The Art of (Reclaiming a) Painting

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The Art of Painting, Vermeer, c. 1666/Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

The Art of Painting, Vermeer, c. 1666/Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Over the weekend the Austrian culture ministry announced that the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna is facing an attempt to reclaim one of its most important works, Vermeer’s The Art of Painting — or as it’s also known, The Allegory of Painting — which has been at the museum since 1946.

It’s already a picture with a fraught history. Adolf Hitler wanted the painting for one of his toxic vanity projects, the giant art museum he planned to create in Linz, his Austrian birthplace. In 1940 he purchased it for 1.65 million Reichsmarks from Jaromir Czernin, the brother-in-law of Austria’s prime minister from 1934 until Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938. The painting had been in Czernin’s family since the 19th century. The Czernins began petitioning the Austrian government for its return in the 1960s, without success. The government argued that the sale was voluntary and the price adequate. The family has now come back with a study of the sale that they claim shows that it was made under duress.

I haven’t seen the study so it makes no sense to comment on the merits of the Czernin claim. But I was struck to see that painting in the news because I had just been reading about it last week in The Monuments Men, a new history of the Allied soldiers whose job it was to retrieve the thousands of artworks stolen or otherwise acquired by the Nazis. One of those was The Art of Painting, which ended up in 1945 stored on Hitler’s order in an Austrian salt mine with thousands of other plundered works, including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer and panels from Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. In the final months of the war, after Hitler issued his famous Nero Decree calling for the destruction of all German infrastructure, orders were issued by the local Nazi gauleiter to destroy the plundered artworks by blowing up the mines, a plan that was only foiled because lower-echelon Nazis balked — partly because they saw no reason to ruin a perfectly good salt mine.

This is getting to be a big year generally for continuing Holocaust restitution claims against major museums. It was only three months ago that the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Guggenheim, just up the road from them, reached an out-of-court settlement with a family that claimed to be the rightful owners of two early Picassos, MoMA’s Boy Leading a Horse and the Guggenheim’s Le Moulin de la Gallette.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach, c. 1530/Norton Simon Museum

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach, c. 1530/Norton Simon Museum

Then last month a federal appeals court in San Francisco left open the possibility that the daughter-in-law of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch-Jewish art dealer who died in a shipboard accident while fleeing the Germans in 1940, could still pursue a claim against the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Ca., for the return of Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve, two of the most important paintings in their collection. For good measure, the paintings were sold to Norton Simon in 1971 by a hereditary Russian nobleman who had re-gained them from the Dutch government after the war because they had been confiscated from his family by Stalin and sold in Berlin at an auction where Goudstikker bought them in 1931. Paintings lead complicated lives.

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