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Matisse Painting Attacked at The National Gallery in DC

15 Aug
Matisse's "The Plumed Hat" (1919), Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Matisse's "The Plumed Hat" (1919), Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Gauguin Attacker Strikes Again, This Time Walloping a Matisse at D.C.’s National Gallery

By Julia Halperin for
Published: August 15, 2011

Remember Susan Burns, the vigilante museumgoer who violently attacked a Gauguin painting at the National Gallery of Art? Well, she’s at it again. On Friday, Burns returned to the scene of her crime to take on the work of another modern master: Henri Matisse. Shortly before 1 p.m. on Friday, she entered the West Building of the National Gallery, approached the 1919 Impressionist portrait “The Plumed Hat,” and slammed its frame against the wall three times before being arrested on the scene.

The painting is valued at $2.5 million, according to court records posted on The Smoking Gun. While the antique frame, valued in excess of $250, sustained damage, the painting itself was unharmed, police said. The entire episode was captured on security camera videotape.

Burns, 53, of Alexandria, VA was arrested for felony destruction of government property, attempted theft, and unlawful entry. As a condition of her release following the April Gauguin attack, Burns signed a form acknowledging that she was barred for life from all museums and art galleries in Washington, hence the unlawful entry charges. After Friday’s episode, Burns was held at D.C. Superior Court, but was to be “transferred immediately” to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (best known as the home of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley, Jr.) “to be monitored closely,” according to a court docket cited by the Washington Post.

Burns is by no means the first to attack or publicly deface a work of art, but her status as a two-time offender makes her a rarity. Her frenzied attack in April appeared to be motivated by a fanatic puritanical rage, but it is unclear what provoked her to go after Matisse. Her earlier target, “Two Tahitian Women,” valued at $80 million, was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the exhibition “Gauguin: Maker of Myth.” It pictured a woman with one breast exposed alongside a fully bare-breasted companion.

After Burns attempted to rip the 1899 canvas from the wall, she began pounding its plexiglass box with her fists, shouting, “This is evil!” Following her arrest, she gave this angry diatribe against the French painter while standing, handcuffed, in the galleries: “He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”

Compared to the titillating subject matter of “Two Tahitian Women,” “The Plumed Hat” is quite staid. The painting depicts a brown-haired, fully-clothed woman in a gray headpiece rendered in broad brushstrokes. Admittedly, it’s not the most attractive hat in the world. (As the Washington City Paper pointed out, it’s slightly reminiscent of the gravity-defying monstrosity Princess Beatrice wore to the recent royal wedding.)

The work was part of the ongoing exhibition “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection,” an exhibition of 81 works from the late investment broker’s impressive holdings of late 19th- and early 20th-century French and American art. “The Plumed Hat” was Dale’s first major purchase of French modern art, according to the National Gallery’s Web site.

A spokesperson from the National Gallery, Deborah Ziska, declined to comment on the incident, or discuss whether any security changes were made following Burns’s outburst in April. “For reasons of maintaining security, we cannot discuss changes or other details about our security,” she told ARTINFO via e-mail.