Edouard Vuillard: What happened to the paintings during the war?

As we look back at  Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and his Muses during it’s final few weeks, we couldn’t help notice that many visitors to the exhibition were asking the same question: what happened to the paintings during World War II? How did they survive and wind up here? This is a common question asked of art acquired since the war, but a particularly important and interesting question when considering the subjects and dates of Vuillard’s paintings. To shed light on these survival stories, I began researching several of the paintings hanging in the galleries, consulting the audio guide, books, and articles for clues on the paintings’ pasts. I discovered how one family saved its portrait, a story that is wonderfully unique and yet typifies the atmosphere in Europe and the Jewish experience on the brink of WWII.
Edouard Vuillard, Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children
By 1940 some portraits had already passed into different hands than their original owners, perhaps sold on the eve of the war in the hope that the paintings would be saved. Sam Salz, a European gallerist established in America and Gaston and Josse Bernheim of the famous Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris probably sold many portraits to non-Jewish collectors. Just three years earlier, Salz had brought many of Vuillard’s recent works to America to sell after a trip to Paris. Other portraits managed to remain with their respective families through the Second World War by various means. Such was the case for the portrait of the Bloch family included in our exhibition, Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children, second version. Jean-André Bloch commissioned the painting of his wife and children for his private office in the avenue Matignon. It hung there until 1941, when Nazi officers requisitioned his office and arrested him. Following his arrest, Bloch’s wife, Gilberte, bravely went to the Nazi office and asked for the portrait. Her daughter, Claude, recalls what happened next: “The occupants, who must not have been connoisseurs, were concerned only to have the works replaced by others, so that their removal wouldn’t be noticed. . . . So we went to Montmartre, where Sunday painters sold their mediocre daubs; we bought some of these and the exchange was made.” Friends hid the painting in a country home until the war ended. Gilberte and her four children survived the war and recovered the painting thereafter. But, following his arrest, Jean, Claude’s father, was deported to Auschwitz, from where he never returned.

Gilberte valued the portrait as a representation of not only her family but of her husband’s interest in and taste for contemporary art. Although a number of Vuillard’s paintings have far less exciting histories, the personal as well as art historical significance of his portraits is well represented by the Bloch portrait and other accounts of Vuillard works surviving World War II.

To learn more about the Bloch Family, visit The Jewish Museum’s website .

Emily Markert
Curatorial Intern


Image Credit:  Edouard Vuillard, Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children, second version, 1930, reworked 1933 and 1934, glue-based distemper on canvas. Private collection, Paris.