London’s National Gallery says it will not be giving the descendants of Henri Matisse’s model Greta Moll a work in their collection claimed to have been received through an “illicit transfer”.
The portrait painted in 1908, entitled “Portrait of Greta Moll” is the subject of a legal claim lodged in New York by three family members of its subject, an artist, and pupil of the French master who posed for 30 hours for the work. The institution has been threatened with the legal action relating to the painting, which was purchased over 36 years ago. The family claims that it was stolen from its original owner, shortly after the second world and sold without their permission. The oil on canvas is presently in storage, having been on loan to Tate Modern since 1997.
Descendants have demanded the return of the work of art, which is valued is at £20,000,000. Oskar Moll the husband of the sitter commissioned the portrait from his friend Matisse, when he and his wife were both students of the master. In a documented diary Moll stated that Matisse put the canvas “so that I could not watch him since he wanted to show me the picture only at the end”. After 10 three-hour sessions, the work was completed. The National Gallery’s own catalogue notes: “After seeing a painting by Veronese in the Louvre in Paris, Matisse reworked the portrait extensively, broadening the arms and emphasising the curve of the eyebrows, to give the figure grandeur and monumentality.”
During WW2 Greta gave the portrait to a friend to take it to Switzerland. She feared it would be destroyed by the Nazis. The painting was then used as collateral by the friend and given to an art dealer. The friend had no rights to the title or ownership of the painting. Oskar Moll lost his job as director of the Breslau art academy, after being deemed a Degenerate Artist himself, he died in 1947. Greta his widow came to Britain to be with her daughter. In 1949 the painting was acquired by the now disgraced Knoedler Gallery, in New York, where it was sold to an American art collector. Greta Moll searched for the painting for the rest of her life. Moll’s heirs and the New York-based lawyer, David Rowland, had written to the National Gallery’s chair, Hannah Rothschild asking for the painting’s return. The gallery is under no legal obligation to return it. The decision is final.