Did you know that Picasso was arrested for colluding to steal the Mona Lisa?
He had been staying in the lovely town of Céret in the Eastern Pyrenees in the summer of 1911, where he was in the throes of birthing Cubism. He arrived in early July at the suggestion of his friend and patron, Frank Haviland, and his fellow Catalonian Spanish artist, Manolo. By the end of July he was missing his lover, Fernande Olivier, and his friend and artistic collaborator, Georges Braque.
He had been staying at his friend and patron Frank Haviland’s house in Céret with his large dog, Frika, and his monkey, Monina, but in order to house Fernande, Braque, and Braque’s wife, Marcelle, he needed a bigger place. So he rented the second floor of a lovely bourgeois home with 12-foot ceilings on the edge of town overlooking a large park. He chose a room with a view of the rooftops of the town for his studio while Braque’s studio overlooked the park, with mountains in the distance in both views.
Fernande, Braque, and Marcelle arrived in early August and settled in. Picasso and Braque went right back to their close collaboration on Cubism, which they had pursued by letter while they were apart, but now they could just walk across the hall to see each other’s work, and sometimes, even add to it. The work was going very well, everyone was content and enjoying the work and the late night partying in Céret, where they could all meet at the Grand Café and gossip and talk art.
Suddenly, in the first days of September, Picasso and Fernande left Céret with no explanation to their friends. On August 23, Picasso had read an article in the local paper about the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Security at the Louvre was notoriously lax and the artists who frequented it would have been very aware of this fact. Some newspapers first thought it was a prank done by journalists to prove how bad the security was. But the painting had been very professionally removed from its frame, which was still bolted to the wall in four places, without damaging it or the glazing. Artists became suspect.
On August 30, Picasso read in another paper that a Belgian, Géry Pieret, had boasted about stealing two Ibe rian sculptures from the Louvre in March 1907 which he had sold to a Parisian painter, and had stolen another Iberian sculpture of a head earlier that year, on May 7, 1911. He revealed this information to prove how easy it was to steal from the Louvre.
Upon reading this, Picasso was extremely disturbed. Pieret was the secretary of Picasso’s good friend, the great French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire. Several years earlier, Pieret had offered to sell Picasso two Iberian sculptures, with the proviso to not show them in plain sight. Picasso didn’t ask any questions and bought them. He was at the time deeply involved in his seminal work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and very interested in African and other “primitive” art. Picasso now realized that the authorities would connect Pieret to Apollinaire and Apollinaire to himself.
Picasso quickly packed up and headed back to Paris with Fernande and the animals in the early days of September. The press announced that Apollinaire had been accused not only of stealing the Iberian statues but the Mona Lisa as well. He was supposedly the head of an international gang ready to steal France’s glory from its museums. Note that Apollinaire was Polish, Pieret Belgian, and Picasso, Spanish. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair, all “foreigners” were suspect as a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment swept the country.
As soon as he got back to Paris, Picasso went to see Apollinaire who confessed that Pieret had left him with the Iberian head that had been stolen on May 7. Being foreigners, and in the current political climate, they risked expulsion from France if they were implicated. The only thing they could think of to do was to throw all three sculptures into the Seine. So they left around midnight with the sculptures packed into a suitcase but returned with them around 2:00 AM, not having dared to get rid of them.
They decide to throw themselves on the mercy of the court, and the next day, Apollinaire brought the statues to the newspaper Paris-Journal which had offered a large reward and anonymity for the return of the Mona Lisa. However, this deal apparently didn’t apply to the Iberian statues, whose return was a great scoop for the paper.
On September 8, the police searched Apollinaire’s apartment and finding letters by Pieret, threw him in jail, accusing him of sheltering a thief, being an accomplice in the thefts, and being a member of an international gang trafficking works of art. On the morning of September 10, the police picked up Picasso to testify. He was shaking so hard Fernande had to help him get dressed.
A shackled Apollinaire was escorted into court by two police officers, pale, unshaven, with a torn collar, open shirt, no tie, thin, and a pitiful site. Shocked at seeing his friend in this state, Picasso could not bring himself to rise to his defense: he said of course he knew this greatest of living poets, but only as an acquaintance. Apollinaire had already exculpated Picasso by testifying that he didn’t know the origin of the statues. Upon hearing Picasso’s testimony, Apollinaire broke down into tears, and Picasso was released with the proviso to not leave Paris. Apollinaire was sent back to jail.
After five days of imprisonment, he was freed when Pieret sent a letter professing his sole responsibility. However, the psychological damage to Apollinaire was great: he was terrified of being expelled from his adoptive country and was humiliated that it had turned against him. His friendship with Picasso seemed to recover, but probably never with the same zeal as before. When the war broke out, he volunteered for the French army, was severely wounded by shrapnel in the brain, trepanned, and returned to Paris. He died of the Spanish flu on November 9, 1918, as all Paris was celebrating the end of the war. On his deathbed, he took the cries of “Down with Guillaume” being shouted outside his window to refer to himself andnot the German Kaiser.
Left: Landscape at Ceret, Picasso; Right: The Roofs of Ceret, Braque.
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