You’ve probably heard of French artist Louis Béroud, though maybe not because of his work; his name isn’t mentioned among the great painters of the late 19th century. His paintings –often of other painters practicing in the Musée du Louvre or of the grand space itself– are certainly beautiful, rich in detail, and an interesting mixture of late Realism with some early Impressionist touches, a direct result of the era in which he painted. Even still, you might not have even been able to identify one of his paintings just by sight, the way you can with, say, a Monet, and his pieces don’t make the headlines if they’re brought to auction. (For fun, I checked Sotheby’s auction results archive. From 1990 to present, only three Bérouds have been sold, either at auction or in private sale, for an average hammer price of $42k. For contrast, a pair of chairs sold for nearly as much at the end of February.)
But if you’ve ever heard of the (entirely true) theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, then you’re familiar with Béroud. For it was Béroud who, on the morning of August 22, 1911, alerted the guard that La Jaconde was missing. Béroud had arrived at the museum with his easel and paintbox, ready to continue work on a study of the Mona Lisa, only to find an empty space on the wall of the Salon Carré where painting should have hung. When he informed a guard, he was told the painting was likely upstairs being photographed or for some light frame preservation. Béroud waited several hours but at 11am, having grown impatient, suggested the guard check upstairs in the photography department himself. It was only then that the museum realized what had happened. It would be two and a half years, with a wild goose chase across France and Italy, fake identities, and forgeries sold and shipping across the Atlantic, before Mona was returned to her rightful place at the Louvre. This book does a far better job of explaining everything than I just attempted, and reads like fiction.
Because of his connection to what is perhaps the most famous heist in history, little focus has been paid to Béroud’s work as a painter over the years, which is a shame. In fact, his one paragraph Wikipedia entry focuses entirely on the Mona Lisa, offering no other biographical details. Several of his paintings currently hang in the Musée Carnavalet and the Louvre, though, and I’ll make it a priority to track them down next time.