Skip to main content

Master work by leader of Dusseldorf School returned to Max Stern Foundation

City officials accept Nazi-Era claim after a decade of deliberations
May 15, 2023

A painting of two children, with the boy holding a bunny “Portrait of the Artist’s Children” by Wilhelm von Schadow

At a ceremony in Dusseldorf City Hall, “Portrait of the Artist’s Children” by celebrated painter, Wilhelm von Schadow (1788-1862), was returned by the City of Dusseldorf to the Max and Iris Stern Foundation and its beneficiaries — Concordia University in Montreal and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Painted in 1830 — four years after Schadow was named director of the Dusseldorf School which he reoriented towards Christian art — the artist locates his children in an Edenic landscape steeped in religious symbolism. He dresses his daughter in pure white with one foot in the water signifying baptism, while the rabbit on his son’s lap denotes salvation. Part of the Dusseldorf Kunstpalast collection, the painting was shown in 1981 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an exhibition of master works from Germany.

The ten-year road leading to the return of this painting to the heirs of the German-Jewish dealer was saddled with setbacks.

Researchers from the Max Stern Art Restitution Project started compiling information on the painting in 2013, around the time when a rare self-portrait of Schadow, in the Dusseldorf Stadtmuseum collection, was recognized as looted and returned to the Stern Foundation by the then mayor, Dirk Elbers. Intended to demonstrate mutual good will, the Foundation offered the self-portrait on long-term loan while City authorities publicly committed to a new era of international cooperation on restitution matters.

In the years that followed, as more facts mounted regarding Stern’s possession of the children’s portrait, a claim was submitted to the City and presented to the incumbent mayor, Thomas Geisel. Numerous meetings were held, including one in 2015 where it was agreed that, if the City found no contrary evidence about the Nazi-era ownership of the painting, the formal process of restitution would be initiated.

The deadline came and went, and after four ensuing years of numerous appeals to Geisel, the claim was formally rejected. This action coincided with his decision to cancel an international exhibition on Max Stern slated to open at the Stadtmuseum and then travel to museums in Israel and Canada.

His pronouncements — stated to be on the grounds of concerns for outstanding Stern claims in German museums — sparked international criticism from the World Jewish Congress and countless representatives of the academic and museum communities.

In 2020, Geisel lost the election to Stephan Keller. With the encouragement of the city’s Jewish community, several concerned citizens mounted a campaign using their personal funds to try to broker a deal between the City and the Foundation. Keller didn’t endorse their proposal, preferring to take the claim to Germany’s looted art commission (Beratende Kommission).

In 2023, while the Foundation was preparing its case for the commission, City officials approached the Foundation to resolve the matter. Once it was agreed to unconditionally return the painting based on the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Looted Art, a deal was reached to allow the City to permanently acquire the work and keep it on public display.

“For a prized painting that proudly hung in the office of the mayor in the 1960s, and the fate of which has been in the hands of more recent Dusseldorf mayors, we feel cautiously optimistic about the fair and just solution that has prevailed”, said Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project. “We’re hopeful that we can re-establish working relations with the City to ensure that the story of Max Stern and his family are properly integrated into the history of Dusseldorf”.

“It is a pleasure to witness today the restitution, by the city of Düsseldorf under the leadership of Mayor Stephan Keller, of the painting "Bildnis der Kinder des Künstlers" (1830) by Wilhelm von Schadow to the Dr. Max and Iris Stern Foundation," said Isabelle Poupart, Chargée d’affaires a.i. of Canada to Germany.

"While this restitution case is now closed, many others involving various institutions remain open and I want to thank the Foundation for their ongoing efforts towards facilitating the return of cultural heritage of the Jews of Europe to their rightful heirs. Canada remains committed to combatting antisemitism and promoting Holocaust education, remembrance and research."

The event will be broadcast live at 3 p.m. (CET) / 9 a.m. (EST) on Monday, May 15, 2023, The link will be live only 30 minutes before the event:

Media contacts

Willi Korte (in Germany)
49 162 7376840

Clarence Epstein (in Canada)

Back to top

© Concordia University