During the French Republican and Napoleonic eras, art looting became standard practice for victorious
armies. But itwas not only the armies that benefited. One of Napoleon’s officers in charge of art plunder took so
many prints and drawings for himself that, upon his death, after having sold most of what he stole, he still had 11,000
artworks to bequeath to his hometown of Lille. Foremost among the cast of characters is Napoleon’s art advisor, Dominique
Vivant Denon, the first director of The Louvre, and the mastermind behind the art theft scheme that made The Louvre
the treasure house of the world.
In 1794, French troops captured the city of Ghent and stole the four central panels of the altarpiece, sending them to
the Louvre, which had been recently converted from royal palace into a museum for the French people. The first
director of the Louvre, Dominique Vivant Denon, wanted the Ghent Altarpiece as the centerpiece of the museum’s
collection, a museum that would be filled almost entirely by the spoils of Napoleon’s systematic art looting. But the
soldiers had taken only the central panels, and left the wings behind, which had been locked in the cathedral archives,
along with the censored Adam and Eve. The director of the newly-established Louvre museum began negotiations with
the city of Ghent to obtain the missing panels, when he realized that they had not been confiscated. He offered to
exchange paintings by Rubens for the wings, but Ghent refused to part with the remnants of their city’s greatest treasure.
The stolen panels were only returned to Ghent in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo. The new French King Louis
XVIII returned them, in thanks to the people of Ghent for having sheltered him while he was in hiding from Napoleon,
after the general’s escape from Elba.
This was the first of several wars in which the Ghent Altarpiece was a prized spoil. Much of the desire to possess the
painting was due to the fact that so many other people sought it, either for personal or national collections. The result
was cumulative—the desirability of the artwork accrued with each high-profile incident of its capture and return.
Denon sought it for The Louvre, and because of the high esteem in which he held the painting, its fame grew,
prompting others to desire it for themselves.
(For the full story of Napoleonic art theft and the adventures of The Ghent Altarpiece, you can read Stealing the Mystic Lamb).