Napoleon’s Looted Art

Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t the first or the last leader to steal art from conquered territories, and he wasn’t the largest wartime looter (that was Adolf Hitler), but he and his troops pillaged art on a vast scale. What did they take and what happened to Napoleon’s looted art?

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1563, plundered by Napoleon’s troops from the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice in 1797, remains in the Louvre in Paris

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1563, plundered by Napoleon’s troops from the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice in 1797, remains in the Louvre in Paris.

Liberty deserves art

Even before Napoleon commanded an army, representatives of Revolutionary France were seizing valuable works of art from occupied territories in Germany and the Austrian Netherlands. In August 1794, the French National Convention was told that “Rubens, Van Dyck and Crayer are en route to Paris, and the whole Flemish school rises en masse to come and adorn our museums.” (1) Antwerp, Brussels, Liège, Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne and other cities were robbed of their treasures. Among other masterpieces, the convoys to Paris included Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross, the Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo, the central panels of the Ghent altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck), and the marble columns and Proserpina sarcophagus – thought to be the tomb of Charlemagne – from the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle.

The French tried to justify art theft not only with the idea that the spoils of war belonged to the victor, but also with the notion that France was the best place for such works. As the French army pillaged Belgian churches, Bertrand Barère, President of the National Convention, told Belgian delegates, “Do you not have immense treasures that religion has, for centuries, held on deposit for liberty?” (2) Jacques-Luc Barbier-Walbonne, the officer and portrait painter in charge of art confiscations in Belgium, said:

[T]he fruits of genius are the heritage of liberty…. The immortal works [of] Rubens, Van Dyck and other founders of the Flemish school are no longer in a foreign land…. They are today deposited in the homeland of arts and genius, in the homeland of liberty and holy equality, in the French republic. (3)

In October 1796, French artists sent a petition to the Directory arguing that:

The more our climate seems unfavorable to the arts, the more do we require models here in order to overcome the obstacles to the progress thereof…. The Romans, once an uncultivated people, became civilized by transplanting to Rome the works of conquered Greece…. Thus…the French people…naturally endowed with exquisite sensitivity, will…by seeing the models from antiquity, train its feeling and its critical sense…. The French Republic, by its strength and superiority of its enlightenment and its artists, is the only country in the world which can give a safe home to these masterpieces. All other nations must come to borrow from our art, as they once imitated our frivolity. (4)

By then, Napoleon had already joined in the pillage.

Art looted by Napoleon from Italy

The Madonna of Saint Jerome by Antonio da Correggio, 1525-28, was one of the first pieces of art looted by Napoleon from Italy. It is now in the National Gallery of Parma.

The Madonna of Saint Jerome by Antonio da Correggio, 1525-28, was one of the first pieces of art looted by Napoleon from Italy. It is now in the National Gallery of Parma.

In March 1796, Napoleon was put in charge of France’s Army of Italy. As he swept across Italy, he asked the Directory to send him “three or four well-known artists to choose what should be seized and sent to Paris.” (5) Writing from Piacenza on May 9, Napoleon advised the Directory that he was sending “twenty pictures by the greatest masters, by Correggio and Michelangelo.” (6) These belonged to the Duchy of Parma. In Milan on May 18, Napoleon promised to send another twenty pictures. A list of “works of art and science selected by General Bonaparte to be transported to Paris” included paintings from Milan, Parma and Piacenza by Raphael, Rubens, Luini, Giorgione, da Vinci, Titian, Correggio, and others. (7)

As he had done with the Dukes of Parma and Modena, Napoleon inserted demands for art into his truce with the Pope. The Armistice of Bologna (June 1796) gave France “a hundred pictures, busts, vases, and statues,” to be chosen by French commissioners sent to Rome. These objects were specifically to include “the busts in bronze of Junius Brutus, and that in marble of Marcus Brutus, both placed in the capitol.” (8) The Vatican was similarly required to relinquish 500 valuable manuscripts, and to pay for the transportation of the confiscated treasures to Paris.

