Amid widespread ignorance about genocide, state law requiring museums to label plundered art will inform public and pressure museums, but implementation remains unclear.
NEW YORK — The painting depicts a man, chiseled like a sculpture with a dagger held high, lunging at a woman. She appears caught off guard, and raises an arm in self-defense as an overturned urn spills liquid at her feet. Lustrous, vibrant fabrics swirl around the pair and a servant flees the scene in the background.
The arresting, 6-foot tall image in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is displayed among gallery 621’s other Baroque masterpieces. Visitors pause to read a placard identifying the scene as “The Rape of Tamar,” painted around the year 1640 by the French artist Eustache Le Sueur.
The painting is believed to depict the biblical character about to be raped by her half-brother Amnon, says the signage, which will likely soon need to also reveal the painting’s dark path to the museum. Last month, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul signed a trio of Holocaust bills, including one requiring museums to label artwork plundered under the Nazi regime.
The legislation aims to combat widespread Holocaust ignorance in New York State by informing the public about this lesser-known aspect of the genocide, and will also pressure museums and the art world to continue addressing Nazi-looted art, although the law’s implementation remains unclear. It is a state education law, and is not aimed at restitution efforts.
Around 600,000 pieces of art were taken from Jews under Adolf Hitler’s regime, hundreds of which likely remain in New York museums. The Nazis wanted to strip the Jewish people of its wealth and heritage, culturally enrich the Third Reich and its leadership, who took valuable pieces for its own collections. Paintings that were deemed degenerate were sold for foreign currency or destroyed. In many cases, Jews sold off artwork to non-Jewish civilians under duress.
“The thrust of this legislation is to reach the greatest number of people, alert them to the fact that these wondrous works of art have blood on them,” said New York State Assembly member Charles Lavine, who sponsored the law with New York State Senator Anna Kaplan. The bill is believed to be the first of its kind in any country.
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