This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first organised art reclamation operation in history. It was conducted by the individual nations then occupying Paris in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo, and on behalf of others. I have chosen to tell it through the eyes of the Spanish effort.
General Miguel Alava was a remarkable man, who had served with distinction first against Britain at Trafalgar and then alongside his old enemies during the liberation of Spain, becoming Wellington’s closest Spanish friend. At Salamanca in 1812, Alava had been on the scene when Wellington had declared in French “Mon Cher Alava, Marmont est perdu!”. As the army was battling across the Pyrenees he had the misfortune of being shot in the rump, when news reached Wellington he burst into one of his distinctive laugh’s and immediately felt a spent bullet break his scabbard and hit his leg. Alava later acidly commented that it was because he laughed at his own mishap. On the day news arrived that Napoleon had abdicated Alava had stood at the table, raised his glass and offered the toast “El liberator de España”
His exploits didn’t end there, after Waterloo, (where he had accompanied the Duke throughout the day and passed messages for him) Alava was instructed by Ferdinand VII to recover looted Spanish art treasures held in the Louvre. Alava accordingly coordinated with the Spanish ambassador the Duque de Fernan Nunez, and had an audience with Louis XVIII, who fatally gave what he doubtless considered a diplomatic reply, but which Alava construed to mean “I won’t stop you”. The treasure in question was almost legendary in its scale, looted by successive marshal’s of France, most principally Soult. Thousands upon thousands of cartloads were sent across the Pyrenees during over six years of French occupation, looted from Churches and palaces. They were mostly Dutch and Italian masters, for Spanish art was virtually unknown before the French saw them and selected choice works, such as Velasquez and others like the 5 Murillo’s to be taken back to France. In this sense their theft introduced these great artists to Europe, however that didn’t mean the Spanish wanted them to stay in Paris. Alava had briefly held a diplomatic post after 1814 in which he seems to have attempted to negotiate their return but Napoleon’s escape hindered this. Similarly the allies at that time had declared their intention to reclaim their treasures but had been unable to do so. Alava therefore was not the only one wanting a piece of the Louvre in 1815. All the allied powers wanted their looted objects back, now the most prized art collection in Europe and the pride of Paris was about to be reclaimed. French officials had no wish to give them up, and indeed some felt the allies wouldn’t dare. They delayed and argued, hoping to retain important works by artists of smaller nations whose bayonets were not as numerous, but meanwhile the Prussians had already begun to extract their belongings. Blucher was wandering the halls of the Louvre, catalogue in hand selecting items he remembered for removal, he made reclamation of the spoils of Berlin, Potsdam, Cologne and Aix la Chapelle a top priority and set the precedent. The animosity between the French and Prussians was a great concern to Wellington who did not want the city to rise and provoke the allies to put it down. The Prussian troops guarding the Louvre were soon replaced by British and Austrians, this however only allowed the Parisians to transfer their anger. Especially as he was obliged to act on behalf of the Dutch & Belgians being as he was their commander in chief. Wellington and Tsar Alexander (Who had fewer objects to recover, concentrated on offering to buy some) were the main allied voices of moderation as every triumphal monument that bore a German name or inscription suddenly came under threat.
On the 23rd of September 1815 Alava began his Louvre Campaign, and so did everybody else, the feelings of the Parisians were not spared, and outcry ignored. Workmen arrived with tools, hay and plaster of Paris to begin boxing priceless artwork. If the new British guards thought that guarding a museum would be cushy, the angry French crowds that gathered to watched in horror as the galleries were dismantled, changed their minds. Hordes of foreign tourists and art students flocked to the scene desperate to get one last look before it was all broken up and to finish a sketch or a painting, the dignified halls took on the aspect of an auction house said one witness. Angry crowds jostled with curious tourists, and public opinion turned against the allies with each removal. Wellington and the British came in for the lions share, as the French had a habit of blaming everything on them. Red coats were conspicuous outside the Louvre and an attractive target to explain the woes of the city. The White coats of the Austrians no less so, but every Frenchman preferred to blame les Anglaise. Wellington wrote to Castlereigh on the 23rd.
“The Allies then, having the contents of the museum justly in their power, could not do otherwise than restore them to the countries form which, contrary to the practice of civilized warfare, they had been torn during the disastrous period of the French revolution and the tyranny of Bonaparte. … Not only, then, would it, in my opinion, be unjust in the Sovereigns to gratify the people of France on this subject, at the expense of their own people, but the sacrifice they would make would be impolitic, as it would deprive them of the opportunity of giving the people of France a great moral lesson.”
