How Napoleon's Stolen Artwork Shaped the Louvre
The Louvre is one of the world's largest and oldest museums. An iconic structure in Paris, with its signature glass pyramid, the Louvre is filled with over 480,000 objects and works of art.
But its past is a storied one — as several of these artworks found their way here through theft. Napoleon Bonaparte, first as a military general and then as self-proclaimed Emperor, brought in thousands of paintings, sculptures and artifacts from the countries he invaded. And he wasn't the only one.
Learn the history of the Louvre and the stolen artwork that shaped what it is today.
The Louvre Was Once a Fortress
Before the Louvre became the world's largest museum, the site was home to a medieval fort that protected Paris' border along the Seine.
Built in the 12th century under Philip II, the fortress featured a 98-foot tall tower and was surrounded by a moat. It was then fortified in the 14th century, and today, you can see the remains of the original building in the lower level.
Then, It Became a Palace
In the 14th century, King Francois I demolished the fortress in order to build his new palace. The Renaissance-style building matched his own style, as he standardized the language of France, developed relations with the Ottoman Empire and became a patron of the arts.
The king added new buildings and wings in what became an expansion that lasted a century.
The King Brought in Leonardo da Vinci
Francois' love for the arts led to him inviting Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci to the palace to become the king's painter, architect and engineer.
Living at the Castle of Clos Lucé, da Vinci stayed in France from 1516 until his death in 1519, creating accomplished works until the day he died.
Introducing the Mona Lisa
While in residence as the king's artist, da Vinci painted "a Florentine lady" and presented it to the Cardinal d'Aragon who visited Clos Lucé in 1517.
Of course, this painting is better known as the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous works of art in the world.
A Real Crowd Pleaser
Francois eventually retrieved the painting, keeping it in rotation at his palaces outside of the Louvre. She found her way to the museum after the fall of French royalty.
Except for a time when Napoleon Bonaparte took her to hang in his bedroom when he eventually came into power, her place has mainly been at the Louvre, where she still attracts thousands of visitors each year.
The People's Museum Opens
After the French Revolution in 1789, the palace of the Louvre was abandoned. The National Assembly turned the building over to the government and turned it into a museum for the public to view all of the art collected by the royal family over centuries.
More than 500 paintings and art were on display when the Louvre opened as a museum in 1793.
The Thefts Begin
A museum with only 500 works was not enough for the expansive building. In 1794, Belgium and Germany were forced to give up their works by mostly Flemish artists, including Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck and Gaspar de Crayer. The National Convention pillaged buildings, including churches, to steal these works, claiming it a right for instilling democracy to the people.
Artwork stolen included Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, The Raising of the Cross by Rubens and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (shown, from left to right).
Napoleon Arrives on the Scene
When Napoleon Bonaparte was made general of France's troops in Italy, he joined in on the looting. As he crossed Italy in 1796, he seized works by Antonio da Correggio, Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci and more.
He began in Piacenza, taking 20 paintings, collected another 20 in Milan and then 100 more pieces — from sculptures to paintings to vases — when the Armistice of Bologna treaty was signed.
As became his norm, any treaty included artwork. There would be no peace until he received some of the best. Within a year, he took 500 manuscripts from the Vatican and 300 antiquities in the Treaty of Tolentino.
Works included Guercino's The Burial of Saint Petronilla, Raphael's Transfiguration and Paolo Veronese's The Wedding Feast at Cana canvas (shown), which still remains at the Louvre today.
Erasing Italy's Art
Napoleon continued on to Verona and Venice, wherein signing the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, Italian cities had to provide even more art pieces to the French.
While many of the works were sent to the Louvre, Napoleon's removal of St. Mark's Square's winged lion and the Basilica's four copper horses ended up as part of a structure showcasing his power: the Arc de Triomphe du Caroussel, which stands opposite the Louvre. (The horses atop it today are not the originals, which were returned to Venice in 1815.)
