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Belgium To France: 'You Robbed Our Rubens'

Local officials in western Belgium are demanding that France return an 18th century work by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens stolen by French troops. It may be just the beginning of efforts to recoup art works that were booty for imperialist French armies

Detail of
Detail of
Jean-Pierre Stroobants

BRUSSELS – A group of Belgian politicians have an outstanding issue they want to resolve with a neighbor: the recovery of a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, that was stolen by French troops in western Belgium ... in 1794. The Museum of Fine Arts in Nantes, which currently holds "The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus," was completely taken aback by the demand from officials in French-speaking Belgium. "We know the history of this work. We also lend it to other museums on a regular basis, but at no time have we heard of a claim for restitution," said a museum spokesman.

The painting was part of a series, together with the "The Issue of Souls in Purgatory," commissioned by Maximilien Villain, the Bishop of the Belgium town of Tournai. Delivered in 1635 and paid for by the inhabitants of the city, the two paintings were to form a composition around the altar. Stolen during the French occupation, "The Issue" was then sent to Nantes by command of French Emperor Napoleon. As for the other part of the diptych, it was returned to Ghent by mistake, before heading back to Tournai.

Tournai is now the only city in Wallonia --the French-speaking southern region of Belgium -- that still owns a work by the Flemish master. Tournai has decided to take action, and is supported by the elected representatives of the Wallonia-Brussels federation, who are expected to pass a resolution Thursday demanding the return of the painting. The push to retrieve the work comes as the city is undertaking a complete restoration of the cathedral, which was badly damaged by a storm. The francophone representatives backing the proposition deem it "normal" that the collections of such an important place of worship should be restored.

Representatives of the four parties that signed the resolution want to make it clear that they are only asking for the restitution of the one painting by Rubens, and not that of the thousands of works of art that were stolen in Belgium during the French Revolution, the Consulate and the First French Empire. "It would be foolish to think we could get everything back at once," said Richard Miller, a former regional Minister of Culture and member of the Mouvement Reformateur (Reformist Movement), a French-speaking liberal party. "Still, we could try to get them back one item at a time, each case based on cast-iron arguments."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Nantes Museum of Fine Arts

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