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Excerpt From 'The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris'

High hopes in the City of Light

Strolling over the Seine with [educator and author Emma Willard] on the Pont des Arts, James Fenimore Cooper assured her there was no finer view in all of Europe.

See also: Interview with David McCullough.

She had come to Paris to "see and learn." Suggesting in one of her letters that her students at home [in New York] accompany her, in a matter of speaking, to the "very heart of Paris," she led them not to the Pont des Arts or to the shops of the Palais Royal, but to the Louvre, and few other Americans would have contested the choice. Like the cathedral at Rouen, the Louvre was a nearly overpowering reminder of the immense difference between the Old World and the New.

It was the world's greatest, richest, most renowned museum of art in what had formerly been a royal palace. Its history was long and complicated. A great part of it had been built for Catherine de Medici in the 16th century. Its famous Grande Galerie on the second floor was the longest room in the world, fully 1,330 feet, or more than a quarter of a mile, in length, its entire tessellated wood floor waxed like a table top.

The collection of paintings numbered 1,224, and only masterpieces were included. It had been opened to the public, the admission free, by the government of the Revolution in 1793, the same year King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were taken to the guillotine. Though the Parisian public was admitted only on Sunday, "etrangers" were welcome every day, much to the surprise of the Americans. They had only to show their passports.

He entered the Louvre "with a throb," wrote Charles Sumner. Ascending its magnificent marble stairway, he rejoiced to think that such a place was not something set apart for royalty only. So numerous and vast were the galleries that he spent four hours just walking through them.

"[Oliver Wendell] Holmes and I actually were at the Louvre this morning three hours instead of one, such is the seduction of the masters," recorded Thomas Appleton, who was in raptures. "O Rubens, emperor of glowing flesh and vermeil lips; Rembrandt, sullen lord of brown shades and lightning lights ... O Titian, thou god of noble eyes and rich, warm life ... O Veronese … when shall I repay you for all the high happiness of this day?"

From The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough, copyright © 2011 by David McCullough, published by Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York, 10020. Used by permission of the publisher.

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