Next, Napoleon Excavates Egypt
After his successful foraging of Italy, Napoleon set his sights on Egypt. Taking with him scientists and artists who could help determine the worth of his findings, Napoleon collected thousands of antiquities.
The most important of which was the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was displayed in the Louvre until 1801.
Britain Hits Back
While the Louvre holds one of the largest collections of Egyptian Antiquities outside of Egypt, the items remaining in the current exhibit did not come from Napoleon's conquest, contrary to popular belief.
Napoleon did collect and take many items between 1798 and 1801, but when the British defeated the French, they took the Rosetta Stone and many of the stolen works to display in the British Museum — the true largest holder of Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt.
A New Name for the Louvre
As the driving force behind much of the works found within the Louvre, Napoleon had the museum renamed the Musée Napoleon in his honor in 1803.
He wanted to showcase Paris as the greatest city with the greatest museum in time for being crowned Emperor the following year. His collection featured 5,000 pieces.
Prussia Succumbs to Napoleon
As Emperor, Napoleon made his way through Prussia between 1806 to 1807. En route to the Russian border, his conquests, as you can guess by now, included building his collection of artwork.
In Berlin, he seized another 54 paintings, as well as the Quadriga from Brandenburg Gate (shown), repeating the efforts in cities like Munich; Warsaw, Poland, and Dusseldorf, Germany.
A Personal Loss for a King
Of the great losses, the Duke of Brunswick, Frederick William III, alone handed over 278 paintings and 250 drawings from his personal collection.
The Prussian ruler's art, along with the art of others, found their way to provincial museums across France, where some still remain.
The Belvedere Loses Titian's Work
As Napoleon blew through Austria, Vienna's Belvedere Gallery had to give up 250 paintings to appease the conquerer. Of these were 15 of the 36 paintings by Tiziano Vecellio, otherwise known as Titian.
Today, Titian's work such as The Entombment of Christ and Woman with a Mirror (shown), hang in the Louvre.
Gifts for Josephine
Many of the works stolen in Prussia and Austria sent back to France were works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Van Dyck. By now, there were too many works to fit into the Louvre, and they were spread out to other homes of Napoleon, including his wife, Josephine's, Malmaison.
It is said she was given first dibs on the stolen goods before they were sent to the Louvre.
Spanish Art Disappears Next
Spain wasn't saved from the ravaging taking place in Europe. Cities were forced to give away their art when Napoleon headed west. Nobles who remained loyal to the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, were forced to give up their private collections as well.
Nearly 1,000 paintings were taken, many from churches and monasteries.
Spain 'Gifts' Its Art
Once he conquered Spain, Napoleon named his brother, Joseph, King of Spain. It was only right for Joseph to "gift" more works from Spain to the Musée Napoleon.
However, Joseph kept the best works for himself, such as the Immaculate Conception of the Venerables by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. He created a royal museum that eventually became Madrid's Prado, where Murillo's work still resides.
A Return of Stolen Goods (Almost)
Upon Napoleon's defeat in 1814, more than 5,000 pieces of the art he had stolen were returned to their former countries — although there were still items that conveniently stayed at the Louvre. The Tiber (shown) is one treasure kept, as it was considered too big to return to its home at the Vatican. Pope Pius VII then gifted it to King Louis XVIII.
That same year, the Louvre's name was restored as well.
Art Is Evacuated During WWII
But Napoleon wasn't the only one stealing artwork in the Louvre's history. One of the worst offenders was Adolf Hitler.
Before France fell to Germany, the Louvre's curators hid thousands of pieces of art to keep them protected. Much of the work was hidden at farms in the countryside, and those included the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace (shown). The pieces were found in an air-conditioned coach house at the Chateau de Valencay.
Nazis Also Display Stolen Art at the Louvre
The Nazis wanted the Louvre to remain open, but without its famous works, the museum was mostly empty. In order to fill the void, Nazis began to display the items they had confiscated from Jewish families.
Thousands of pieces were collected at the Louvre, which became a processing center for the stolen works from around Europe. High officials were able to take what they wanted, and the rest was used to fill empty walls and spaces at the museum.
