What happened to the Rothschild Chardins?
Were they destroyed by water or by fire, in London or Bath? And why were they sent to England at all?
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 21 July 2011
LONDON. An Art Newspaper investigation has identified gaps and discrepancies in accounts of the fate of the greatest ever collection of works by Chardin (1699-1779), which are said to have been destroyed in England during the second world war. The paintings belonged to Paris-based Henri de Rothschild, of the banking dynasty who, in 1931, is believed to have owned 33 paintings, representing about one sixth of the artist’s entire surviving oeuvre.
Until the war, most of the Chardins of Henri de Rothschild (1872-1947) were in his Paris residence, the Château de la Muette. In 1939 he fled France for Lisbon to escape the Nazis. Members of the Rothschild family maintain that soon after the outbreak of the war he sent most of his Chardins to England for safekeeping.
What happened next, however, remains obscure. Wildenstein’s 1969 Chardin catalogue raisonné records that 14 Chardins were “destroyed in London in 1939/ 40”. The suggestion of 1939 is surprising, since the bombing of London did not begin until 1940.
Among the 14 losses recorded by Wildenstein are The Draftsman (1738), The Kitchen Maid (1738), The Monkey Painter (1739-40), The Blind Man (1753), Three Apples (1760), The Pewter Pitcher (1760), Basket of Fruit (1768) and Girl Returning from Market (1768-89).
The present Lord Rothschild believes the Chardins were “destroyed by a German bomb when stored in Bath during the war”. Bath was badly bombed in 1942.
Harry Paul, author of a biography of Henri de Rothschild published earlier this year, has said that the pictures were destroyed in “a flood”.
Pierre Rosenberg, a former director of the Louvre and Chardin specialist, explained what he knew about the Bath loss: “The bombs did not destroy the paintings that were in the cellar, but they damaged the water pipes. Water engulfed the cellar and destroyed the paintings. But how can one know the truth?” If the loss was from water (not fire), it is surprising that the damaged canvases were not saved.
Henri de Rothschild died in Lausanne in 1947 and his estate later passed to his three children.
The loss of the Chardins raises numerous questions. It is surprising that Henri de Rothschild sent the paintings to England after the outbreak of the war, since he left the vast bulk of his enormous art collection in Paris before travelling to Lisbon.
Altogether Wildenstein records that 14 of Henri’s Chardins were lost in England, but others survived. Two are known to have passed to his son, Philippe, and are with his descendants. At least five others were sold in the 1950s and 1960s, including pictures now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario and the Louvre. It is uncertain whether the seven which survived also went to England (and escaped the destruction) or remained behind in Paris. This accounts for 21 Chardins, but he is said to have once owned 33 (some may have since been downgraded as not authentic).
Most surprisingly, the date, specific place and exact cause of the English disaster is unconfirmed. Although the Rothschild family history is extensively documented, there seems to be no authenticated account of what happened to the Chardins.
Juliet Carey, curator at Waddesdon, the National Trust’s Rothschild mansion in Buckinghamshire, said: “There are scraps of evidence…so it now seems timely to research their fate.”
Lord Rothschild plans exhibition built around key paintings
Lord Rothschild is planning an ambitious Chardin exhibition at Waddesdon in March-July 2012. This follows his purchase in 2007, for £5m, of Boy Building a House of Cards, 1735. The three other key versions of this painting are being borrowed, from the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Louvre in Paris. Few collectors have the necessary influence to borrow from what are arguably the world’s three greatest galleries, however, the show will be backed up by scholarly research: one aim is to examine the Rothschilds as the greatest collectors of Chardin. Girl with a Shuttlecock, 1737, which once belonged to Henri de Rothschild, will be lent by his descendants.
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