Pablo Picasso on Trial


When I started my series of posts on the Mona Lisa, I wanted to tell the story of her disappearance in a manner that did it justice. I was captivated by Vanished Smile, a book that makes the painting come to life (more so than she reportedly does!)

In this post I will sum up for you an interesting chapter of the investigation which I learned of from R. A. Scotti. I have left out plenty of details; to enjoy the full scope of the madness, you’ll have to read the book.

History is stranger than fiction. In 1911 France’s most famous lady was stolen–practically from under the noses of guards. The world was left reeling from the brashness of this theft.

It was a time of change in the art world. Pablo Picasso had begun championing a new form of art, modern and daring, a far cry from the styles of the old masters. His style brought together a group of enthusiasts determined to challenge tradition and redefine beauty.

Many members of Picasso’s gang were known for being loud and sometimes rude. They were labeled romantic renegades by those who admired them, ne’er-do-wells by disapprovers. It wasn’t until La Gioconda’s disappearance that something happened to pull them into legal problems.

Pablo Picasso, Young Woman Drawing

During this interlude in the search for da Vinci’s painting, the police no longer saw these people as artists making a statement. Instead the police called them “foreign thieves and swindlers who have come to France to plunder its treasure.”

With dozens of theories but no clues about the painting’s whereabouts, Picasso’s gang gave police something to focus on. It all started with some badly timed letters, an apparent joke gone wrong.

The Statue

Following Mona Lisa‘s disappearance, an explosion of fake copies and ‘sightings’ sprang up worldwide. Louvre experts examined the false paintings turned in by people hoping for a reward. They did not fall for the scams, but were no closer to an answer.

On August 29, the day the Museum opened again, a strange correspondent wrote to the editors of the Paris-Journal. This newspaper had promised a reward as well as anonymity to thief if they should return La Gioconda.

His first letter did not speak of La Gioconda, but it didn’t arrive alone. With it was a small statue the writer claimed was from the Louvre. He wrote about a series of thefts, his story raising as many questions as it answered.

Most of all, it rubbed salt into the wound of the Museum’s lax security.

It was in March, 1907, that I entered the Louvre for the first time—a young man with time to kill and no money to spend … I suddenly realized how easy it would be to … take away almost any object of moderate size.

The mysterious author explained how he had chosen the head of a woman, concealed it under his vest, and walked out. He sold the statue to an unnamed painter-friend for fifty francs ($200.)

The very next day I took a man’s head with enormous ears. … And three days later, a plaster fragment covered in hieroglyphs. A friend gave me twenty francs for this last. … Now one of my colleagues has spoiled all of my plans for a collection by making this hullabaloo in the painting department!

The next day, August 30, the paper reported a second letter from the mysterious writer.

You will allow me a few words of protest against certain terms of abuse leveled at me in your issue of yesterday … A professional thief, lacking all moral sense, would remain unaffected by them; but I am not without sensitivity…

The letter was signed Baron Ignace d’Ormesan.

An examination by Louvre curators confirmed that the statue was property of the museum. It meant that the thief’s story was true: at least one statue had been stolen. The next day, ‘Baron d’Ormesan’ wrote another letter in the same mocking tone:

I do not want to leave France without once again sending you my thanks for the chivalrous manner in which you handled the little matter…

Then he finished:

I can only urge the person at present holding Vinci’s masterpiece to place himself entirely in your hands. He has a colleague’s word for it that your good faith is above all suspicion.

The morning paper had scarcely gone out before Prefect Lépine identified the so-called Baron d’Ormesan. It was a familiar name to Parisian literati belonging to a fictional character from L’Hérésiarque et cie, a collection of stories written by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

Apollinaire was a part of Picasso’s crowd. Police were soon knocking at the poet’s door.

