In the 1920s, the Japanese art collector Kōjirō Matsukata bought a sprawling Monet painting depicting water lilies and willow trees. In the years leading up to World War II, he decided to send the work, along with many others from his collection, to Paris for safekeeping. But when it came time for France to return the Monet to Japan when the war ended, the painting was nowhere to be found.
Now, as Javier Pes reports for Artnet News, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo has revealed that the lost Monet was discovered in a Louvre storage space. "Water Lilies: Reflection of Willows," as the 1916 work is titled, is currently undergoing an extensive conservation effort at the museum.
A French researcher reportedly found the missing painting back in 2016, but the discovery was not announced until this week. The piece is thought to be a study for the "Water Lilies" series at Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris, and conservationists in Japan are now working to restore the badly damaged painting. According to Hikari Maruyama of the Asahi Shimbun, the piece was “in tatters” when it was first found at the Louvre. Half of the canvas, which spans approximately 6.5 feet by 14 feet, was missing.
Matsukata, a ship building tycoon who reportedly amassed 10,000 works of art, is said to have purchased "Water Lilies: Reflection of Willows" directly from Claude Monet. Matsukata visited the French Impressionist at his home in Giverny in 1921 and, as legend has it, he handed Monet a check for a million francs. By the next year, he had acquired 25 Monet paintings.
In the advent to WWII, Matsukata sent hundreds of his holdings to France and England, where he hoped they would be safe. Matsukata had been planning to build a modern art museum in Tokyo after the war (he planned to name the institution the “Sheer Pleasure Fine Arts Pavilion”), but was forced to sell much of his collection after his business was hit hard by an economic crisis in 1927.
The works that Matsukata sent abroad also fared badly. Four hundred of his holdings in London were destroyed in a fire. At the end of the war, according to Maruyama, the French government requisitioned Matsukata’s collection in Paris as enemy property. Matsukata, who died in 1950, was never able to reclaim these artworks. And when the pieces were finally returned to Japan in 1959, "Water Lilies: Reflection of Willows" was missing.
Experts believe that the painting was damaged when it was transferred to the outskirts of Paris to keep it safe from possible bombs or fires. But no one knows what happened to it in the decades after the war.
Matsukata may not have realized his dream to build a modern art museum in Japan, but when France returned his artworks in 1959, the National Museum of Western Art was founded to house what remained of Matsukata’s collection. The newly discovered water lilies painting is due to go on display at the museum in 2019—nearly a century after Matsukata first acquired it.