14 August 2011

"Le déjeûner sur l’herbe" by Claude Monet almost plundered?

Claude Monet, the icon of French Impressionism, slaved for over a year painting a picnic on the grass with well-dressed men and women, all friends of the artist, enjoying a sunny day and a well-stocked meal. “Le déjeûner sur l’herbe”, painted somewhere between 1865 and 1866 remained in Monet’s possession until the end of his life. Lousy storage conditions produced mildew damage in corners of the work which Monet had to slice off twenty years after painting this masterpiece.

Le déjeûner sur herbe, Claude Monet
Source: Musée d'Orsay
His son, Michel Monet, inherited the work upon his father's death in 1926 together with many other paintings which Claude had either refused to sell or could not sell in his lifetime, leaving him in recurring debt and constantly on the brink of total destitution. And yet…

Michel Monet
Source: Giverny News
Right about the time of the German invasion of France in the spring of 1940, Michel Monet lent the painting to the Louvre for an exhibit being organized on the hundredth anniversary of Monet’s birth, “Le Centenaire de Claude Monet.”

And then came the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and its swashbuckling local dignitary, SS Colonel von Behr, former director of the German Red Cross.

Von Behr, in all his anti-Semitic wisdom, received word that the “Déjeûner sur l’herbe” belonged to a Jewish collection named André Weil. He ordered the painting removed from the Louvre and transferred to the Jeu de Paume for “disposal.” Meanwhile, a more pragmatic “cultural official” in the newly-installed German military administration (Militärbefehlshaber für Frankreich), member of the Kunstschutz, realized that the ERR was making a big mistake and that the painting belonged to Monet’s son, Michel Monet, and should be returned to him forthright.

Reason prevailed at least in those early days of cultural plundering in German-occupied Paris. On 17 December 1940, the “Déjeûner sur l’herbe” was returned to its rightful owner and was put on display as part of his late father’s legacy to art and to culture.

Other works and other collectors were not so lucky.

Thank God for Michel Monet! He was not Jewish.