Pablo Picasso, Child with a Dove

Questions

Three days after Mona Lisa’s disappearance, Apollinaire had written in the paper L’Intrasigeant:

The pictures, even the smallest, are not padlocked on the walls, as they are in most museums abroad. Furthermore, it is a fact that the guards have never been drilled in how to rescue pictures in case of fire. The situation is one of carelessness, negligence, indifference.

Loosely known as la bande de Picasso, the group was famous for more than their loud opinions. They were outlaws of traditional art, set on breaking the rules to free art from art history.

Mona Lisa was the archetype of the dead masterpieces they rejected. If Picasso’s group had indeed taken her, no one would have been surprised. Prefect Lépine was convinced that la bande de Picasso was involved.

Apollinaire’s letters as the Baron placed him in the middle of the investigation–and in deep trouble.

Guillaume Apollinaire was transported in handcuffs to the Palais de Justice, where for hours he refused to provide any information. Only at the point of arrest did he confess that he was not the statue thief, but knew who was. He named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian who had been living in his apartment as a secretary.

He admitted to knowing about Géry’s theft. He confessed to having bought Géry a train ticket to Marseilles on August 21, urging him to leave the country. Apollinaire thought that he would be released after giving the information.

Instead he was locked in a cell at Le Santé prison for being an accomplice.

La bande de Picasso was a guilty party to Prefect Lépine. He was confident that they were the gang of thieves he was after—and that they would be able to tell him Mona Lisa’s whereabouts.

It wasn’t long before he’d arrested the face of the movement, Picasso himself.

Betrayal

Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso, so often seen together as leaders of a band of rebels, faced one another in the courtroom. Their nerves caused them to trip on words, contradicting themselves and one another.

When asked about his friendship with Apollinaire, Picasso said, “I have never seen him before.”

Picasso confessed to having bought the stolen statues. He was released on his own recognizance and warned not to leave Paris. Apollinaire was returned to the Santé prison, but there was not enough evidence to link him to the theft of Mona Lisa. He was released on September 13.

The theft of Mona Lisa had found a likely culprit in la bande de Picasso, but it was a dead end. Géry’s theft of the statues was possible because of the poor security which enabled the theft of la Gioconda.

Unfortunately for detectives, this only proved that theft was easy at the Louvre, not that Picasso’s band had indeed taken the painting. The questions remained: who was the thief, and where was the painting? No closer to an answer, police began to lose spirit.

Pablo Picasso, Mediterranean Landscape

For years Picasso never spoke of the Mona Lisa ordeal. He continued being his larger-than-life self, leading the modern art movement with his bold colors and shapes.

It was 1959 when at last he mentioned Apollinaire during an interview:

When the judge asked me, ‘Do you know this gentleman?’ I was suddenly terribly frightened and without knowing what I was saying, I answered, ‘I have never seen this man.’ I saw Guillaume’s expression change. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.

I wish I had read Vanished Smile before I went to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. R. A. Scotti tells the story of her disappearance with more grace than I’ve been able to manage. If you like history, art, and true stories that sound insane, I encourage you to grab a copy and dig in.

Next week I’ll wrap up my Mona Lisa segment with her return to the Louvre–and the peculiar circumstances surrounding that. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this story as much as I did!

Leonardo da Vinci: Unveiling the Genius


Every now and then we encounter humans with incredible abilities. I don’t mean superpowers–no one can fly without special equipment, nor can they turn invisible. These abilities are acquired through study. Mastering an art form, throwing oneself into a field of science, or sailing around the world–these can be done by any human.

They can be done–but not without study and courage.

We have little hope of reaching the expertise of Leonardo da Vinci. He dabbled in everything–art, science, architecture, and more. All of these were his superpowers. They were trades and disciplines that he had a firm grip on because curiosity drove him to tireless study. Though he is best known for having painted the Mona Lisa, you could spend a lifetime learning about his achievements.

How did Leonardo da Vinci stand out as the genius of his time? Since I’m covering La Gioconda, I have decided to limit this blog post to his life as a painter. Maybe later I can explore his other talents.