These terms were formalized in the Treaty of Tolentino (February 1797). French commissioners could enter any building – public, private, or religious – to confiscate artistic works. Among the ancient statues, busts and sculptures surrendered were the Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön and His Sons, the Zeus of Otricoli, the Dying Gaul, the Capitoline Venus, the Nile, the Tiber, and almost 300 antiquities from the private collection of Cardinal Alessandro Albani. Seized paintings included Raphael’s Transfiguration, Cavaraggio’s Deposition, Andrea Sacchi’s Vision of Saint Romuald, Reni’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Domenichino’s Last Communion of Saint Jerome, Poussin’s The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, and Guercino’s The Burial of Saint Petronilla.

Napoleon wrote to the Directory from Tolentino on February 19, the day the treaty was signed:

The committee of scholars has reaped a good harvest at Ravenna, Rimini, Pesaro, Ancona, Loreto and Perugia. Joined to what we shall be sending from Rome, that will give us everything of beauty in Italy except for a few things at Turin and Naples. (9)

As Verona and other cities fell to the French, they too were compelled to give up art. By May 1797, Napoleon’s troops were in Venice. They removed the winged lion from St. Mark’s Square and the famous four bronze (actually copper) horses from St. Mark’s Basilica. When Napoleon had the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel built in Paris, the horses were placed on top. Additional art plundered from Venice included The Wedding Feast at Cana and other canvases by Veronese, and paintings by Titian and Tintoretto. The Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) required Italian cities to contribute pieces of art to France.

A general who served under Napoleon wrote:

The enemies of the arts, and of the republic, affect to lament the removal of the monuments of Italy. They…forget that they have never charged the Romans with committing a crime in taking from the vanquished Greeks the statues, with which they decorated the Capitol, the temples and the squares of Rome; these very statues which the French have taken from the degenerate Roman Catholics to adorn the museum of Paris, and to distinguish by the most noble of trophies, the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and of philosophy over superstition. Real conquests are those made in behalf of the arts, the sciences and taste, and they are the only ones capable of consoling for the misfortune of being compelled to undertake them from other motives. (10)

The Italian war booty was paraded through the streets of Paris in a “Festival of Liberty” on July 27-28, 1798. A banner on the cart carrying the Apollo Belevedere proclaimed: “Greece ceded them, Rome lost them. Their fate has changed twice; it will not change again.” (11)

The art was destined for the new national museum at the Louvre.

A military review during the Empire, showing the horses of Saint Mark (looted from Venice) on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris, by Joseph-Louis-Hippolyte Bellangé and Adrien Dauzatz, 1862

A military review during the Empire, showing the horses of Saint Mark (looted from Venice) on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris, by Joseph-Louis-Hippolyte Bellangé and Adrien Dauzatz, 1862

Antiquities looted from Egypt

In 1798, Napoleon embarked with an expeditionary force to Egypt. He was accompanied by artists and scientists whose aim, among other things, was to find artifacts worthy of being shipped back to France. These scholars collected a number of precious objects, the most important of which was the Rosetta Stone. When the French were defeated by the British, the French hoard was handed over to the British army. The Capitulation of Alexandria (August 1801) stipulated that larger antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone, were to be sent to Britain for presentation to King George III. He passed them on to the British Museum. Smaller items were allowed to remain in the possession of the French. Some of them wound up in the Louvre.

Art looted from Germany and Austria

One of Napoleon’s advisors on the Egyptian expedition was the artist and diplomat Dominique-Vivant Denon, a friend of Napoleon’s wife Josephine. In 1802, Napoleon appointed Denon director of the Louvre. In 1803, the museum was renamed the Musée Napoleon. Denon travelled with the Grande Armée to superintend art confiscations in conquered territories. These continued on a grand scale, as Napoleon – crowned Emperor in 1804 – wanted to make Paris the grandest and most beautiful city that ever existed.

In 1806-07, Napoleon defeated the Prussians and advanced all the way to the Russian frontier. Berlin had to give up 54 paintings; Küstrin 56; Potsdam 6; Cassel 299; Schwerin 209; Warsaw 6. The Duke of Brunswick lost 278 paintings, as well as 9 busts, 74 small bronzes, 83 ivories, and 70 objects sculpted in wood. Vienna lost at least 250 paintings from the Belvedere Gallery alone. Salzburg, Munich, Nuremberg, Düsseldorf and Zweibrücken were similarly looted. Artworks by Veronese, Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Dürer, Holbein, Cranach, Claude Lorrain, and Poussin trundled into France. They couldn’t all fit in the Louvre. They adorned Fontainebleau, Compiègne and other royal residences, and the homes of Imperial dignitaries. Many were dispersed to provincial museums.

