The Louvre in Paris is one of the most cherished museums in the world. In 1939, when the threat of war with Germany was becoming apparent, some 400,000 artifacts and pieces of art were moved in a remarkable feat of organization and speed.
This event was documented in candid shots by several photographers, chief among them Pierre Jahan. The Louvre is currently exhibiting a collection of these pictures, many which have never been on public display before.
The most striking of the photographs show the museum as few have ever seen it: vacant. The Grande Galerie extends devoid of its floor to ceiling paintings, left with only empty frames.
A photograph from 1942 shows a gallery previously filled with the works of Rembrandt. The walls are bare but for the names of the paintings which hung there, written in chalk where the artwork once was.
On August 28, 1939 the Mona Lisa had been carefully wrapped in layers of waterproof paper, crated, and taken to the French countryside where it would be safe from the bombings Paris would have to endure. On September 3, France declared war on Germany.
Of course, not all of the museum’s holdings could be so easily packed and moved.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace was painstakingly removed from her pedestal with a series of ropes and pullies then wheeled out of the museum on a specially installed ramp. One she was packed into a crate, the arduous task of moving her to the French countryside began.
But she was not alone, as the citizens of Paris fled the city, so too did thousands of crated statues and artifacts.
When the war was over, these pieces were gradually returned to the Louvre. A photo taken in June 1945 shows Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, as it is carried back into the gallery. The return of this iconic piece, captured on film, communicates the emotional connection between people and art.
The Louvre during the War – Photographs 1938-1947 runs through August 31st.
For more information visit the Louvre’s website.