Rosiers sous les arbres (Roses under the Trees), a painting done by Gustav Klimt in 1905 will be returned to the family of its original owner, Nora Stiasny, according to an announcement made by Roselyne Bachelot, France’s culture minister. This restitution is set to be the first of many under the French culture ministry’s mission to return artworks that were looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis over the course of the Second World War (WWII).
“This decision to proceed with the restitution of a major work of public collections illustrates our commitment to the duty of justice and reparation vis-à-vis the dispossessed families,” Bachelot said in her announcement.
Gustav Klimt was one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession, an avant-garde artistic group. Klimt’s works consisted mainly of symbolist paintings, the most well-known of his pieces arguably being The Kiss. He painted Rosiers sous les arbres in 1904 and it was sold to Viktor Zuckerland, a Jewish-Austrian collector in 1911. Following his death, the painting was passed on to his niece Nora Stiasny.
During the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, the Jews were frozen out of the economy and their possessions were seized by the Nazis. In August of 1938, Nora Stiasny was forced to sell the painting “under duress” to Philipp Häusler, a member of the Nazi Party, and reportedly an acquaintance of the family, at a sharply reduced price. Unfortunately, Stiasny and her family were deported and killed four years later in Poland. The painting, meanwhile, remained in the possession of Häusler’s family until the French acquired it in 1980 for the planned Musée d’Orsay.
At the time of acquisition, the French were unaware of the painting’s troubling provenance, and remained so until 2016. In that year, Austrian researchers Monika Mayer and Ruth Pleyer uncovered the truth while looking into Rosiers sous les arbres’ provenance. The heirs of the original owner filed a claim for ownership of the painting through Alfred Noll, their lawyer, in 2019.
That same year, the French culture ministry embarked upon a mission to return this and other paintings, taken by the Nazis, to the families of their original owners. However, legal process has been far from easy. The main difficulty was in tracing the paintings’ provenance to ascertain who the true owners were.
“Reconstructing the path of this artwork, up until its acquisition for the prefiguration of the Musée d’Orsay, has been particularly arduous due to the destruction of most of the evidence and the erosion of family memory,” Bachelot commented.
Despite the arduous task, the France’s culture ministry remains committed to the restitution move. “The French government is going to present a bill destined to authorise the release of this work from the collections,” Bachelot said, noting that this was a significant point in art history as artwork from France’s national collection would be restituted for the first time.
According to a report by Alternative Press, museums in France acquired thousands of looted artworks from all over Europe, following the Allied victory in 1945. While it can never undo the pain and suffering these families endured, the restitution of Rosiers sous les arbres to its rightful owners will hopefully represent a step towards closing the book on a dark chapter of their lives.