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The incredible exodus of masterpieces from French museums during the Second World War

Posted today at 04:39

“Chambord! Museums are evacuating to Chambord! «  It was six in the morning on August 28, 1939, when a convoy of eight trucks set off from the Cour Carrée of the Louvre. Inside, several hundred masterpieces from the French museum, including the painting by Mona Lisa, tighten between the sides. Packed in wooden crates, the treasures of the Louvre leave the capital to seek shelter from bombardments and fires, as war with Germany threatens. Their destination: the Château de Chambord, designated as the hub of this improbable exodus, which will see tens of thousands of works of art travel through France until 1945.

Unknown to the general public, this episode remains to this day the most colossal move ever made by French museums. In a few weeks, nearly 15,000 boxes containing paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture and jewelry, from Parisian museums but also from the provinces, took to the road to flee the fighting, in sometimes perilous conditions. « It’s a little-known but fascinating story, in which the works have shown incredible resistance », assures Yannick Mercoyrol, director of heritage and cultural programming of the national domain of Chambord, who inaugurates, Sunday, November 21, a permanent exhibition on the subject.

The incredible exodus of masterpieces from French museums during the Second World War

By itself, the move of the Louvre Museum mobilized thirty-seven truck convoys between August and December 1939, a majority of which took the direction of the castle of François Ier. All his masterpieces were taken down, Mona Lisa but also La Belle Ferronnière (Leonardo da Vinci), theOlympia (Manet), The Lacemaker (Vermeer), The Angelus (Millet), The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (Van Eyck)…

The same goes for the castles of Versailles or Fontainebleau, which were emptied. The woodwork and moldings of the Sun King apartments will even be torn off, for fear of fires. Despite their size or their fragility, the Bayeux tapestry, the Isenheim altarpiece and the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry were also thrown onto the roads.

Some pieces did not even have time to be packed, such as those urgently repatriated from the French pavilion of the Liège International Water Technology Exhibition, which had just been inaugurated. Nearly six out of ten paintings evacuated from Versailles were not protected when they left either.

Eighty-three drop-off locations

This move was not, however, a first. In 1870, some 120 cases of paintings and drawings, among which already Mona Lisa, had been hidden in the basements of the arsenal of Brest. In 1914, part of the Louvre’s collections were transported by train to the Jacobins Church in Toulouse.

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