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Art Hero: Rose Valland

Updated: Mar 16

Unassuming, simple appearance and quiet demeanor, unremarkable and timid. These terms have been used to describe Rose Valland. In fact, these tepid adjectives describe the French woman who valiantly stood up to the Nazis for what she cared for - simply, art.


photo of Rose Valland with paintings
Rose Valland at Jeu de Paulme

Hitler declared war on modern art and pretty much the work of every Western artist became known as ‘degenerate‘. Artists had to flee and were forbidden to continue producing more ‘unsuitable‘ art. Dealers and collectors, many of them Jewish, saw their collections confiscated. Museums were emptied and the looted art was sent to hidden storage depots. Jews were sent to concentration camps as their paintings and other possessions were forcibly removed from their homes.


section of the room of the martyrs at Jeu de Paume during Nazi occupoation
The room of the martyrs at Jeu de Paume during Nazi occupation

In 1940 the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris became the headquarters of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), in plain words: the Nazi looting organization. The fate of all paintings and other works of art stolen from French private collectors and dealers would be decided in a room which became known as ‘the room of the martyrs’. Top on the agenda was to choose art for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. Nazi Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering, who visited the museum often, would choose art for Hitler’s Museum and at the same time, enlarge his own quickly expanding private collection. What was deemed unworthy or could not be sold to fund the war, would be destroyed.

Here enters Rose Valland whose extensive art background had allowed her to work at the Jeu de Paume Museum. When the ERR took over the Jeu de Paume, the Director of the French National Museums, Jacques Jaujard, instructed Valland to stay on and spy on their illicit operations and that is exactly what she did. Unaware that she understood German, this unassuming woman was allowed to stay as she was seen as posing no threat to them. Imagine pretending not to understand the language spoken around you for four years. Valland listened, observed and made meticulous notes on every work that passed through those doors. She was sacked a few times but always managed to come back to work. A couple of times she came close to being discovered. She was accused of stealing art works and passing information to the enemy but nothing stopped her or scared her.

Valland was not able to stop the slaughter of art. One day a selection of portraits depicting Jews was made. They were ridiculed and slashed with knives and brought outside to be burnt. On the pile were added canvases by Miró, Klee, Picasso and others. Valland was powerless to interfere.


photo of Rose Valland in uniform
Rose Valland as Captain Vallard

At the end of the war, she worked closely with the Monument Men. The information she had gathered was invaluable in discovering multiple depots of looted art including the Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps where more than twenty thousand works of stolen art from private collectors and art dealers in France were stored. She spent the rest of her life working in the restitution of artworks to the original owners or in many cases, to their heirs. These figures are staggering. Valland was instrumental in documenting the fate of 22,000 artworks. As Captain Valland, together with the Monument Men, she had a major role in the recovery of 60,000 works of art.

I recently went to the Jewish Museum in New York to see the show Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art. The following paintings passed through ‘the room of the martyrs’ at the Jeu de Paume. When you look at them, think of the woman who risked her life, showing us what is possible to accomplish even in the most inhuman of times.


photo of painting by Henri Matisse entitled Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar
Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar by Henri Matisse

photo of painting Daisies by Henri Matisse
Daisies by Henri Matisse

The gallerist Paul Rosenberg had put most of his paintings in a bank vault in Bordeaux before fleeing to the United States. The Nazis confiscated the work and these two paintings were sent to the Jeu de Paume. Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar was taken by Hermann Goering for his personal collection. Daisies remained in storage. After the war, both paintings were returned to Rosenberg and later sold.


photo of Bather and Rocks by Paul Cézanne
Bather and Rocks by Paul Cézanne

Bather and Rocks was confiscated from the Jewish art collector Alphonse Kann. This huge nude was sent to Jeu de Paume in preparation for transport to a Nazi storage depot in Czechoslovakia. The train was stopped by Free French soldiers who removed the art. This painting was returned to the rightful owner after the war.


photo of Group of Characters by Pablo Picasso
Group of Characters by Pablo Picasso

Group of Characters was also taken from Alphonse Kann and it was on the same train as the above painting by Paul Cézanne. The train was stopped and its cargo taken by French fighters on August 1, 1944. This painting was eventually restituted to the heirs of the original owner in 1947.


photo of Composition by Fédor Löwenstein
Composition by Fédor Löwenstein

Composition was one of more than twenty works the artist tried to ship out of France to a gallery in the United States as he was preparing to flee Paris and go into hiding in the south of France. His life was in peril as a Jew and as an artist, his work had been classified as degenerate by the Nazis. The shipment was unfortunately confiscated by the Germans and sent to Jeu de Paume in Paris. Composition was to be destroyed. It managed to survive and after the war, it was stored and forgotten in the basement of the Louvre. Recently, this work is in the process of being restored to the heirs of Löwenstein.

You may also be interested in Art under Nazism and Why Art Matters which was posted in this blog The Painter’s Eye on April 11, 2018