Vase of Flowers: The WWII Theft of a Dutch Still Life
min Read17 April 2023
What happens to artworks and cultural treasures as a nation prepares for war? In the case of Jan van Huysum’s Vase of Flowers, the Dutch still life was packed in a wooden crate and taken to the Tuscan countryside during World War II, only to fall into the hands of a German soldier. The world would not see it for the next 75 years.
Preparing for War
At the start of the Second World War, Italian museum and gallery curators were instructed to pack and relocate paintings and other artistic treasures to safety. As the country prepared for inevitable damage and destruction, officials moved trunks of artworks to numerous villas around the Italian peninsula. Works that could not be moved, like statues and monuments, were encased in brick towers to protect them from bombs and air raids.
A Dutch Still Life
When officials evacuated Florence’s Pitti Palace in 1940, Jan van Huysum’s Vase of Flowers was among the many works of art placed in wooden crates and taken to the countryside where they were stored out of harm’s reach. As German troops began to withdraw from Italy, they found these crates and took possession of them, moving them northwards towards the German border. In July 1944, a German soldier opened the crate containing Vase of Flowers and sent it to his wife as a gift. The painting would not be seen by the public for the next 75 years.
By the end of the war, with the help of the Allied forces, a train carrying shipments of artworks returned to Florence. On July 21, 1945, crowds celebrated as the crates were triumphantly brought back to the city center. U.S. Fifth Army trucks were adorned with Italian and American flags and banners that read, “The Florentine treasures, stolen by the Germans, are returned by the Americans.” But officials would soon realize that many pieces of art were still missing— among them, Jan van Huysum’s Vase of Flowers.
A Master of Detail
Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) is considered one of the most skilled Dutch still life painters of the 18th century. Van Huysum was a prolific artist from the Dutch Golden Age whose works were highly sought after in his day. He often traveled to horticultural centers in order to observe and sketch rare flowers. A master of detail, van Huysum painted with photographic precision and even used a magnifying glass while studying his subjects.
Traditionally, still lifes conveyed deeper meaning through the use of ordinary objects. In van Huysum’s Vase of Flowers, roses stand for love and growth, a butterfly symbolizes the fragility of life, a dragonfly alludes to the devil, and a nest with eggs symbolizes new life.
A Museum Director’s Plea
According to Uffizi Gallery director Eike Schmidt, it was Germany’s moral duty to restore the work to its rightful owners. The small painting had been hanging in the Palazzo Pitti since 1824, as part of Grande Duke Leopoldo II’s collection. In January 2019, Schmidt launched an appeal. He urged his native Germany to return the Dutch masterpiece to the Pitti Palace, a Renaissance palace that is part of the Uffizi Galleries. As part of his emotionally resonant plea, Schmidt hung a black-and-white photo of the still life. He added the label “Stolen”, which he affixed in German, Italian, and English.
“A museum without its works of art is like a vase without flowers.”
A Stolen Masterpiece Returns
Finally, on July 19, 2019, the German Federal Republic returned the Vase of Flowers to the Italian Republic after its absence of almost a century. The Ministers for Cultural Heritage and Activities, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Italy and Germany, and the Commander-in-chief of the Carabinieri Corps all attended the long-awaited ceremony in which the Dutch still life was unveiled. Schmidt spoke in front of a moved crowd:
“Justice has won thanks to the power of art […] Together we have been able to give justice to history.”
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