History

22 Precious Works of Art That Vanished During World War II

Author: Agnieszka Sural

The works of art which were confiscated, stolen, or burnt on Polish territory between 1939 and 1945 number hundreds of thousands. Here, we haven’t written about those which were destroyed and lost forever, but instead focus on the ones which still exist somewhere, and remain to be found.

Józef Brandt – A Hunting Trip (late 19th century)

Józef Brandt (1841-1915), A Hunting Trip, late 19th century, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

This historic painter, who spent a large part of his life in Munich, became famous for his depictions of hunting, rows, battles and Kozak-Tatar fights, as well as the 17th-century Swedish wars. Józef Brandt also had a huge influence on later Polish painting, as well as literature (notably the Trilogy of Sienkiewicz). His painting entitled A Hunting Trip was kept at the Silesian Museum in Katowice until the Second World War. Following the invasion of the German army, the museum’s collection was transported to the Landesmuseum in Bytom. Many works were either destroyed or stolen during transport. Towards the end of the war, the cultural heritage stored in Bytom was transferred to local monasteries and palaces. Their further fate remains unknown.

Canaletto – King Stanislas Augustus Looks at Warsaw Castle after the Fire in 1765 (ca 1765)

Bernardo Bellotto, aka Canaletto, King Stanislas Augustus Looks at the Warsaw Castle after the Fire in 1765, ca 1765, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

No one has thus far counted the number of times that the Royal Castle in Warsaw has been rebuilt, looted, or consumed by fires and war. Yet, one such event was documented by Canaletto, a master of veduta painting and the court-appointed painter of Poland’s last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. Known abroad as Stanislas Augustus, Poniatowski was one of the greatest patrons of art (some of the paintings from his collection, tied to the history of Poland, were burned in 1834, at the command of Tsar Nikolai I). Up until 1939, the works of Canaletto were kept at the Royal Castle, in the Stanisław August gallery. They were transferred to the National Museum of Warsaw, from where they were then taken either to Kraków or to Germany. A majority of the antiques which remained in the museum until 1944 were either destroyed or stolen by the German soldiers who were stationed there.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Madonna with Child, also called the Głogów Madonna (1518)

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Madonna with Child, also called the Głogów Madonna, 1518, oil on board, 43 x 33 cm, courtesy of the National Museum in Wrocław, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

The very precious Madonna with Child authored by Lucas Cranach the Elder was kept at the collegiate church in Głogów (located in the Lower Silesia region) until the Second World War. It is frequently referred to as the Głogów Madonna, and it is signed with an emblem typical of Cranach, the “winged dragon”. The figures of Mary and the Child are deprived of the attributes of saintliness; they are depicted in a natural pose which expresses the warmth of motherhood. Father Heinrich Weyardrner, the last German parson in Głogów, wrote, “Lucas Cranach’s Madonna had already been taken away to the town of Henryków for reasons of safety in 1943. From there, it was moved to Lądek Zdrój, where it finally fell into Russian hands in 1945”. On 4th June, 1945, the painting was requisitioned by the mayor, Mossev.

After the year 2000, a reproduction of the painting appeared on the website of the Pushkin State Museum of Art in Moscow. Poland has been making efforts to reclaim the piece since 2004. That same museum in Moscow also houses other paintings taken from Poland during the war – The Winter Landscape by Johann Brueghel the Elder and the Poultry Yard by Daniel Schultz.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Temptation of St. Anthony

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Temptation of St. Anthony, woodcut print, courtesy of the National Museum in Gdańsk, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

This woodcut of Cranach the Elder evokes the figure of St. Anthony, who, upon hearing the biblical parable of a rich young man, decided to sell all of his riches and live the life of an ascetic in the desert. Anthony was supposed to cast out demons and bad spirits with the help of a cross in the shape of the letter T, as well as a bell. He is often painted in the company of a pig, to which he was supposed to restore sight. 

