In yesterday’s article, I showed paintings by a modern master, John Singer Sargent, showing other painters at work painting. Today I look at the relatively obscure painter Louis Béroud (1852–1930), who spent much of his career painting inside the Louvre Museum in Paris. It was he who first reported the theft of the Mona Lisa there on 22 August 1911.
Béroud was an odd painter, many of whose works show other painters copying paintings inside the Louvre. He trained fairly conventionally in Léon Bonnat’s studio, following which he started exhibiting successfully at the Salon.
His early works appear quite impressive, like this Staircase of the Opéra Garnier painted in 1877. But he made little impact, perhaps a fairly comfortable living, if remaining eminently forgettable.
His painting of the Central Dome of the Gallery of Machines at the World Fair in Paris 1889 (1890) indicates a new direction, depicting people viewing exhibitions, and may have taken him on to painting copyists in the Louvre.
At the Louvre (1899) is the earliest work of his that I can find which shows the interior of the Louvre, although the pretty young lady posing beneath a painting of the deposition of Christ is merely sitting, holding her umbrella, and looking decorative. Nearer the nonchalant, even disinterested, guard is Correggio’s Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (also known as Jupiter and Antiope) from 1528, one of the gallery’s great treasures, and something of a favourite of Béroud.
If you’ve visited the Louvre, you’ll be familiar with the many copyists who work there. Some are students who are improving their skills by copying masters, but many are painters who sell those copies on. Henri Fantin-Latour did quite a trade in commissioned copies of old masters from 1856, selling no less than five large-scale copies of Veronese’s huge Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-63) over a period of eleven years. Béroud shows a copyist chatting to a man in The Rubens Room in the Louvre (1904).
Béroud seems to have become obsessed with painting copyists, and in An Artist in the Louvre with Correggio’s Jupiter and Antiope (1908) returns to the Correggio. Note the use of a sheet of scrap paper under the copyist’s easel, to ensure that no drips of paint ended up on the floor. All but one of Béroud’s copyists seem to be women, although today you’re almost as likely to come across a man. That may reflect the more limited opportunities for women to train as painters at that time.
He caught his models during their more social moments, as with the discussion taking place in his Copyists in the Louvre (1909). The large painting shown here is Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1717); to the left is Greuze’s The Milkmaid (1780), and to the right his Broken Pitcher (1785).
The Joys of the Flood (in the Medici Gallery) from 1910 is the best of all Béroud’s paintings of painters painting paintings. This time the copyist is the artist himself, I believe, the only man to appear in that role in these works. Rubens’ huge Disembarkation of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles (1621-25) bursts into life, as its water starts flooding the Louvre and its three nudes step out onto the floor.
Then in 1911, Béroud turned his attention to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, in The Mona Lisa in the Louvre, although at the time it wasn’t one of the more popular works on display there. The copyist is missing, though, as if to symbolise the disappearance of the painting, perhaps.
More sinister is this copy of the Mona Lisa attributed to Béroud. It’s undated, but was it painted before or after the disappearance of the original? Might it have been intended as a replacement for the original, or could Béroud just have used it as a substitute while he completed the painting above?
What we know is that on the morning of 22 August 1911 Béroud arrived at the museum to paint Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Instead of seeing the painting in its place on the wall, there were just the four metal pegs where it had been hanging. As a regular copyist, he knew who to contact to find out what was happening with the painting. It was assumed that the work had been removed for photography, quite a common occurrence at the time. No one was particularly worried, until it was finally realised that the painting had vanished: someone had stolen the Mona Lisa.
The police arrested first the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, then questioned Pablo Picasso. The painting appeared lost, until two years later, when Vincenzo Peruggia tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Being something of an Italian patriot, Peruggia had decided that it was time for the painting to return to its homeland, and had smuggled it out of the Louvre under his coat. He served six months in prison, and the painting headed back to Paris.
After his moment of fame, Béroud returned to painting his copyists. In his Painter Copying a Murillo in the Louvre from 1913, the only easel occupied is in front of Murillo’s The Young Beggar (c 1645).
I like to think that Louis Béroud earned enough from his unusual paintings to be able to retire to the south of France, where at some time he painted Avenue de la Gare, Nice. But apart from the incident of the Mona Lisa, little else seems to have been recorded about him, and he died in Paris in 1930.