After 76 years of exile in Germany, a small painting by Nicolas Rousseau stolen in France under Nazi occupation is exhibited at the World Peace Center in Verdun (east), in the hope of finding its rightful owners or successors.
For about ten days, the oil on canvas of the French painter, student of the Barbizon School, has hung in the lobby of the World Center for Peace, Freedoms and Human Rights, visited by 60,000 visitors every year.
“If you recognize the landscape or have any information about this painting, we thank you for informing it”, is written next to the painting, which represents a person sitting on the banks of a river between large trees, a town in the distance under a sky cloudy.
“We wanted it to be accessible to visitors immediately when they entered and free of charge,” explains the establishment’s director, Philippe Hansch, who went to Berlin to collect the work in early August.
“There is pride and emotion, a lot of happiness, but also a responsibility,” he confessed. More than its commercial value, the small untitled canvas by Nicolas Rousseau, painted in the 19th century and estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 euros (3,500 and 5,900 dollars), has “inestimable historical value,” he stressed.
“The painting is a great symbol of Franco-German friendship and allows us to tell the story of the Second World War with a fresh look from the French side and the German side,” commented the director.
In the spring of 1944, Alfred Forner, a Luftwaffe (Air Force) noncommissioned officer, stationed in France, somewhere between Normandy and Saint-Omer (Pas-de-Calais), was commissioned to bring a painting to Berlin during a leave . When the NCO shows up at the indicated address, the building was in ruins.
“In a pragmatic way, he goes home, leaves the painting there and comes back to the front,” Hansch explained. He died in combat a few months later, in the summer of 1944.
The small painting -38 x 55 cm- hangs in the Berlin family room for 75 years.
A brave gesture
In January 2019, Alfred’s son, Peter Forner, contacted the French Embassy in Berlin: he wanted to return the painting and, above all, to find its owners. “Peter Forner had a health accident four or five years ago with a long stay in the hospital.
He made a list of things to do and among the first was to return the painting, “says Julien Acquatella of the Commission for the Compensation of Expoliation Victims (CIVS) in Berlin. Most of these victims are Jewish families.
“It was a very brave gesture and a natural act for him: this painting did not belong to his family. It was something that should weigh on his conscience,” added Acquatella.
The CIVS and the Mission of Investigation and Restitution of cultural property plundered between 1933 and 1945, which depends on the French Ministry of Culture, have sought since then, but in vain, to identify the owners or beneficiaries of the bucolic landscape.
“It is a very difficult case because the painting is not of great value, so it is not necessarily cataloged. It is a vast search field,” noted Acquatella, who nonetheless does not lose hope.
The exhibition of the painting, “an unpublished device”, according to him, aims to identify the owners, while fulfilling the last wish of Forner, who died last May at the age of 80: to present the work in a place that embodies the peace and Franco-German friendship so that it becomes an object of pedagogy.
An official restitution ceremony will be held in October at the World Peace Center, housed in a former episcopal palace. The work will then join an exhibition on the end of World War II, scheduled for the end of the year.
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