Destroying the Art
Any works by artists the Nazis deemed unworthy, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse or Salvador Dali, were sold or burned at the Jeu de Paume in the Jardin des Tuileries, opposite the Louvre. This included any works created by a Jewish person.
Thankfully, many undercover curators and art dealers attended the event to rescue works by auction, saving priceless pieces from the bonfire.
Enter the Monument Men
The Nazi art theft had a name: ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg). They stole nearly 5 million pieces from homes, churches and museums, including the Uffizi and the Louvre.
To combat the cultural atrocities, the Allies had their own group to seek and recover the works stolen. They were called the Monuments Men (although women were involved, too). A 2014 movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and Matt Damon named "The Monuments Name" dramatized this effort.
Rescuing the Priceless Works
The Monuments Men was made up of historians, teachers, curators and architects.
Eight panels of Jan van Eyck's The Adoration of the Lamb was one of the priceless works uncovered and saved, and it is safely back in Ghent, Belgium.
When the Nazis were defeated, the French government returned 45,000 pieces to the Holocaust survivors or their heirs. Rose Valland had kept a detailed account of all the pieces stolen by the Nazis.
However, there were 16,000 pieces not returned, including thousands sold by the government in order to increase the country's post-war funds.
Or Are They Returned?
The Musées Nationaux Recuperation, or MNR, was tasked with the return of artwork, but only 51 pieces of the hundreds of pieces were returned between 1951 and 2018.
Although France has made attempts to return the art, there are nearly 2,000 pieces that are still in its museums, including 300 pieces in the Louvre.
In an effort to find the owners of artwork stolen by the Nazis that are still in the possession of the Louvre, a permanent display has been created to hang dozens of works until they are claimed.
Tyranny is not the only reason stolen art and artifacts fill the halls and galleries of the Louvre.
Grave robbing in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings of Egypt, whether by professional archeologists or treasure seekers, resulted in pieces ending up at the Louvre. A number of fresco fragments on display in the Louvre in 2009, for example, were discovered to have been looted from an Egyptian tomb during the 1980s. Egypt demanded them back.
It took a bit of arm twisting, but France did send the work back, claiming it didn't know the pieces were stolen.
Although the curators of the Louvre were great at hiding art from the Nazis, they weren't so lucky in 1911. That year, the Louvre experienced a near-catastrophic theft: The Mona Lisa vanished.
It turns out the museum's own employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, stole the da Vinci painting in the middle of the day. And it took two full years to recover it!
Another Lady Lost
In 1990, the Louvre also discovered it had been robbed of Egyptian jewelry. Only valued at $1,000, it had been the second theft within a week.
The first was an Auguste Renoir painting, Portrait of a Seated Woman (shown), which was cut out of its frame.
Not the Only One
Less than a decade later, another painting was cut from its frame during the daytime hours. The Camille Corot landscape shown was actually the fifth Corot to go missing since the 1980s.
Although the painting measured just 13 inched by 19 inches, it is valued at $1.3 million. The four earlier paintings had been found and returned.
Difficult to Keep Track
With more than 5,500 paintings in the Louvre, we suppose it can be easy to lose a piece now and then.
Even when walking through the Louvre's maze of galleries amassed with artwork, most of the collection is kept in archives. Museums typically display only 5 percent of their collection.
So Big That There's Another
In fact, the museum's collection is so big that the French approved the building of a secondary Louvre in Abu Dhabi in 2007. Ten years later, both the leaders of France and the United Arab Emirates were on hand to open the new addition.
Louvre Abu Dhabi is 260,000 square feet and is the Arabian peninsula's largest museum.
The Louvre Won Again
In order for Abu Dhabi to have the name of the Louvre for its museum, France's original museum received $525 million to "lease" the name for 30 years.
France also was paid $747 million to loan 300 pieces of art, provide management and host special exhibitions. Perhaps there is a long-lost item now sitting within the Abu Dhabi museum's walls?