During my travels in Europe, I always try to include a visit to an art museum. Seeing the European masterpieces in person is always inspirational and educational.
In Amsterdam, I was impressed with the sheer size of “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt van Rijn. This is Rembrandt’s largest painting located in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (painted in 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.cm).
In contrast to this large masterpiece, is the much smaller portrait of the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa (1503-19, oil on wood panel, 77 x 53 cm) five centuries ago. Five hundred years later, it is still one of the most famous and recognizable paintings in the world.
I purchased tickets to see the portrait behind bullet proof glass in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
I must admit that all the hype baffled me and my traveling party. The painting is smaller than we expected; and although it is certainly a masterpiece, we all agreed that other exhibits in the Louvre were more impressive.
Losing, Finding Mona Lisa
However, it was a series of external events that helped create the allure of the Mona Lisa, giving it celebrity status.
Hanging in the world-famous Louvre since 1797 gave it panache. Previously, it was the property of King Francis I, the King of France until the French Revolution. It also hung in Napoleon’s bedroom prior to finding a home at the Louvre
On August 21, 1911, it went missing from the Salon Carre in the Louvre, and the media reports brought international attention and shock. The news spread worldwide, a photo of the Mona Lisa even appeared in the New York Times, and this relatively unknown painting became a household name.
Museum curators left the spot vacant on the wall, which only made the French miss it even more. Art patrons were so devastated after that they would gather and stare at the empty wall.
The authorities even arrested Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who was living in Paris at the time, due to a false accusation.
The masterpiece remained missing for over two years until a museum handyman, Vincenzo Peruggia finally admitted to the theft during police interrogation. He said he simply took the painting off the wall, wrapped it in his smock and walked out the front door. The Louvre staff did not even notice it was missing until the next day.
Treasure What You Have
Upon its return, the French population considered it a national treasure
I guess Canadian singer and composer Joni Mitchell sang it best in her 1970 hit song “Big Yellow Taxi”, in the lyric I still remember.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?”
Many badly missed the Mona Lisa when it was missing for two years. And when it reappeared, it became universally cherished. It is the most famous painting in the world and has 10 million visitors a year in large part because it was taken away.
All these priceless paintings appear to be iconic and indestructible, hanging for centuries in homes, museums and galleries. Some, like the “Mona Lisa” and Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” are used for sweaters and coffee cups. We often forget that they are all fragile pieces of canvas. Too many have been victims of colonialism and theft.
GrantWatch has grants available to U.S., Canada, and International nonprofit museums for artwork preservation projects.
Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art
In New York City, a new temporary exhibition opened recently at The Jewish Museum that will be open until Jan 10, 2022.
The gallery consists only of objects Nazi art looting had an impact on overall. The artwork displayed includes works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and others.
The following text appears at the entry of the exhibit next to Franz Marc’s “The Large Blue Horse.”
“The vast and systemic pillaging of artworks during WWII, and the eventual rescue and return of many, is one of the most dramatic stories of 20th century art…Artworks that withstood the immense tragedy of the war survived against extraordinary odds. “Many exist today as a result of great personal risk and ingenuity.”
The sheer number of pieces of art Nazi forces stole approaches 1 million. The exhibit tells the heroic stories of how the pieces survived, the circumstances of their theft, and their eventual rescue.
75 Year Later and Still Unsettled
The fate of the stolen artwork from 1933-1945 is unsettled. Museums in the U.S. and elsewhere are in court with claims and counterclaims. There is even a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear regarding Holocaust repatriation.
In March, the French government returned a work by Gustav Klimt to the rightful heir. And in June, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels returned a still life by Lovis Corinth to the family that the Nazis victimized. In August, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam returned an early Kandinsky to descendants of the owner.
This 75-year-old historical footnote of plundered artwork is a current news story. This is living history, happening in real time.
In fact, centuries of purged and looted artifacts have become a contemporary news story. The legal decisions of this hodge -podge of claims will have a global impact and affect the status of artifacts from the venerable British Museum to private collectors.
So, let’s all try to appreciate the value of what we have and love, while we have it.