Loot. 10 Stories

Potter and Mijtens

The paintings you can find here tell two different stories of the exhibition. In the years leading up to the French Revolution in 1789, Europe experienced a great deal of unrest. In many countries, people were no longer willing to accept the privileges enjoyed by kings, aristocrats, and the church. The Netherlands was no exception: in 1787 patriots attempted to overthrow Stadtholder William V – without success. This uprising was put down with military support from the king of Prussia, who was the stadtholder’s brother-in-law.

When French revolutionary troops invaded the Netherlands in 1794 “to liberate the people”, William V fled to England. He left behind a large collection of Dutch and Flemish art from the 17th century, taking only his most prized possessions with him.

The 1795 Treaty of The Hague declared that not only was the Netherlands French territory but a large part of William V’s art collection was also the property of the French state. Among the works that were seized were the two paintings by Potter and Mijtens presented here. Almost 200 paintings ended up in the Louvre in Paris.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the Netherlands retrieved as much of the looted art as possible. A large number of paintings were returned, including Cows Reflected in the Water by Paulus Potter. Many others, however – the Mijtens work among them – remained the property of France.

In 1818 the Netherlands ceased all efforts to bring home the remaining works. The Mauritshuis was designated as the destination for the pieces that did return from Paris, where they can still be seen today. The empty spaces on this gallery wall symbolise the art works that were not recovered.

Stadholder Collection

During the French invasion of 1795, Stadholder William V’s painting collection was exhibited in his gallery on Buitenhof in The Hague (now open to visitors as the Mauritshuis’s satellite location). The Netherlands’ first public museum had opened there in 1774, mainly featuring 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art. Most of the works on display came from William V; a small portion had been acquired by his father. The Oranges had been avid art collectors as early as the 17th century, but gradually their paintings had ended up abroad. Under the stewardship of William V, the Stadholder Collection was once again restored to its former princely splendour.

The Louvre

In 1793, the Louvre was transformed from a royal palace to a public museum, first known as the Muséum Central des Arts and later as the Musée Napoléon. According to the revolutionary ideal of equality, the confiscated art treasures that had formerly belonged to the king, the church and the nobility had to be made accessible to the public. In the following two decades, various ‘artistic conquests’ brought together the finest masterpieces from Europe and Egypt at the Louvre. The 194 paintings taken from William V’s gallery in The Hague were marked with the word “stat” (short for stadholder) after they arrived in France. Around 40 of the works were exhibited – the rest ended up in storage.

Appropriation through restoration

On their arrival in Paris, most of the stadholder’s paintings were in good condition. Only eight of the works underwent restorations in Paris, including Paulus Potter’s Cows Reflected in the Water, to prepare them for their new homes in various French museums. This can be seen as part of an “appropriation ritual”: by erasing any visible signs of use by previous owners, time was turned back, so to speak, to the moment the paintings left the easel. The French, convinced that they had become the rightful owners, were happy to invest in these restorations.


After the French surrender of 1814, France’s stability became a priority in Europe. To avoid putting pressure on the newly crowned French king, Louis XVIII, no agreements on the restitution of stolen paintings were made at first. Only in November 1815 was it officially decided that all looted art still present in Paris had to be returned. In the meantime, however, many countries – including the Netherlands – had already taken matters into their own hands and retrieved works from the Louvre themselves. No agreements were ever made about the confiscated works of art that had been taken to other locations in France.

National heritage

The French art grab prompted many European countries to reflect on their national heritage. How could priceless works of art best be protected from looting, decay and destruction? The painful fact that important Dutch paintings could only be seen in Paris during the French occupation had made it clear that the Netherlands’ national heritage was vulnerable, reinforcing patriotic sentiments. It is no surprise, then, that many national museums were founded during this period, both in the Netherlands and in other European countries, where repatriated works were displayed alongside other national art.

The Objects in the Exhibition

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Loot. 10 Stories