€7.8 million Pietà with Saint John and Two Angels … ‘lost’ for six centuries …now in Louvre …

Jean Malouel is perhaps one of the world’s least known great artists. He was born in the 2000+year-old town of Nijmegen at the start of the14th century. Some biographies record his birth as in 1370 while others claim 1365. There are also differences about his name as some biographies name him as Jan or Johan […]

Louvre's new Malouel

Jean Malouel is perhaps one of the world’s least known great artists. He was born in the 2000+year-old town of Nijmegen at the start of the14th century. Some biographies record his birth as in 1370 while others claim 1365.

There are also differences about his name as some biographies name him as Jan or Johan Maelwael.

Jean … Jan … Johan … Malouel … Maelwael … from these you will gather that there is also uncertainty about whether he was French or Dutch. Nijmegen, today in the Province of Gelderland in the Netherlands, was from the 3rd to the 10th century part of the Kingdom of the Franks, then it became part of the Holy Roman Empire and next it became the property of the Count of Guelders and part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Therefore, today, the town is in the Dutch province of Guelders or Gelderland. (For clarity I’ve simplified history here.)

We are certain though that Malouel (I am going to call him Malouel from now on) died in the French town of Dijon in 1415.

And we are also certain that he was a great artist.

Malouel was born into an artistic family as both his father and his father’s brother and three of his nephews were artists. It is thought that he assisted his father in the latter’s atelier and learning to paint, and then he moved to the town of Dijon capital of the Duchy of Burgundy where he became court painter for Philippe 11, Duke of Burgundy (1342-1404) in 1397. When he died in 1415 he was apparently a wealthy man due to the position he had held at Philippe’s court.

Up to recently (the 1990s) it was understood that only one of Malouel’s paintings had survived the turmoil this part of Europe had undergone since the 14th century (this includes a bloody revolution in France when castles and churches were ransacked by angry mobs).

This one surviving painting was the Small Round Pietà and it hung in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing. (It still does.) This oil on wood was gifted to the Louvre in 1918 by art collector and historian Maurice Fenaille ((1855-1937). The Louvre, prudent, does not however attribute it to Malouel but gives the artist as ‘unknown’ despite that Philippe’s coat of arms is on the back of the painting.

The Louvre's Small Round Pieta

There were another three paintings which art experts thought might have been Malouel’s work.  (I emphasize ‘might have been’.)

One was the Madonna with Child Surrounded by Angels. This 107 x 81 cm (42 x 32 in) canvas was discovered in Munich in the 1980s and the experts said that it was probably a Malouel. In 1987 the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin acquired it and it is still exhibited there. (My apologies but I’ve been unable to find out how and by whom it was discovered in Munich and what the Berlin museum paid for it.)

Berlin's Madonna with Child Surrounded by Angels

Another was the The Last Communion and Martyrdom of Saint Denis. This 162 × 211 cm (63.8 × 83.1 in) canvas mounted on wood is an altarpiece and also hangs in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing. It is however attributed to Henri Bellechose because it is recorded as having been completed in 1416 when Malouel was already dead. There are though some experts who say that Malouel had started it, and that Bellechose, who had succeeded him as court painter, had completed it.

Perhaps a Malouel - Also in the Louvre

Bellechose or Malouel - Also in Louvre

The third was the 10 x 15 cm (4 x 6 in) oil on wood Madonna and Child which is today also in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing. It is thought to have been either another altarpiece or if not then a ‘prie-dieu’ from a private house. Again the Louvre does not commit itself to state that it is a Malouel.

But now there is another painting – and it is going on show at the Louvre on Wednesday, May 16 – which is being attributed to Malouel.

It will be hung in the Richelieu wing beside the Small Round Pietà. (At the time of writing I do not know whether the Louvre is going to say that it ‘is’ a Malouel, but I will update this article once I’ve seen it. )

This painting is the Pietà with Saint John and Two Angels (you can see it above) thought to have been painted between 1405-1410, and for which the Louvre paid €7.8 million ($10.3 million / £6.5 million earlier this year after 15 years of negotiations with the seller and seeking legal expertise about the sale.

