I’m doing research on paintings in the Louvre in 1911, specifically the paintings that were hanging in the Salon Carré that year. I found several paintings depicting the paintings that might have been hanging in the Salon Carré around that time, including this gem by Castiglione painted in 1860:
And this view of the room taken sometime in the early 20th century:
And this photo taken in 1914:
In all these images I was looking for the Mona Lisa, but also looking for the other paintings in the room. The Mona Lisa, or La Joconde to the French, hung beneath that big painting until around WWI. The history behind her movement is long (and the subject of a book I’m working on—hence the research on the room), but suffice it to say I wanted to know about that big painting. What is it?
I found an historical guidebook to Paris published in 1900 in which the paintings in the Salon Carré were carefully listed and described. In that book this image is called “Christ and the Magdalen, at the supper in the house of Levi” by Paolo Veronese who painted the other dominant painting in the Salon Carré at the time, the “Marriage at Cana.”
Here’s the problem. When I look up that Veronese painting, I get a completely different image. This one:
But that’s not the picture hanging on the wall in all those images from the Louvre. The reason became obvious as I began to read more. In 1570 or 1571, Veronese was commissioned to paint The Last Supper for a convent in Venice. He painted the scene above, Christ at a meal in a vast Italian palace. However, the painting, when it was finished in 1573, caught the eye of the Inquisition, and on July 18, 1573, Veronese was called before the Inquisition to answer questions about the painting. Specifically the representatives of the church did not like that Veronese had added a dog to the picture, that there were what appeared to be Germans in attendance, and that two jesters or ‘buffoons’ were placed in the foreground. Veronese was ordered to change the painting. However, by many accounts he did not change the painting. Rather, he changed the name of the painting. Rather than call it the Last Supper, he called it “Feast at the House of Levi.” And the Inquisition seems to have been satisfied with that.
Still I had the problem of finding the painting that seemed to hang in the Salon Carré in 1911. I kept looking, until I found it:
The Web Gallery of art says that this painting was completed in 1570, three years before he was brought before the inquisition. My problems continue, however, as according to Wikimedia, the Google Culture Institute, and the Web Gallery of Art, that 1570 painting—the one hanging in the Salon Carré in 1911—has in fact been hanging in the Hercules Salon at Versailles since 1712!
To be truly historically accurate I’m going to have to look further back than Google can send me. Because the story of these two paintings, and of the more famous Wedding at Cana, is a fascinating one. All three paintings were most likely looted by Napoleon in the late 1790s when he invaded Italy. The Marriage at Cana is the largest painting in the Louvre collection. It measures more than 22 feet tall by 32 feet wide and, in 1911 at least, took up an entire wall of the Salon Carré. In 1992, after several years of restoration work on the piece, it was severely damaged when a metal tower that had been erected to assist in raising the painting on the wall collapse and tore several holes in the canvas, one of them four feet long. The art world was in a frenzy over that.
And here’s an even more historical footnote, one that has to do with La Joconde. Go back to those first three pictures at the beginning of this post. Look closely and see if you can find the most famous painting in the Louvre today, the Mona Lisa. (Hint: she’s in the first two, but not in the third). Read the depiction of the Salon Carré from the 1900 Parisian guidebook. The Mona Lisa gets far fewer words than either of the Veronese paintings, fewer words than either Van Eyck’s or Raphael’s Madonna with Child. The Mona Lisa gets fewer words than the other Leonardo painting that hung in the Salon Carré in 1900, St. Anne and the Virgin.
Now think about the most famous painting of a woman you know. And imagine that barely more than 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, she was almost completely unknown outside the art world.