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What is a masterpiece? See for yourself at the new blockbuster Louvre show at the MIA

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new blockbuster, “The Louvre and the Masterpiece,” is as much a civic service as it is an art show.

"The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds," by Georges de La Tour, oil on canvas.
Photo by Gérard Blot/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY
“The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds,” by Georges de La Tour, oil on canvas.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new blockbuster, “The Louvre and the Masterpiece,” is as much a civic service as it is an art show. This ambitious traveling exhibition, the product of years of collaboration between Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and the Musée du Louvre, spans 4,000 years of history and showcases some of humanity’s great cultural treasures — with masterworks of sculpture, decorative arts, painting and drawing — pulled from each of the famed French museum’s eight collection areas.

The immediately compelling reason to take in this show, of course, is for the rare opportunity to see work by art history’s greats, up close and in person. While the big names of art history are certainly well represented, the works in this exhibition aren’t necessarily the museum’s most famous pieces. (If you’re wondering, you won’t be seeing Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in this exhibition — the painting is considered too fragile, and too precious, to loan out.) While there are a number of instantly familiar pieces, there are also a fair number of understated treasures, even some wonderfully persuasive forgeries, in the bunch. This assortment of work has been gathered to foster conversation on the very idea of the masterpiece.

Pieces are organized through the galleries to elucidate three broad themes: the evolving historical and cultural definitions of what constitutes a “masterpiece”; issues of “authenticity and connoisseurship”; and the role played by changes in taste and scholarship over the years. Visitors are afforded chances to evaluate the merits of similar pieces side-by-side, and to see for themselves how curators have been fooled by and subsequently unmasked fakes in their collection.

Among the eclectic assortment on display, you’ll see a number of finely made Near Eastern and European relics, ritual objects and religious icons of particular historic and artistic significance; also notable is a generous installation of sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye, including his formidable cast bronze piece, “Lion and Serpent.” In addition, there are luminous paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Georges de La Tour, Lorenzo LottoandJean-Siméon Chardin, and a handful of sketches and drawings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Antonio Pisanello. (Browse through an online slideshow of featured work in the exhibition here.)

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While you’re there, don’t miss the parallel exhibition in an adjacent gallery, “In Pursuit of the Masterpiece,” assembled along the same thematic structure as the Louvre show by the MIA’s curators, and drawn from the Minneapolis museum’s own impressive collection of historical and cultural masterworks.

“The Louvre and the Masterpiece” will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from Oct. 18 to Jan. 10, 2010. While general admission to the museum is free, you’ll need tickets to see this special exhibition (click here for ticket information). You can find details about related lectures, receptions and tours for this show on the MIA website.