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The Monet in the wardrobe, or

How Robert stole the beach at Pourville

A lot has changed in Pourville
A lot has changed in Pourville

After ten years of loving the Monet in the wardrobe, neither Robert Zwoliński’s passion or the colours in the painting had faded.

Each time he locked the spare bedroom door at his parents apartment, pulled down the blinds (to protect the pigments) and unrolled the masterpiece he felt a love so immense, a wonder so all encompassing that his very existence was given an undeserved meaning.

A journey of discovery

Robert lived in the small town of Olkusz in the south of Poland but he had travelled.   In 1989 as a young man he had visited Paris with some friends.  They spent a few cramped weeks living in a flat some way from the centre, earning good money as painter/decorators.

We could not find a remnant of this postcard at Pourville
We could not find a remnant of this postcard at Pourville

The hours were long but there was time to explore the city and this was how Robert discovered the Impressionists and in particular, Monet.

Robert had not known he was a man of passion until he stepped into Musée de l’Orangerie to be surrounded by Monet’s Waterlilies.  The museum was quiet that day and there was nothing to distract him from the the dappled light playing on the surface of Giverney’s water.A thousand shades, conjured from white lead, cadmium yellow, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue and chrome green, danced and dipped around him.  Time stood still as he felt the consoling world created by Monet heal an unspoken inner torment.  He stayed until they locked the doors.

The rest of his free time in Paris was spent hunting down every last Monet accessible to the public. The Louvre, Musée Marmottan Monet, Musée d’Orsay, Musée des Beaux Arts de la ville de Paris, he visited them all.

Hunger makes a thief of any man

It is a lovely painting
Monet’s painting of Pourville owned by Poland – lovely

Back in Poland Robert felt bereft, Monet had stolen his heart and without him Robert began to fade.  Each day he faced a world of hard edges, brutal unlovely colours and thoughtless compositions.

He married but the marriage failed.  His life seemed empty and he thought back to the paintings that had moved him years ago.  After some research he discovered Poland had just one Monet for the public to see, in Poznan, so of course for his next vacation he visited the city and the National Museum.

Poland’s single Monet

It was not easy to carry out the theft, although easier perhaps than it should have been.

We tried this match as well
We tried this match as well

Describing himself as an art student Robert set up his easel near Monet’s ‘La Plage de Pourville’.  Beautiful in its simplicity and outstanding in its brilliance, the painting was everything Robert hoped it could be.  Quietly he attempted a poor replica of another painting.  Each time the guard’s footsteps faded away down the marble hall he sliced just a little more along the edge of the priceless canvas.

Robert took just seconds on September 17, 2000 to position a copy of La Plage de Pourville within the original frame.  Not his shoddy effort but a painting bought for 300zl from a street artist in Krakow.  He placed the original on his easel and waited until closing time to casually stroll out of the National Museum forever.

It took two days for the museum to notice and then only when a museum guide alerted officials that the ‘Monet’ was beginning to peel away from it’s frame.

The end of a dream

Match! Pourville today
Match but a very different town

Robert’s passion was of course his undoing; it so often is.  Wanting to see his child, kept from him by the wife barely knew, he tried to force her hand by stopping alimony payments.  His previously unblemished record was shattered as the police arrested him for this misdemeanour and took his fingerprints.

They found a match they did not expect.  The full weight of the law fell upon Robert Zwoliński and soon afterwards ‘La Plage de Pourville’ returned to Poland.

Visitors to the National Museum at Poznan now admire a very secure Monet; ‘La Plage de Pourville’.  The museum plans to avoid further embarrassment.

And Robert?  He had three years in a Polish jail to think about love, life and Monet.

A few places to see Monet (and friends) in Normandy:

More Monet

The agonies of Monet’s 26th year

Monet’s unquiet heart, in Etretat

An interview with Claude Monet

The painting returned and under protection

The painting returned and under protection

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