05 July 2011

Interpreting a restituted Vuillard painting

Another reminder of how complex, inadequate, and frustrating art-historical and forensic research can be when one seeks to verify the antecedents of a looted painting.

In this case, a painting by Edouard Vuillard disappeared during the German occupation of Paris from the apartment of Gaston Hemmendinger who once lived at 138, rue de Courcelles, in Paris. Its title was: “Les Premiers Pas—Jardins du Luxembourg,” a vertical panel measuring 2,12 m x 0,84 m.

Hemmendinger had purchased the panel at the sale of Thadée Natanson’s collection on 16 May 1929 (Lot 119). While Natanson was a close friend of Vuillard who had commissioned him to produce a series of panels for his ample Parisian residence on avenue du Bois, Vuillard had eyes only for his wife, Misia. But that’s another story entirely…

The descriptive information about the painting comes from Hemmendinger’s postwar French restitution files. In that same file, there is a reference to a panel by Vuillard described as “Enfants jouant au Luxembourg” which was restituted to Hemmendinger on 21 January 1948 by French authorities. Already, there is a subtle disconnect between that title and the title of the panel which Hemmendinger declared in his inventory: “Les premiers pas…” or “First steps…”

MA-B 1224
Source: ERR Project via NARA
The painting that was restituted to Hemmendinger was labeled MA-B 1224, or stolen by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Paris during Möbel-Aktion. A check of the card typed by a staff member of the ERR at the Jeu de Paume where the painting by Vuillard was processed tells us that the card was typed at some point in January 1944 and was entitled “Junges Mädchen auf Parkweg mit Kind spielend. Im Hintergrund drei Frauen auf Bank vor Kastenienbaum.” In plain English, “Young girls in a park with a child playing. In the background, three women on a bench in front of a chestnut tree.”

According to the inventory drawn up by the ERR, the painting known as MA-B 1224 was brought into the Jeu de Paume at some point in November 1943 and was shipped out to an ERR depot in Nikolsburg, in Bohemia, on 21 December 1943. The dimensions of this painting are listed as 2,13 m x 0,61 m. As indicated above, the size of the painting differs from the size of the work mentioned in Hemmendinger’s inventory.

Are we doubting that Gaston Hemmendinger actually retrieved his Vuillard panel which he had acquired at the Natanson sale of 1929?

Let’s go now to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris which owns a series of four panels produced by Vuillard in 1894 for Natanson. There is an interesting paragraph which indicates that one of the paintings produced as part of the series is known as “Les Premiers Pas.” Its present whereabouts are unknown.

Two of the panels at the Musée d’Orsay (“Les nourrices” and “fillettes jouant”) match part of the description found on the January 1944 ERR card as well as the measurements in Hemmendinger’s inventory that he supplied to the French government as part of his restitution file.

We might never know what actually happened. The discrepancies between the Hemmendinger description, the description of MA-B 1224 and the indication on the Musée d’Orsay website that the present whereabouts of Hemmendinger’s Vuillard panel “Les premiers pas” remain “unknown” may hint at an erroneous restitution of a Vuillard panel to Gaston Hemmendinger.


Thanks to a devoted reader of the "plundered art" blog, we can answer the aforementioned question regarding a possible erroneous restitution.  The painting by Edouard Vuillard entitled "Les Premiers Pas..." which he painted in 1894 was in fact restituted to Gaston Hemmendinger.

This is what our reader told us:

Just read your post about Gaston Gemmendinger's (Hemmendinger's) distemper Les premiers pas. The whereabouts of the painting are actually pretty known... See the impressive Guy Cogeval catalogue for Vuillard's major retrospective which started at the Washington National Gallery in 2003 and then traveled to Montreal, Paris and London. I saw it at the last stop at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2004. The painting under discussion is published in Cogeval's catalogue as follows:
#116, p. 172, 177 (ill.)The Public Gardens: The First Steps Les jardins publics. Les 
premiers pas. 1894, distemper on canvas, 213.4 x 68.5Signed and dated l. r.: E. Vuillard 94United States, Tom James Company / Oxford Clothes 
Cogeval-SALOMON V. 39-7 
Provenance: Alexandre Natanson Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 16, 1929, lot 119 (ill.) - M. Kleinmann, Paris - Gaston Gemmendinger, Paris - Seized by the Nazis during the Occupation; restitution - Private collection - Tom James Co./Oxxford Clothes, United States 
Exhibitions: Chicago - New York, 2001, no. 32, col. ill. p. 121 
Chicago, Art Institute, Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930, February 25-May 16; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 26 - September 9. 
Vuillard: The Inexhaustible Glance
Source: BookDepository.co.uk
The moral of this story is two-fold: 

The sources should always be questioned, even if they come from the revered Musée d’Orsay in Paris or from the French government's own postwar restitution records.

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