More than 80 years after it was taken from a Jewish family, a painting at a NC museum returns home
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum held a restitution event Tuesday, returning a painting that Nazi collaborators took from a Jewish family during World War II.
The painting, “The Studio of Thomas Couture,” was part of a collection of more than 450 works belonging to Armand Dorville, a prominent French and Jewish lawyer and art collector. The collection was auctioned off during World War II in the 1940s, with proceeds intended to help the family escape Nazi persecution. But, his family said the piece was purchased by a Nazi collaborator, and the proceeds from the auction were seized by the Vichy government's Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs.
Much of Dorville's family was then murdered at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Dorville’s descendent, Raphaël Falk, flew from France for the Ackland’s restitution event. It marked the first time he saw the painting. Falk praised the Ackland for being the first American museum to return art pieces to Dorville's descendents.
“By restoring this work, you are not only paying tribute to Armand Isaac Dorville, but also contributing to the preservation of truth and human dignity,” Falk said. “You are giving a voice to those who have been silenced and helping to shed light on the dark pages of our collective history. Beyond being an art event, the restitution of this work of art helps to keep a history alive. Not just the history of a family, but the history of a persecuted people whose men, women and children were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and murdered.”
Falk said the painting was taken as part of Nazi “aryanization,” the taking of property from Jews in an effort to erase Jewish heritage from society.
Ackland officials said the museum obtained the artwork from a Parisian dealer in 1972, unaware of its recent history. Art historian Éléanore Delabre, who lives in France, established contact with the Ackland after learning the museum was in possession of the artwork in 2022.
“It is incumbent upon the museum to make sure that the claim is valid,” said Katie Ziglar, director of the Ackland Art Museum. “But once that information is carefully considered, then a resolution can come about. And if the work of art does not belong to the museum rightfully then, in our opinion, the only thing to do is to return it to its rightful owners.”
Of the more than 20,000 objects in the Ackland museum, Ziglar described “The Studio of Thomas Couture” as a strong voice in teaching the museum’s 10,000 student visitors each year. She said that while the painting will always be part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s history and legacy of teaching, it was very joyful to return the painting to Dorville’s family.
According to Ackland art curator Dana Cowen, the painting depicts the private studio of Thomas Couture, an influential painter and teacher to artists like Édouard Manet. The painting has been included in exhibitions due to its historical significance as a record of Couture’s studio, with it being of particular interest to Manet scholars.
“Though we are sad to see this painting is leaving the museum's collection, the Ackland recognizes the historical injustice suffered by the Dorville family and its heirs by the crimes committed during the Nazi era,” Cowen said. “Through the restitution of this work, we express our continued commitment to rectify such injustices of the past.”
The painting is the 22nd work of art to be returned to Dorville’s descendants. According to a press release, other pieces remain located in various museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We call on all museums, all nations and every individual to follow this example,” Falk said at the Ackland’s restitution event. “To fully acknowledge the past and to work together to build the future founded on the principles of responsibility, understanding, tolerance and peace. The restitution of this work is therefore a symbol, an essential step on the long road to raising awareness and educating people about the history of the Holocaust and its consequences."
Falk said that reobtaining Dorville’s entire collection will be a difficult task, and one that Dorville’s descendants will continue to pass on to their children. Falk said he hopes to obtain more pieces before potentially exhibiting the returned artworks together.
"For it is everyone's duty to fight anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination, so that the legacy of Armand Isaac Dorville and so many others is not tarnished by oblivion or denial," he added.