On the first day of “Open Season” Alava sent his aid; Captain Nicolás Miniussir (who had been wounded at Waterloo, rallying two Nassau battalions at Hougoumont, and lost two horses) and the respected painter Francisco Lacoma, (who between 1810 and 14 had carefully inventoried the looted art), to identify and remove Spain’s stolen treasures. Spanish histories say he was accompanied in his task by 200 British soldiers, whose bayonets made sure they would not be disturbed. (This may or may not be true. 200 Marines are specifically mentioned and might well have been the Louvre guard for that day, but so far I’ve found no corroboration to prove Marines were in Paris in 1815. However it can’t be discounted because Wellington would have acted for Spain in the same way he acted for Belgium, and the Duke might well have allowed Alava their assistance.) British troops would subsequently help the Dutch Belgians and the Austrians to extract their treasures. Vivant Denon, the director was still reeling from the Prussian intrusion and was powerless to stop them, he had already done all he could by sending as much as he could away on various pretexts, and the Spaniards brushed him aside. Outside the gathering crowd began to get ugly but Miniussir managed to extract an initial 12 paintings without having to break any heads, and had made off by 8pm. The next day the Spanish returned to the fray, which was now almost general, with the Parisian crowds massed to spit and abuse the workers and guards emptying the Louvre. Presumably with British help they walked out with 287 paintings and 800 objects, which were temporarily deposited in the Count of Perelada’s house (future ambassador to Paris), however they were unable to check off their list those works that had become part of the private collection’s of Napoleon’s Marshal’s. Still, not a bad days work!
There still remained the thorny task of getting them back to Spain. On the 25th Alava was beset by complaints by the authorities and from Louis, condemning his actions, he too sensed the mood and quickly sent orders for the liberated collection to be packed up and sent to Brussels, before too much pressure was put on him, or trouble started that would endanger its movement. Alava was officially Spain’s ambassador to the “Netherlands”, and he didn’t think it safe to send a convoy full of recently reclaimed looted treasure across France.
He was just in time. On the 26th of September the greatest stab to the honour of wounded France occurred. The Austrians wanted back the Horses of St Mark, pilfered from Venice in 1798. They asked the British for help in removing them from top the Arc de Triomph du Carousel in front of the Tuileries. Sensing the mood of the crowds, that were daily growing more and more outraged, the Duke of Wellington agreed to lend a hand but advised the work be undertaken at night. At first the Parisians had been incredulous that the horses would be removed, not believing it would happen, however during the night of the 25th the allies loosened the fastenings of the horses and word got out. A crowd gathered and saw the gold harnesses that attached the horses to the chariot (supposedly put there so a statue of Napoleon could be put in it after a triumphal return from Russia) were gone. They hurled abuse at the workers and any foreigners they saw for being so fearful as to work in the dark, swearing that if they dared touch the horses in daylight all Paris would rise and avenge its honour. The result was that they had to be dispersed by the gendarmerie. The next day non French were constantly insulted in the street. The crowd’s audacity incensed both the Austrians and Wellington and on the 27th, after the Austrian cavalry dispersed another mob during the night, 1,000 Austrians, blatant in their white Royalist Habsburg uniforms, cordoned off the arch and forced the crowd back as the British helped dismantle the horses, in broad daylight.
In the grand chambers of the gutted Louvre disturbed dust danced in the sunlight. Only 200 paintings from a collection that had numbered thousands remained, the few wisps of packing straw cluttering up the corners were all that was left. Parisians walked through the desolate galleries gasping and putting their hands to their mouths, shocked at how much had gone. A middle aged French officer watching the horses being carried off by the Austrian cavalcade commented bitterly to an English bystander “You have left me nothing for my children but hatred against England, this shall be my legacy to them” to which a fellow Englishman readily replied “Sir, it will do your children no good, and England no injury”
On 14 December Miniussir arrived in Brussels with a consignment of 13 large boxes (presumably at the Spanish embassy) from Paris and then took them them on to Antwerp with a British escort. They were stored in a warehouse until the spring of 1816 when the Dutch Frigate Amstel, took them to Cadiz. On the 30th of June they were unloaded in the Academy of fine arts of San Fernando, in Madrid, and in 1819 were transferred to the Prado were they hang today. Alava retired from his ambassadorial post that year and went to live in Vitoria, but stood as representative for Alava in the Cortes during the revolution of 1820, becoming president in 1822. As a soldier of experience he commanded the national militia in the fight to preserve the authority of Cortes, and given his diplomatic experience he was entrusted with negotiations with the French after the investment of Cadiz. However when Ferdinand was restored he had to flee to Britain to escape execution for treason. There his old friend Wellington set him up on his country estate at Stratfield Saye and introduced him to his bank at Coutts with the simple and affecting note.
“This is my friend, and as long as I have any money with your house, let him have it to any amount he thinks proper to draw for.”
Alava returned to Spain after the death of Ferdinand and was appointed ambassador to London in 1834, then to Paris in 1835. He turned down an offer to serve as Prime Minister in 1835, and refused to sign the constitution of 1837, declaring himself tired of taking new oaths, and so had to retire to France, where he died at Barèges in 1843.
Time has faded the memory of which pieces precisely were saved for Spain in 1815. One has been identified as the “Sagrada Familia” by Rafael, another, “The dream of the patrician John”, by Murillo. Alava was made an honorary member of the Academy of fine arts of San Fernando, for this singular service, and is remembered fondly by the Prado, after all, his efforts allowed them to display a magnificent collection of art. Nevertheless it is suggested that those who have visited Marshal Soult’s house in Paris have indeed visited a small Prado, due to the vast amount that escaped Alava’s grasp. Perhaps though it was obtained more honestly, the same is true of Apsley House.
Website, Prado Museum.
Three Years with the Duke, William Pitt Lennox.
Gentleman’s Magazine vol 118
The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott, Bart,
Paris Revisited in 1815. John Scott
Wellington, Vol 2, Longford.
An Account of the Battle of Waterloo: James Ridgway
With thanks to Napoleonic Wars Forum Member Txapo