The Temptation of St. Anthony is one of the prints in Jacob Kabrun’s collection. Kabrun was a renowned merchant and collector from Gdańsk, who bestowed some 9,000 prints and drawings upon his native city. These later formed the base of the Urban Museum of Gdańsk collection (later transformed into the National Museum). During the Second World War, a part of the collection was moved to the town of Gotha in Lower Saxony, while a part remained at the museum. In both cases, the items were later taken by the Red Army to the Soviet Union.

Albrecht Dürer – A Lying Lioness

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), A Lying Lioness, drawing on paper, 16,2 x 27 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Founded in 1818, the Office of Prints of the Warsaw University Library is the oldest public collection of prints in Poland. Until 1939, it also used to be the largest. Its main body was built from the collection of King Stanisław August Poniatowski, after it was bought from his heirs for the university. During the Second World War, the Office of Prints lost about 60% of its collection and only 10% has been retrieved thus far. More than ten thousand works were requisitioned from the Office in order to enrich the collection of the Third Reich. Albrecht Durer’s drawing, A Lying Lioness, became a symbol of the wartime losses.

Albrecht Dürer – Melancholia I (1514)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Melancholia I, 1514, copper print, 31 x 26 cm, courtesy of the National Museum in Gdańsk

This work of Albrecht Durer (an identical print found itself in the Albertin Gallery in Vienna) belonged to the Jacob Kabrun collection, later part of the Urban Museum of Gdańsk. It was confiscated by the Red Army.

Anton van Dyck – Ecce Homo (ca. 1620)

Anton van Dyck (1599-1641), Ecce Homo, ca. 1620, oil on canvas, 120 x 104 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

In the 1620s, the young Anton van Dyck painted a few paintings which depicted the Ecce Homo theme (meaning “Behold the man!” in Latin) – a scourged Christ in a crown of thorns, whom Pilate shows to the Jewish people. The painting by Van Dyck was property of Stanisław Jackowski, a sculptor from Warsaw. His private collection was almost completely destroyed or looted during the war. 

Julian Fałat “Widok Krakowa” (1896)

Julian Fałat (1853-1929), A View of Kraków, 1896, watercolour on paper, 65,5 x 163,5 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

After Julian Fałat returned to Krakow and took over directing the School of Fine Arts in 1895, he created many paintings of landscapes seen from the windows of his studio.

 A View of Kraków, 1896 encompasses the Barbican with towers from the preserved part of the defensive wall. The theme was taken up on numerous occasions, using both oil paints and watercolours. It became this prominent painter’s pretext for studies on colour and light, which changed during the day and with the turn of the seasons. The watercolour in question was bought in 1927 by the Wawelska Foundation of Antonina nee Suchodolska and Dawid Abramowicz. It was part of the State Art Collection in Wawel until its confiscation on November 9th, 1939. Transported to the German commandants’ headquarters of the Kraków district at Pałac pod Baranami, it was lost most likely in late 1944.

Wojciech Gerson – Łokietek on the Ojcowskie Rocks (1863)

Wojciech Gerson (1831-1901) , Łokietek on the Ojcowskie Rocks, 1863, oil on canvas, 230 x 173 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

This is one among the numerous paintings by Wojciech Gerson which were stolen during the war. This Warsaw-based painter and co-founder of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (1860) was also the author of lithographs which depicted Warsaw and folk costumes, and which illustrated historic works. The painting, which belonged to the artist’s daughters, Jadwiga Bobińska and Maria Gerson-Dąbrowska, portrays King Władysław I Łokietek (the so-called Elbow High), the first ruler of Poland to be crowned in Kraków. He finds himself on the Krakowsko-Częstochowska highlands. Legend has it that Łokietek hid in one of the highland caves as he attempted to escape the army of the Czech king, Vaclav II. His life is said to have been saved by a spider, who covered over the entrance to the cave with a web, thus tricking the pursuit. 