A number of stolen items wound up at Josephine’s residence of Malmaison. Beginning with the pillage in Italy, Josephine’s demands were not infrequently responsible for the confiscation of jewels and other charming objects. Entire collections were brought for her to pick over. She would keep some of the pieces, distribute others to her favourites, and send the rest on to the Louvre.

In addition to Napoleon’s organized pillage of the great artworks of Europe, there was plundering by French officers, soldiers, and officials. The Louvre continued to receive masterpieces whose origin would be difficult to conceal, but many works of art disappeared into private collections or were sold for personal gain.

Art looted from Spain

The Immaculate Conception of the Venerables by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, circa 1678, looted from Seville by Marshal Soult in 1810. Returned to Spain in 1941, it resides in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The Immaculate Conception of the Venerables by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, circa 1678, looted from Seville by Marshal Soult in 1810. Returned to Spain in 1941, it resides in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Joseph founded a museum to house the best paintings of Spain. Spanish nobles who remained loyal to the deposed king, Ferdinand VII, had their art collections confiscated. In 1810, Seville was plundered. The French seized approximately 1,000 paintings from the city’s churches, convents and monasteries. Marshal Soult personally amassed over 180 Spanish paintings, most notably valuable works by Murillo. Hundreds of crates of precious artworks were removed from the Escorial, the historical royal residence near Madrid.

In June 1813, when Joseph’s troops were defeated by the Duke of Wellington’s army at the Battle of Vitoria, Joseph abandoned his baggage train, which contained some 200 paintings from the Spanish royal collection. King Ferdinand later gave these to the Duke of Wellington. Eighty-three of the paintings hang at Wellington’s residence of Apsley House in London. (As is evident in Napoleon in America, Joseph Bonaparte still retained a sizable art collection.) 

Returning the looted art

Napoleon was compelled to abdicate in April 1814. Shortly thereafter, owners of stolen art tried to get their property back. Some – including Pope Pius VII – appealed directly to the new king of France. On May 8, Louis XVIII announced that he intended to return any artworks that had not yet been displayed in the Louvre or the Tuileries. However on June 4, he made a speech that gave the impression that the absence of provisions for art restitution in the Treaty of Paris (May 30, 1814), which formally ended the war between France and the Sixth Coalition, confirmed the French right of possession.

The glory of the French armies has not been tarnished; the monuments to their bravery remain, and the masterpieces of the arts henceforth belong to us by more stable and more sacred rights than those of victory. (12)

Although some objects were returned, the French were generally reluctant to give up their trophies. A London paper commented:

They clamour loudly [to be allowed to keep] the articles of Art. And why? By what right? The right of conquest? Then have they not twice lost them? Do they persist in enforcing that right? Then why do not now the Allies plunder France of every article worth removing which she possessed before Buonaparte’s time? They are entitled to do this by the example of Buonaparte’s practice, now so eagerly sanctioned by the Parisians. (13)

The Allies didn’t want to press Louis XVIII too strongly on the issue, because they didn’t want to make him unpopular with his subjects. By January 1815, the Louvre and the Royal Library had relinquished very little – only 6 paintings, 46 marble and 52 bronze statues, 461 carved gems, and a few manuscripts.

The process of returning stolen art was interrupted by Napoleon’s escape from Elba and return to the French throne in March 1815. Negotiations resumed after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and his final abdication. This time the Allies were in a less generous mood. The French tried to get a clause inserted in the new Treaty of Paris to guarantee the integrity of their museums and libraries. The Allies refused to accept the provision and insisted that all works of art should be restored to their original owners.

