Matisse masterpiece at centre of legal battle

39d74e0d00000578-3884922-portrait_of_greta_moll_by_henri_matisse_which_is_at_the_heart_of-m-25_1477744663098An interesting article popped up today on the Daily Mail’s website regarding a portrait of a lady called Greta Moll by Henri Matisse painted in 1908.

Greta was originally named Margareta was born in 1884 in Mulhouse in 1884.  Greta became a painter and sculptress and also a pupil of Matisse along with her husband Oskar according to the website of the National Gallery. Oskar had commissioned Matisse to paint this portrait of his wife who at the time was aged 23 – whether it was a commission or purchased from Matisse is a question mark as two different articles state two differing opinions.

Henri Matisse was one of the leaders of the Fauvism movement with its use of vibrant and constrasting colours  painted with rough brushstrokes and also simplified shapes – the colours themselves provide the form rather than the detail

Greta apparently sat for 3 ten hour sessions for Matisse who later did extensive alterations to the work after a visit to the Louvre and seeing the paintings of Veronese.  Apparently he broadened the arms and also changed the curve of her eyebrows which gave a greater effect of grandeur. The National Gallery website states that the flowered print/pattern in the background of the works is seen in a number of portraits by Matisse of the same period.

According to the article during the Second World War Greta and her husband lived in Germany and later asked one of his pupils in Switzerland to look after the painting to ensure its safekeeping from looters.

The problem has occurred because 3 grandchildren of Greta now allege that the student disappeared with the painting before passing through several different hands until in 1979 the National Gallery purchased it.  The grandchildren state that the gallery ignored a warning that it may have been a stolen work and consequentially launched a lawsuit – they requested the return of the painting to their family which was refused in September last year.  The family feel that it is a ‘war-related’ lost art work and the gallery have ignored international standard in not returning it to the family as well as by keeping ownership of this apparently illegally owned work they have allowed it to be exhibited and merchandise depicting it has been sold.

I decided to do a little research to see if other media outlets had reported on this legal challenge and that has proved to be the case.

Legal proceedings started in New York on the 26 October 2016 and the gallery is refuting all the claims – the lawsuit was launched last month with letters being sent to the National Gallery from US based lawyers originally in 2011.   According to the National Gallery Greta and her husband moved to Wales in 1947 as it seems one of their daughters lived there. It is known they had the painting in their ownership after moving and it was exhibited several times before its acquirement by the gallery.

The gallery have stated the fact that there is a photograph of one of her daughters in front of the work in 1992 along with some correspondence between themselves and another daughter about the use of the name ‘Greta’ as apparently she preferred the name ‘Marg’ – this correspondence was during 1995. The Gallery also state that due to Greta and Oskar moving to Wales in 1947 with the painting it does not have anything to do with Nazi-looted art – that does seem to be a very valid point! It seems that part of the case is down to the fact that the Nazi’s classed the work of Greta and Oskar as degenerate work

The reason the family have filed the case in the USA is apparently due to the above mentioned selling of merchandise but the National Gallery feel there is no reason for the case to be heard there as the grandchildren are not US residents (two are English descendant and one is German) and also the painting was purchased in the UK.

According to one website which reports this case there is a complication due to the family stating that the painting was originally stolen in 1947 and they will have to provide evidence of this due to the fact that the date falls outside of the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel which deals with Nazi era restitution (1933-1945).

There is known to be a gap in its provenance between 1947 and 1949  but there is also no evidence that it was in fact stolen either it according to the Gallery and this is down to the simple fact that the painting was purchased in good faith in 1979.  There is also the question which is mentioned on the Artnet website of why the family did not raise the case in 1979 – again that is a valid point that no doubt will be considered in the legal wranglings.

Clearly this is a legal wrangling that the National Gallery is doing to defend and for me personally I cannot understand the filing of the case in the US at all – if the painting was purchased in the UK and it resides here, (the Tate Modern has it on long-term loan), then surely the case should have been heard here but that is for the experts to decide.

I personally hope that the outcome is in favour of the National Gallery if it is legally decided that indeed the painting was purchased in good faith.  The grandchildren are trying to claim £24.6 million in compensation – the work of Henri Matisse is very highly regarded and valuable and rightly so and this means there is a valid argument on whether this is down to wanting a painting of a much loved grandmother returned to the possession of the family or whether there is a monetary aspect which sadly is very common in our current times.

Whatever the outcome of this case is I really this portrait for its use of colour which creates form and depth as well as simplicity in line – there is nothing there that does not need to be and yet for me it has the same depth and emotional reaction I feel when looking at the works of say the Baroque or Renaissance although the styles could not be more different.


BBC. 2016. National Gallery sued over ‘stolen’ Matisse portrait [online].  [Date Accessed:  29 October 2016].  Available from:

Furness, H. 29 October 2016.  National Gallery will ‘robustly defend’ against claims it has stolen Matisse portrait in its collection [online]. [Date Accessed 29 October 2016].  Available from:

Hunter, M. 29 October 2016.  Matisse masterpiece held in National Gallery is at the centre of a £24.6 million legal battle after the family of the woman in the painting claim it was stolen by the Nazis [online]. [Date Accessed:  29 October 2016].  Available from:

National Gallery. 2016.  Portrait of Greta Moll [online]. [Date Accessed:  29 October 2016].  Available from:

Neuendorf, H. 10 November 2015.  London’s National Gallery Rejects Claim on Important Matisse Portrait [online].  [Date Accessed:  29 October 2016].  Available from:


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