Self-Portrait, Leonardo da Vinci

Priceless Education

Leonardo da Vinci did not go to school.

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Since he was born to unwed parents, he wasn’t allowed to study in the parish school. This might have been his great advantage: he had the opportunity to teach himself. This allowed him to open doors that his ‘luckier’ peers never thought of.

Da Vinci learned reading, writing and arithmetic at home–three skills that were to be the foundation for his achievements later on. At the age of twenty, he left to become an apprentice at the studio of painter Andrea Verrocchio. He was taught painting, sculpture, and mechanical skills.

16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote a fascinating account from da Vinci’s time as an apprentice. Historians today believe that he embellished the tale, but there is something charming in pondering legend.

Vasari writes that da Vinci collaborated with Verrocchio to paint The Baptism of Christ (1474-1478). According to Vasari, Verrocchio saw the great talent of his own apprentice and was struck with despair. He allegedly threw down his own brush and never painted again.

Baptism of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci and Verrocchio

Enduring Art

Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, possessing great talent in many fields that we consider difficult or obsolete today. Since this trilogy focuses on the Mona Lisa, I thought it appropriate to summarize da Vinci’s life and success as a painter.

Only 18 original paintings attributed to him survive. They fall into categories–those universally accepted to be his work, those traditionally accepted, and widely accepted. These categories hinge on existing evidence of his being the painter.

The Annunciation (1472-1476) is widely accepted to have been his first completed painting. The Baptism of Christ, his collaboration with the ill-tempered Verrocchio, is widely accepted as the third.

La Gioconda, or Mona Lisa, is universally accepted as his twenty-second work. He was in his sixties when he took on this commission. What you might not have known, though, is that Mona Lisa is an unfinished painting.

Historical accounts from visitors and acquaintances tell us that da Vinci had a stroke. This caused a paralysis in his right hand which frustrated him while he was painting La Gioconda. How did he manage to paint what can be seen of her now? He was ambidextrous, which must have come in useful, but the paralysis still troubled him enough for the work to be unfinished.

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci

Where To Find His Work

Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings have taken on lives of their own long after the death of the master. Lovers of La Gioconda claim that her eyes appear to be following them. Stories exist of men who fell in love and brought her flowers.

If you want to see his most famous works of art, you’ll have to travel the world. Mona Lisa reigns in a chamber of her own at the Museum of the Louvre in Paris. The famous Last Supper is located in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

His pen-and-ink drawing, Vitruvian Man, is an image that most people have seen. It was taken from one of the many notebooks that he filled during his mature years. It isn’t on display because it is so brittle that photographs would do it severe damage. Vitruvian Man is kept safe in the archive of the Venetian Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Do you want to go on a pilgrimage and see his surviving works? Here is a list of where to locate them.

Da Vinci’s Notebooks

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are available for the fanatic to read and bask in his wisdom. Gutenberg offers them for free, but they can also be purchased in book form for more comfortable reading.

There has been a renewed interest in the journals themselves and how he wrote in them. This compelling article makes me wish I knew how to keep smarter diaries, because the article says:

It is estimated that da Vinci produced between 20,000 to 28,000 pages of notes and sketches spanning across 50 different notebooks about work related to whatever topics that interested him – painting, engineering, philosophy, warfare, engineering, physiology, landscape, proportion, perspective, geography, geology, light and shade, inventions and various other topics.

In my lifetime I have filled about 28 notebooks properly–meaning that I finished them cover-to-cover rather than skipping around. However, I did not cover all the topics listed above.

If you want to know more about da Vinci, I can tell you as a diarist that journals are a great place to search. With this useful footnote I will close my attempt to capture Leonardo’s brilliance in a blog post. I hope I did some justice to his life as a painter.


My first post about La Gioconda was an introduction to the mysterious lady and the controversy over who posed as her model. In my next article, I will review and comment on the book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti.

Canvas could not keep La Gioconda from going on an adventure, and I’d like to tell the story. After all, how often do paintings go on vacation?