France still has almost 70 works of art taken from the Netherlands in the Napoleonic era, a new exhibition has revealed.
Although there has been more attention in recent years to colonial and Nazi looted objects held in Dutch museums, the Netherlands itself was victim to large-scale looting by 18th century soldiers who invaded from France “to liberate the people” – liberating some of their artwork while they were about it.
At a press launch of an exhibition called Loot – 10 stories, Mauritshuis director Martine Gosselink revealed that some of a selection of almost 200 paintings that once belonged to William V were confiscated and never returned.
“Once, long ago, in 1774, our last stadtholder William V opened the first museum in the Netherlands,” she said. “It was a beautiful collection of around 200 paintings but in 1795, the French came into the Netherlands and took the whole collection away to Paris – as well as his menagerie and his gigantic collection of 10,000 prints.”
The Batavian Republic was proclaimed on January 16, 1795, the Netherlands became a vassal state of France, Willem fled to England and his 194 paintings ended up in the Louvre – some exhibited in what became the Musée Napoléon. The diligent French archivists marked the Dutch stolen goods with a “STAT” on the back. But after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the allies decided loot should be returned and a Dutch delegation headed to Paris.
“Slowly, successively all of the countries that were robbed by Napoleon got things back,” she said. “But it was pretty tricky: the personnel of the Louvre had taken away all of the ladders to make it extra difficult to reach the paintings.
“Finally, they succeeded in getting back two-thirds of the paintings but 70 of them still hang in France. One of the big questions that hangs above our heads in this exhibition is: do we want the works back? We are giving back colonial looted art back, so why not this?”
The exhibition represents these 67 looted works, which would belong to the Mauritshuis, with a wall full of empty gaps alongside two paintings that were successfully reclaimed: Paulus Potter’s Cows Reflected in the Water and Jan Mijtens’ The Marriage of Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg with Louise Henriette of Orange in 1646.
It also tells the stories of other looted Napoleonic, colonial and Nazi looted art, with the help of video, virtual reality and objects created in perfect detail, in three dimensions in the digital world.
Gosselink said, however, that the museum had no current plans to make a claim on the other pieces. “Do we really need them? Do we miss them from our collections? Do we have empty depots or museums? Are they so critical that we can’t tell our history without them, or so iconic or financially important? To all these questions, the answer is no.”
She pointed out that there is no history of hundreds of years of oppression or racism, or memories of horror from, for example, the Nazi era when art was also looted. The Netherlands has the highest density of museums in the world, the exhibition says, so the paintings can serve “as ambassadors of the wonderful art created in our country in the 17th century.”
Gosselink added: “In general, stolen things should be given back, whether that’s Nazi looted art or colonial looted art…but we, as the Mauritshuis do not ourselves have the desire to ask for the 70 works that are in France to be given back.”
Loot runs from September 14 to January 7, at the Mauritshuis in The Hague