Hans Holbein the Younger – A Portrait of Johann Schwarzwaldt (1543)

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98-1543), A Portrait of Johann Schwarzwaldt, 1543, ink on parchment, diameter: 5 cm, courtesy of the National Museum in Gdańsk, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

After settling in England, Hans Holbein became the royal painter of Henry VIII. This tiny painting of Johann Schwarzwaldt was created shortly before the artist’s death. Up until 1945, it was kept at the Urban Museum in Gdańsk. It was later transported to the Soviet Union.

Jacob Jordaens – The Annuciation

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), The Annunciation, oil on canvas, 153,5 x 116 cm, a gift of Karol Eisert, courtesy of the Art Museum in Łódź, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Jacob Jordaens’ The Annunciation formed a part of the collection of the J.K. Bartoszewicz Urban Museum of History and Art in Łódź. After Łódź was incorporated into Germany, the new German board of management at the museum looted and devastated its collection. In 1945 what remained of the original collection was transported to Saxony, from where boxes labelled “Łódź” were later taken over by divisions of the Red Army and transported to Russia.

Jacob Jordaens – A Mythological Scene with a Young Bacchus, (ca. 1640)

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), A Mythological Scene with a Young Bacchus, ca. 1640, oil on canvas, 122 x 87,5 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Jacob Jordaens’ painting depicts a landscape with a young Bacchus, surrounded by bacchantes and satyrs. The work, lost during the years of the war, was owned by the J.K. Bartoszewicz Museum of History and Art in Łódź.

Wojciech Kossak – A Portrait of Halina and Michał Mycielski Among a Herd of Horses in Gałowo (1926)

Wojciech Kossak (1857-1942), A Portrait of Halina and Michał Mycielski Among a Herd of Horses in Gałowo, 1926, oil on canvas, courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Apart from the Napoleanic wars, the November Uprising, and horses, Wojciech Kossak also painted numerous portraits and genre scenes. The portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Mycielscy which vanished in Szamotuły in 1945 is one such painting. The scene in question was located in Gałowo, 35 km away from Poznań, a place where the first sugar factory in Poland was built in the mid-19th century.

Franz Luyckx – Portrait of King Władysław IV

Franz Luyckx (1604-1668), Portrait of King Władysław IV, courtesy of the National Museum of Warsaw, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

The portrait of Poland’s king, as well as the titular king of Sweden and tsar of Russia, was bought in 1936 for the State Collection of Art in Warsaw from the old imperial collection in Vienna. It was painted by a Flemish baroque artist, known in Vienna for his portraits of Emperor Ferdinand III. The painting was on display at the Brühl Palace in Warsaw. In the beginnings of the war, the palace was taken over by the occupying authorities, and the portrait was moved to Austria. From the early 1990s, Poland has been taking action to retrieve the canvas, while the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage is in search of pre-war photographs that depict the interiors of the Brühl Palace with a visible portrait of Władysław IV.  

Jacek Malczewski – Self-portrait

Jacek Malczewski, Self-portrait, courtesy of the National Digital Archive, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

One of the main representatives of symbolism from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries often portrayed himself in the costume of a knight, a solider, or that of a monk. He also painted himself as Christ, St. Francis, Tobias, Ezekiel, and an artist-slave of the art. But the Self portrait of Jacek Malczewski which belongs to the Silesian Museum in Katowice depicts him in a garden, surrounded by nature. The painting disappeared in unknown circumstances. 

Raphael – Portrait of a Young Man (1514)

Raphael, or Raffaello Santi (1483-1520), Portrait of a Young Man, 1514, oil on wood, 75 x 59 cm, courtesy of the Czartoryski Museum, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

The most famous painting stolen from Poland during the war became a figure in the 2013 novel by Zygmunt MiłoszewskiBezcenny (Priceless). In the book, a group comprising specialists in art and secret service members goes in search of the mysterious work. 