The Prussians sent soldiers to seize Prussian paintings and statues from the Louvre and French palaces. The Prussians also assisted the North German states in retrieving their artworks. In September, the newly created state of the Netherlands sent its emissaries to reclaim Dutch and Belgian art. When Dutch workmen were refused admission to the Louvre, the Allied army of occupation provided them with protection. The Austrians and agents for some of the Italian cities also removed their treasures while the Allies provided sentry duty at the Louvre. They tried to work at night, to avoid arousing the Parisian mob. The horses of St. Mark were removed from Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel under strong protection. An observer wrote:

I just now find that the Austrians are taking down the bronze horses from the Arch. The whole court of the Tuileries, and the Place de Carousel are filled with Austrian infantry and cavalry under arms; no person is allowed to approach; the troops on guard amount to several thousands; there are crowds of French in all the avenues leading to it who give vent to their feelings by shouts and execrations. (14)

The Pope sent Italian sculptor Antonio Canova to retrieve the treasures of the Papal States. On October 5, Canova wrote to a friend:

We are at last beginning to drag forth from this great cavern of stolen goods the precious objects of art taken from Rome. (15)

Many items had been damaged, lost, sold, or hidden in private collections. The Wedding Feast at Cana had been torn into two pieces on the journey from Venice to Paris, and restored in a way that made it even harder to move, so a painting by the French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was accepted as a substitute. Canova agreed to give up the Tiber, the Melpomene, and some other sculptures that were considered too large and expensive to transport. Ten of the marble pillars that had been removed from the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle had been incorporated into one of the galleries of the Louvre. It was feared that their removal could cause the vaulted roof to collapse, so they were allowed to stay there. When the Hessians went to Malmaison to collect 48 paintings from Cassel that had been given to Josephine, they were told that the finest pieces in the collection had been sold to Tsar Alexander of Russia. He refused to give them up.

The Tiber, part of the Papal collection confiscated by Napoleon in 1797, was considered too big to move in 1815, and thus remains in the Louvre

The Tiber, part of the Papal collection confiscated by Napoleon in 1797, was considered too big to move in 1815, and thus remains in the Louvre

Despite such difficulties, an initial list compiled by Louis-Antoine Lavallée, the general secretary of the Louvre, showed that the Allies managed to reclaim 5,233 works of art, of which at least 2,000 were paintings and sculptures “of the highest order.” He later completed a more comprehensive inventory that showed the Louvre had lost 2,065 paintings, 130 statues, 150 bas-reliefs and busts, 289 bronzes, 281 sketches, 105 ivory vases, 75 vases in precious metals, 16 Etruscan vases, 37 wooden sculptures, 471 cameos, and 1,199 enamels. (16)

Touring the Louvre to see what remained, Louis XVIII reportedly remarked, “We are still rich.” (17) That view was not generally shared by his subjects.

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  1. Pierre de Decker, “Oeuvres d’art enlevées et détruites en Belgique par la Révolution Française (1793-1798), Révue Générale, Vol. 37 (Brussels, 1883), p. 23.
  2. Ibid., p. 21.
  3. Ibid., p. 25.
  4. Dorothy Mackay Quynn, “The Art Confiscations of the Napoleonic Wars,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (April, 1945), pp. 438-439.
  5. John Eldred Howard, Letters and Documents of Napoleon, Vol. I (New York, 1961), p. 107.
  6. Ibid., p. 110.
  7. Ibid., p. 128.
  8. A Collection of State Papers Relative to the War Against France, Vol. V (London, 1797), p. xxii. Napoleon wasn’t the only French general making such demands. The September 1796 armistice between Bavaria and General Jean-Victor Moreau, commander of the Army of the Rhine and Moselle, allowed French representatives to make off with twenty pictures from the galleries of Munich and Dusseldorf.
  9. Howard, Letters and Documents of Napoleon, Vol. I, p. 173.
  10. François René Jean de Pommereul, Campaign of General Buonaparte in Italy, in 1796-97, translated by T.E. Ritchie (Edinburgh, 1799), pp. 52-53.
  11. Réimpression de L’Ancien Moniteur Depuis la Réunion des États-Généraux jusqu’au Consulat (Mai 1789-Novembre 1799), Vol. 29 (Paris, 1843), p. 323.
  12. Charte Constitutionnelle Présentée par Louis XVIII, au Sénat et au Corps Législatif, Discours du Roi et du Chancelier (Paris, 1814), p. 2.
  13. Quynn, “The Art Confiscations of the Napoleonic Wars,” p. 446.
  14. Ibid., p. 453.
  15. The North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, Vol. II (Boston, 1816), p. 180.
  16. Christine Haynes, Our Friends The Enemies: The Occupation of France after Napoleon (Cambridge, Mass., 2018), p. 100.
  17. Gregory Curtis, Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo (New York, 2003), p. 61.