But how come that this 107 x 81 cm (42 x 32 in) oil on wood painting was offered to the Louvre?

The story is what dreams are made of. At least it is if you are someone who dreams of finding a Leonardo da Vinci or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh in your cellar or loft.

This is what happened.

In 1985 the priest at the old stone church (Roman Catholic) in Vic-le-Comte, a town of just over 4,000 inhabitants in the central region of Auvergne, sold some bric-a-brac because some small repairs had to be done to the building and he needed some ready cash.

He found the bric-a-brac in the church’s cellar. It included an old oil painting. He did not think much of it; thought it was just a ‘croûte’ which is a painting done by an amateur – the work of a Sunday painter, as we say.

He took the stuff to a local second-hand goods dealer, a ‘brocanteur’ – someone who sells old things but is not an antique dealer because in France antiques have to be more than 100 years old to be classified as such. The ‘brocanteur’ gave the priest a few francs for the lot.

As is now being recounted, the ‘brocanteur’ bought the stuff from the priest only because he liked the painting’s frame. Yet, for some years he kept the painting always asking colleagues whether they liked it and whether they thought it could have been done by someone famous. Then, one day in the 1990s, on the advice of another colleague, he set off for Paris, to the Louvre, to show the museums’ experts the painting.

Next followed a decade of negotiations between Louvre and ‘brocanteur’ because the museum’s experts attributed the painting to Malouel and wished to buy it.

Why did the negotiations take so long?

It was long because of the legal aspect of such a sale.

In the first place, the priest had no right to sell the church’s property because in 1905 a law was constituted which separated Church and State and it had made churches and whatever was in them the property of the State, i.o.w. of the community where they were situated. In this case the Vic-le-Comte community was the rightful owner of the church and its contents.

Secondly, could the painting be classified as a national treasure?

If so, then the State should valuate the painting and give the ‘finder’ (in this case the ‘brocanteur’ because he had bought it in all legality from the priest who had in the meantime passed away) a percentage of the paintings value.

A third issue which also had to be decided was, if it were a national treasure, what was the amount which the Vic-le-Comte community (town hall) was to be given.

Lastly, what if the painting was not a national treasure. In that case it could be removed from French territory which meant that the ‘brocanteur’ could auction the painting and sell it to the highest bidder even if that person would be taking it out of France.

Finally, last year (2011) the Louvre, on legal advice, concluded that the painting was ‘national treasure’ and could therefore be sold only to someone who would not remove it from French territory. The sale of the painting by the ‘brocanteur’ to the Louvre could therefore go ahead. The museum and the ‘brocanteur’ as well as the Mayor of Vic-le-Comte then came to the agreement that  €2.3 million ($3.1 million / £1.9 million) of the €7.8 million that the museum was going to pay the ‘brocanteur’ would be for the Vic-le-Comte community.

As I said, the priest is no longer alive. He died without knowing that the painting from the church’s cellar was a Malouel.

Where is the brocanteur and his millions today? Your guess is as good as mine, but he left the village, and the villagers, although they say they very well know his name, are being nice by not revealing it to the media. He now apparently lives in Paris, they did though say.

The Louvre’s Director of Paintings, Vincent Pomarède, has described the painting’s purchase as “the major acquisition of the last 50 years for the museum.”

Where did the Louvre get that kind of money when in 2010 it was short of a €1 million to pay the asking price of €4 million ($5.3million / £3.3 million) for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Three Graces?

Well, it was Axa, the French insurance company, which stepped forward to fund the Malouel painting purchase. As donor the company would be able to claim a tax benefit for having invested in a ‘trésor national’ – national treasure.

As for the Three Graces. The Louvre had launched a successful on-line fundraising and the painting now also hangs in the Richelieu wing. (The balance of the asking price had come from the museum’s acquisition fund and a donation from the accounting firm Mazars.)

The Louvre's Three Graces

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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