
It’s a surprisingly short distance from the insanity at the gate into Sully …
follow the flag!
… to the tranquil galleries devoted to art from the Ancient Near East, into which the Louvre folds Iran, the Levant, and Arabia.
Ancient Egypt is nearby, but we’re not going there. Those galleries are always choked with people. Everybody wants a selfie with a sphinx.
Park yourself here, instead, among the Mesopotamians and the Persians. Each room is a little different, but throughout you’ll find nice padded benches in deep recesses below tall windows.
Get out your knitting and relax.
When it’s time to rest your fingers, there are cases and cases full of doodads and whatnots from ancient Mesopotamia and thereabouts to look at.
Bits and pieces from ancient Mesopotamia
For extra fun, count how often somebody asks if one of the carved stele on display is the Rosetta Stone. (No.)
Not the Rosetta Stone
One room is particularly spectacular–it’s full of things excavated from the palace of the legendary Persian king Darius I, who in case you are wondering reigned from 522–486 BCE. The centerpiece is this enormous bull-headed capital (about seventeen feet high) that originally topped a column almost seventy feet high.
A lot of bull
All around it are glorious wall decorations from the palace in glazed, painted brick.
The Frieze of the Archers, about 550–330 BCE
And yet most folks passing through ignore it all while they wonder aloud (in fifteen different languages) if this is the way to the Mona Lisa. (It’s not.)
Stop Two: French Megapaintings
From here, you can take the stairs or the elevator up to Level 2 of the wing–the home of French painting from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Much of this space is devoted to epic works of French religious and history painting. And when I say epic, I mean none of them is going to fit over the sofa, even if you have high ceilings.
Stuff like this.
The thing about these colossal canvases is that almost nobody, including the French, cares about them any more. But they’re too big to stick in a closet or shove under the bed. Some are pleasantly decorative, if rather sugary-sweet, like Eugène Le Sueur’s**** series depicting the Nine Muses.
Eugène Le Sueur, details from the “Muses” series, about 1652–55
The benches here aren’t padded, but the light is great and the vibe is perfectly serene. I’ve more than once walked in on a guard who had dozed off, and tiptoed past so as not to disturb her. You could probably play touch football in these galleries and nobody would notice, but of course I prefer to knit.
Saints painted by Poussin marvel at my even tension
Stop Three: The Galerie Campana
When the air at this altitude starts to feel a little thin, head down to the first floor–still in the Sully Wing–and seek out the Galerie Campana. This part of the Louvre’s collection, mainly ancient Greek vases and terracotta figurines, was acquired en masse by the Emperor Napoléon III (aka Not the Short One, the Other One) in the 1860s and installed in a series of truly stunning rooms overlooking the river. The rooms recently reopened after a top-to-bottom restoration, including their painted ceilings.
It’s difficult to take your eyes off those ceilings, but if you do you’ll notice the views from here are Classic Paris.
The Seine, the Pont des Arts, and the Institut de France, home of the Académie Française
And what’s right in front of these windows? Brand new benches. You know what to do.
The Galerie Campana is just enough off the beaten path that it gets very, very little traffic. And that’s a shame, because honestly the vases are awe-inspiring. Put your knitting down every so often and take a look around. The scale is small and the cases are crowded–another reason busy tourists tend not to linger. If you allow yourself to slow down, you will be rewarded.
Stop Four: Allegorical Nekkid People
By now you’re probably feeling very much at home in the Sully wing, but for our last stop we’re going next door to Richelieu. This wing notably houses two courtyards–the Cour Marly and the Cour Puget–that have been converted into indoor display spaces for large-scale works of sculpture rescued from parks and château gardens.
Thanks to the immense skylights and all that white marble, the light here is spectacular. The seating, however, is meh (mostly just slabs of more white marble); and, as you might expect, both courtyards echo dreadfully with the sound of people from around the world saying, “My eyes were closed, take it again” and “Is this the way to the Mona Lisa?” (It’s not.)
What we’re going to do is pass through to the adjacent galleries devoted to French sculpture from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.
These galleries are crowded, and there aren’t many places to sit. What you need to do is hunt around until you see Denis Foyatier’s “La Sieste” (the nap) in which a lady has fallen asleep while reading and, oopsie, her nightie has slipped right off her shoulders!
Facing “La Sieste” is a padded two-seater bench in a window. It’s a tiny space–you could easily reach out and boop the sleepy lady, though I will recommend that you not do so.
This might well be my favorite knitting spot, even if the chief attraction of this gallery–bare breasts–are not my particular thing.
If you, yourself, are uncomfortable with nudity, please remember that most of the nudes in here are allegorical. So they’re not just naked, they’re Naked Because They Mean Something.
As close to a women’s locker room as I’m ever gonna get
Right over the shoulder of “La Sieste” is one of the great historic treasures of the Louvre: Augustin Dumont’s 1885 “La Génie de la Liberté” (the spirit of freedom), also known as The Dude on the Bastille Column.
And no, not every statue in the gallery is of a naked person. The Widow Dumont is here, too, forever gazing over the sea of pearly flesh with an unforgettable expression on her face. I wonder if she was a knitter.
The Widow Marie Dumont (1799) by Jacques-Edme Dumont
Here, dear reader, concludes our tour of prime knitting spots inside the world’s largest art museum. You may be relieved to hear that the exit is right downstairs–follow the signs that say SORTIE and the sound of people muttering, “I can’t believe we couldn’t find the [redacted] Mona Lisa.”
*Turns out it was not.
**Four hundred galleries! Six hundred thousand square feet! Three restrooms!
***Oink Sock by Oink Pigments in “Sunny with a Chance of Peaches,” and a mystery purple that lost its ball band years ago.
****Le Sueur means sweaty guy. His name was Eugene the Sweaty Guy.