Learning to Look at Sculpture: The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre

I had the opportunity to visit Paris in the fall of 2012, and visited the Louvre with the eager anticipation of seeing masterpieces from throughout art history all in one museum. I took the somewhat common strategy of getting in line early, and upon entrance to the museum, making a bee-line to the Mona Lisa in order to see it before the crowds settled in (see my blog post about this and my reflections on the Louvre's handling of Leonardo's masterpiece). Well, one of the other masterpieces that lies along the route to Mona Lisa is the iconic sculpture "Winged Victory of Samothrace," seen below. It's at the top of the stairs in the Denon Wing of the Louvre, and like the other visitor below right, I snapped a picture on my way up the stairs and then quickly proceeded to go find Mona Lisa. It's certainly a shame that my initial encounter with Winged Victory was just a "drive by shooting" (as in photography), but I did come back later to take a second look.

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The Winged Victory of Samothrace, famous sculpture at the Louvre in Paris

When I did come back to spend more time looking at Winged Victory, I saw more people doing exactly as I had the first time: standing on the stairs, looking up at the impressive sculpture, and taking pictures. It then occurred to me that the view from the front is pretty much what one would see if looking at a picture of this sculpture in an art history book. You see it straight-on, from one perspective, and that's it.

But here us museum-goers were in the Louvre, standing in front of Winged Victory, being afforded the option to view it in the round, and no one seems to want to walk around it? Maybe it's just me, but I like the view from different angles - as I learned from viewing a monumental Calder sculpture in Montreal, a sculpture can take on a totally different appearance when viewed from multiple angles. You can even see evidence of this in the two pictures above: when viewing Winged Victory on an elevated perch, above left, the angel wings appear to rise above the torso, whereas the view from below, above right, makes the wings appear to rest below the neckline.

You can see five different views of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the slideshow below. But the still picture below right shows the most revealing thing I found out about Winged Victory by viewing her from all sides: as you can see by this backside view, it's not what one would expect from any of the other views. From the front and sides, Winged Victory appears on a pedestal of gray marble which is then positioned on a large structure representing the front of a ship, as this sculpture was intended to proclaim the victory of a sea battle. But what do we see from the back? The pedestal is held up by a stack of bricks, no doubt a much-later and modern addition to this overall display. The "sides" of the ship structure are held together with a metal bar, and ... most shocking of all, this space holds a LOT of dust! Look closely: I was surprised to see a pile of dust approximately 3 to 4 inches tall, accumulated in the back right corner and all over this area. It's as if this part of the sculpture hadn't been dusted in 25 years! Even though there was plenty of clearance to walk behind the sculpture and anyone can get this vantage point, I guess the Louvre curators and/or maintenance crew doesn't think anyone will bother to look at Winged Victory from behind...? I think they need to get a dust-buster in there! But the bottom-line is: if you have a chance to see a sculpture "in the round" (meaning a freestanding sculpture, not attached to a background), then by all means make sure you look at it from multiple angles, you'll never know what you might discover.

visitors to the Louvre taking photographs of Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Denon Wing

Most viewers of this sculpture only stop long enough to photograph the front, and then they move on ...

a view of the back side of Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre

Look at that pile of dust in the back right corner: approximately 3 to 4 inches tall!

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