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The man behind the Louvre's smile

By Maggie LewisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 1980


"Not bad," says Pierre Rosenberg as we come out of an alley lined with Flemish and Dutch masterpieces -- wise, pinky brown faces watching us over their clear blue-gray collars and elegant black coats -- into a bath of sunlight falling from the ceiling over the Marie de Medicis. He blinks behind his 19 th-century silver-framed glasses and looks up at the Maries with no awe whatever.

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A samllish, shaggily balding man in a rumpled, pin-stripe three-piece suit, he gains stature here in the Louvre, even surrounded by these huge Rubens portraits of Marie de Medecis's triumphs. Marie can actually look across the gallery lined with Rubens's paintings of her varios triumphs at all the other billowing, exultant images of herself among the clouds. Against the gallery's handsome, dark red walls, her pink head with its crown of gray hair rises again and again. She could hold a seminar of her various selves, since there are no people coming between them today. It is Tuesday, and the Louvre is closed.

She looks triumphant; Rosenberg, dimpling and looking at the walls, seems pleased, in an intelligent, capable way. Maybe it's the soft sunlight casting a mellow varnish over the faint excitement of the events in her scenes. Maybe it's the electricity generated by all the paintings along the empty stretches of the galleries. After all, half the work of Leonardo hangs on these walls. The place seems to buzz with energy under the sunbeams, like one of those paintings of various saints ascending, so bristling with angelic wings that, despite the serene, otherworldly expressions of everyone involved, you can almost feel little air currents if you put your face close enough.

Except for workmen X-raying a painting, we are alone with all this art. Rosenberg prowls like a true denizen of this world, looking up expectantly just as we come around a corner to a masterpiece. I am shiftily glancing around, amazed that I am there, and probably look like a criminal.

"Not bad, not bad," he says in his low, French-accented English, down in his throat like a lion's purr. It sounds so internal, and he is so much a part of it all that I think he is talking to himself and keep on gazing. Suddenly I realize he has looked away from the walls for a moment and is waiting for a reply, "Oh! Not bad at all."

A strange thing to say to Pierre Rosenberg. But it's all I can come up with. He has been so calm, explaining who gave this painting, whose collection must hang together and whose has been reshuffled, even noticing a spot on one Italian portrait: "H'm. What is that?" was all he said.

Calm as he is, these are for all intents and purposes, his paintings. as curator of the department of paintings of the Louvre, he sees to their cleaning, hanging, lending to exhibitions, or farming out to provincial museums, and, more important, defines their collective presence by buying their proper complements or companion pieces and devising exhibitions to shed new light on them. But he is so at home with all this power and at ease with the greatness of the art that with him you feel calm in the face of the Mona Lisa. Nice job, you feel like saying to Leonardo, but respectfully, of course.

The Louvre is unique because it combines two types of museums. It has the concentrated, heady wealth of a typical royal collection, and the consciously educational, encyclopedic gathering of the more recently evolved public museum. It began like the Prado and Hermitage collection with Francois I's Titians, Raphaels, and da Vincis in the early 1500s, and was amassed over the years by kings and queens with endless money to buy art, who chose their favorites and only showed them to special people. But unlike the Prado and Hermitage, which Rosenberg says are "dead" museums, because they stopped buying art when their monarchs were deposed and so have gaps in their collections, the Louvre just changed its attitude and let everyone in, not only surviving the French Revolution but becoming a better museum for it.