Raphael’s painting formed part of the collection of the Czartoryski Museum – the oldest institution of its kind, founded in 1801 by Princess Izabella Czartoryska, nee Fleming. In September, 1939, all of the most precious works in the collection were stolen by the German army from where they were stored in the cellars in the annexe to a palace in Sieniawa. The portrait found itself in the hands of Kajetan Mühlmann, the General Governorship delegate responsible for securing works of art and cultural treasures. It was shortlisted among the objects to be placed in the Museum of Linz, as envisaged by Hitler. Yet, in accordance with the command of Hans Frank it was transported to the Wawel castle. The painting disappeared during the evacuation of the Governor General’s Office.

Rembrandt van Rijn – The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1634)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), The Annunciation to the Shepherds, 1634, etching, courtesy of the National Museum in Gdańsk, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

This painting from the Urban Museum in Gdańsk was taken to the Soviet Union. Three more paintings by Rembrandt found themselves in Poland. Landscape with the Good Samaritan, kept at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków and two more, kept at the Royal Castle in Warsaw – A Scholar at his Desk and A Girl in the Frame of the Painting.

Peter Paul Rubens – Diana and Callisto

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Diana and Callisto, a sketch study for a painting, oil on wood, 23 x 34,5 cm, courtesy of the National Museum in Poznań, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Diana and Callisto is a theme taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Peter Paul Rubens’ painting used to belong to the Society of Friends of the Sciences in Poznań, whose aim was to protect and develop Polish cultural heritage under Prussian rule. It was stolen in 1940 from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum Posen and transported to an unknown site.

Henryk Siemiradzki – The Sale of Amulets (1875)

Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), The Sale of Amulets, 1875, 212 x 166 cm, courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

It was probably around the year 1936 that the Warsaw-based confectioner Mieczysław Broniewski bought Henryk Siemiradzki’s painting from Leopold Kronenberg. The canvas was commissioned by Pavel Isieyev, a secretary of the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and it gathered significant recognition when presented to the milieu. The work which depicts a girl looking at amulets sold by a black merchant decorated the walls of salon in the palace on 25 Mokotowska street in Warsaw (presently, the so-called Confectioner’s Palace is home to the Adam Mickiewicz Institute). The painting hung there until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, when it was most likely stolen.

Wit Stwosz (or his studio) – a fragment of the Lusina Triptych (ca. 1500)

Wit Stwosz (or his studio), a fragment of the Lusina Triptych (Mary returns the pledge to St. Theophile), ca. 1500, courtesy of the State Collection of Art in Wawel, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

The Altar Retabulum from Lusina which belonged to the Polish Academy of Skills in Kraków comprises three parts. The middle part of the triptych is directly connected to the figure of Wit Stwosz. This piece of national heritage was confiscated on 1st March, 1940. It most likely disappeared towards the end of 1944 during the Germans’ flight from Kraków. Two fragments of the middle part have not been retrieved thus far – the Holy Family, and Mary Returning the Pledge to St. Theophile of Adana. The remaining other plaques can be found in the National Museum in Kraków.

Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski – Winter – The Retreat of Napoleon from Moscow

Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski (1849-1916),Winter – The Retreat of Napoleon from Moscow, oil on canvas, 80 x 122 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Until 1944, this painting of Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski was part of the private collection of Andrzej Rotwand. It disappeared in unknown circumstances.

Leon Wyczółkowski – A Study – The Bust of a Young Woman (1884/1889)

Leon Wyczółkowski (1852-1936), A Study – The Bust of a Young Woman (1884/1889), oil on canvas, 27 x 22 cm, photo: kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl

Leon Wyczółkowski is one of the foremost representatives of the realist current among the painters of the so-called Young Poland period. This highly erotic portrait of a young woman was part of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts collection since 1900. A gift of Feliks Gebethner, it was later deposited at National Museum of Warsaw in 1939. It was then accompanied by a little label which read “framed”. It went missing from there in unknown circumstances.

Sources: Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Muzeum Utraconeglogow.pl, gazetawroclawska.pl, historia.org.pl, wydarzenia.o.pl, zabytki.plmuzeum.krakow.pl, own materials

Author: Agnieszka Sural, 13/08/2013

Translated by Paulina Schlosser 13/05/2015

Author: Agnieszka Sural Source

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