18 commments on “Napoleon’s Looted Art”

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Very good article as usual.
    As far as i know, at the beginning of the Italian campaign, it is the directors, especially Barras, who asked Bonaparte to steal art for the museums but also to fill the coffers of the public treasury because with the the cost of the interior and exterior war, the state funds were very low.
    Napoléon seems to have kept the habit but note that the Brits stole the French who had stolen the Egyptians and never gave back the Rosetta stone!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Marie-Noëlle. Yes, Napoleon was initially just following orders and continuing with the practice already instituted by the National Convention and the Directory. And the Brits still have the Rosetta stone and other antiquities from the Egyptian campaign.

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    I wonder how much of the invaluable treasures of the British Museum in London were NOT given to the British on a free-will basis…….? A few decades ago,there was a proposal to return ALL works of Art to their original lieus. The proposal was dropped because of a general uproar against this ruling- not least from Great Britain……! In my opinion,the main consideration should be that works of Art are to be well-looked after and on display to the public, plus being accessible to scientific analysis. Regardless of WHERE they are kept!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That’s definitely an important consideration, Irene. Art repatriation is a topical issue, especially in the context of colonialism. As you say, Britain has resisted returning items like the Elgin marbles. There’s a good article by Nicholas Thomas in the Financial Times that looks at the arguments on both sides (“Should colonial art be returned home?”): https://www.ft.com/content/6c61c6e6-f7ed-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c.

  • Joseph says:

    Is there a move to repatriate the stolen works ( to the countries from which they were stolen)?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    In November 2018, a report commissioned by President Macron recommended the restitution of looted African artworks, but observed that until the end of the 19th century, “the right to pillage and plunder what had belonged to the enemy” and “the right to appropriate for oneself what one had taken from the enemy…were the codified and licit practices of war.” (The full report is here: http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf.) Thus any artistic conquests from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods still remaining in France are probably safe, although as recently as 2011 Belgium demanded the return of a Rubens painting, The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, that was seized by the French in 1794 and is still in the municipal museum in Nantes (see: http://en.rfi.fr/france/20111110-belgium-demands-return-rubens-seized-during-french-revolution). Also, the French in 2011 placed an export ban on a currently British-owned painting confiscated within France during the French Revolution and subsequently stolen from a French museum in 1818 (see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-15628011). So the issue of art taken over 200 years ago can be surprisingly current, and complicated.

  • Hels says:

    I also think it is true that the French tried to justify art theft with the concept that France was the best place for such works. Arrogant!!

    How ironic then that El Greco was largely unknown by then in Spain, but became justly famous once his works arrived in Paris.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    You’re right, it is a very complicated matter (thanks for the links).
    For example, in your blog, you talk about the Horses of Saint Mark:
    It is true that the French stole them from the Venetians during the first Italian campaign but in fact, the Venetians looted them from the Byzantine Empire during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. So, in 1815, the horses were given back to their first thieves…
    Today, if a country starts to give back some stolen arts, it will be like opening the Pandora’s box: it will have no end!
    So I think that the President Macron’s point of view is the most sensible and balanced one.

  • Josefa says:

    Just to add: Many of the Malmaison paintings were moved to Munich when Eugène was in exile there, and from there on to St. Petersburg when his son Maximilian married a daughter of the tsar.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Interesting! Thanks, Josefa.

  • AS says:

    Thanks Shannon for this great article. I am actually giving a lecture on looted art soon to an art group and found your insights very helpful which I will credit.

  • AS says:

    Do I understand correctly that the quadriga now on top of the arc du triomphe du carrousel are also a replica? thanks!
    as the originals are now inside the basilica in Venice, right? thanks

  • Alanne G says:

    I have wondered about art that vanished after the Battle of Vitoria. Are you aware of any inventories of items looted in Spain, and any subsequent accounting? I recall reading somewhere of canvases being used to keep the rain off a donkey’s load. Perhaps some items still exist which haven’t been recognized as having been part of that hoard.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I’m not aware of any inventories or accounting of the art looted in Spain, Alanne. It would be interesting to find one.

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The French Republic, by its strength and superiority of its enlightenment and its artists, is the only country in the world which can give a safe home to these masterpieces. All other nations must come to borrow from our art, as they once imitated our frivolity.

Petition of French artists