In my last Diary post, I introduced you to a key figure in The Riviera House, Captain Rose Valland, a highly decorated member of the French resistance who risked her life to spy on the Nazi theft of countless French artworks. In this post, I want to tell you about the museum where she worked – the Jeu de Paume, a little gem located in the the north corner of the Tuileries Gardens next to the Place de la Concorde.
Introducing the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris
Built in 1861, Jeu de Paume literally translates as ‘palm game’ and refers to its history as an indoor tennis court. As tastes changed, the space was deemed too small for the sport and by 1909 it had been transformed into an art gallery, serving as an overflow space for the Louvre’s international and modern exhibitions, which is how it remained until 1940, when the Nazis invaded.
The Nazis Invade Paris and Set Their Sights on French Art
As part of the occupation, the Nazis set up an agency, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) with the express purpose of the looting the private art collections of wealthy French citizens (primarily Jewish), many of whom had fled the country.
The Nazis chose the Jeu de Paume as the French headquarters for the ERR. Baron von Behr was its chief in France and all reports concur that he had no humanity whatsoever, resorting to gangster-like methods to achieve his aims. The Jeu de Paume museum that he reigned over is described in many sources as a hotbed of intrigue and affairs. It became a transit facility where stolen artworks were stored, catalogued and then shipped out to enrich the private collections of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring.
At first, the ERR pretended it would allow French art curator Rose Valland to make a French inventory of all the artworks transiting through the Jeu de Paume’s doors. Then they forbade her to write anything down. But, in one single day when more than 400 cases of artworks arrived, Rose Valland decided to create her own secret inventory.
Hermann Göring Visits the Jeu de Paume
The Jeu de Paume was visited by the highest ranking Nazis including Göring, who selected from the spoils hundreds of artworks and objets for himself. The stolen collections included works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Vermeer and dozens more celebrated artists. In total, Göring would visit the museum 21 times and arrange to have the stolen artworks sent by private train to his mansion in Germany.
During the occupation, the Jeu de Paume became a storage facility for 22,000 stolen works of art. After the war, it was reinstated as a museum for impressionist art. These days it is an arts centre for modern and postmodern photography and media and I was lucky enough to visit before the pandemic and take the photos that you see below. It’s a beautiful museum with a terrible and tragic history.