20 Works of Art Missing or Destroyed
Sunday, August 29th, 2010 at
There’s a sad truth to art museums that’s not often talked about: sometimes, things just disappear. Over time, countless works of art have gone missing for one reason or another, whether it’s damage, theft, poor stewardship, natural disaster, or the tragic effects of war. For every hundred or thousand paintings or sculptures, there’s one that’s been lost to the ages. Some exist in reproductions or sketches, but some are gone for good. This list is just a small sample of those works of art that can be seen only in photos of what used to be.
Man at the Crossroads, Diego Rivera: Rivera’s mural for Rockefeller Center was destroyed and removed by Nelson Rockefeller, who didn’t like the painting’s inclusion of things like women drinking alcohol and images of Trotsky and Lenin. As soon as Rivera was paid, Rockefeller had the work covered, then demolished.
A Harlot’s Progress, William Hogarth: These 18th-century paintings depicted the story of a young woman who becomes a prostitute only to die by 23 of venereal disease. The paintings were used to make engravings, which turned out to be beneficial, since the original art was destroyed in a fire at Fonthill Abbey in 1755.
The Just Judges, Jan/Hubert Van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece was a gorgeous, enormous polyptych that pictured Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and a host of other biblical figures. The work was begun by Hubert Van Eyck and completed by his younger brother, Jan. In 1934, one of the panels, The Just Judges, was stolen during the night and held for ransom. The thief never revealed its location, and it’s believed to be destroyed.
St. James Led to His Execution, Andrea Mantegna: One of the many casualties of war in the field, this painting was destroyed in the spring of 1944 when Allied forces bombed Italy’s Ovetari Chapel.
The Stone Breakers, Gustav Courbet: This French painting was created around 1850 and first exhibited at the Paris Salon. It was destroyed in World War II when Allied forces bombed a transport vehicle carrying paintings stored at K-nigstein Fortress.
The Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo da Vinci: This painting by Leonardo da Vinci dates to 1505 and was abandoned by the master when technical difficulties arose with the paint. It’s rumored to still exist beneath frescoes in a hall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The surviving image is a drawing by Peter Paul Rubens that’s based on an engraving that might have been directly copied from the original. We’ll never know for sure.
A Vision of the Last Judgment, William Blake: William Blake had done precursors (like the one pictured) to his 1808 work A Vision of the Last Judgment, but it’s only through these and his detailed notes that we know what it looked like. The painting was intended for an 1810 exhibition, but when the exhibition was cancelled, the painting vanished.
The Goddess of Democracy, Students of the Central Academy of Fine Arts: Chinese students quickly built this statue as part of the 1989 Tianenmen Square protests, hoping to make a statement to the government and force them to destroy it or acknowledge it. Sadly, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army dismantled the statue only five days after it was erected. It has since become an icon of free speech, with a replica at the University of British Columbia.
Vase With Five Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh: This is the first of several works by Van Gogh lost to accident and war. Van Gogh did several paintings of sunflowers in multiple still life series, but this particular image was destroyed in August 1945 by U.S. air raids over Japan’s Ashiya District. The painting at the time was in the collection of Koyata Yamamoto.
The Lovers: The Poet’s Garden IV, Vincent Van Gogh: This painting from 1888 was declared “degenerate” by the Nazis and subsequently confiscated. No one’s ever found it.
The Park at Arles with the Entrance Seen Through the Trees, Vincent Van Gogh: History was rough to Van Gogh: This painting was also destroyed by a fire during World War II.
The Painter on his Way to Work, Vincent Van Gogh: This painting was residing in Berlin’s Kaiser-Friedrich Museum during World War II, when it met with an untimely demise in a fire. It’s a tragedy that so many works by one artist suffered such a fate.
Winter, Caspar David Friedrich: Another artist with multiple works gone, Caspar David Friedrich painted Winter around 1808. The painting was destroyed in a fire at Munich’s Glaspalast in 1931, a blaze that took several works by Friedrich and other artists.
Landscape With Rainbow, Caspar David Friedrich: There’s no fire or war behind this painting: It’s simply missing, and has been since 1945.
The Destruction of Niobe’s Children, Richard Wilson: This lush landscape from Richard Wilson, one of the pioneers of the field in Britain, was destroyed in 1944 during enemy action surrounding the National Gallery of London.
Tilted Arc, Richard Serra: Commissioned in the 1970s for the Federal Plaza in New York City, Richard Serra’s artwork was a giant block of steel that met with critical and public complaint when it was unveiled. A committee voted in 1985 to dismantle and remove it, and though Serra appealed, the work was destroyed in 1989.
Equal-Parallel/Guernica-Bengasi, Richard Serra: The version of this work that currently sits in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia is a reproduction by the artist: the original went missing in 2006 and has never been found. At least Serra was around to make a new one.
Leda and the Swan, Michelangelo: Many artists have tackled this classical motif, including Michelangelo, whose painting of Leda and the swan was lost and very likely destroyed. The surviving image is a copy based on the original.
Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, Caravaggio: This Caravaggio work dates to 1609 and measures almost 6 square meters. It was stolen in October 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo, located in Palermo, Sicily. No one knows who stole it, though many suspect the Sicilian Mafia to be involved in the theft. Whether it’s destroyed or in someone’s possession is unknown.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt: Rembrandt’s illustration of the biblical story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee was painted in 1633. It last resided in Boston’s Gardner Museum before being stolen in 1990 in one of the biggest art heists in U.S. history. The painting remains unrecovered.
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