Art attacker slams Matisse at National Gallery of Art

August 12, 2011

In her second alleged attack on a world-famous piece of art in the past four months, Susan Burns, 53, was arrested for attempting to rip a $2.5 million Henri Matisse oil painting off the wall of the National Gallery of Art and slamming the frame three times against the wall, police said.

Burns, 53, of Alexandria, was being held at D.C. Superior Court, but a court docket indicates that Burns was to be “transferred immediately” from a D.C. jail to St. Elizabeths Hospital “and to be monitored closely.”

Her recent past includes a highly publicized arrest on April 1 for allegedly trying to tear an   $80 million Paul Gauguin painting off the wall of the National Gallery of Art. She pounded the painting, which was protected by a plexiglass shield, with her fists.

This time, with the museum surveillance cameras rolling, she walked over to Matisse’s “The Plumed Hat,” then “grabbed both sides of the frame holding said painting, damaging the antique original frame of the painting,” according to an arrest affidavit sworn by police Lt. Dexter Moten. “No damage to the painting itself was immediately apparent,” Moten said in the affidavit. Burns was charged with unlawful entry, contempt, destruction of property and attempted theft.

Annabeth Guthrie, a National Gallery of Art spokeswoman, declined to comment because “the case is being investigated.” But the attack raises questions about security at the museum and the protection of some of the world’s most famous works of art.


Henri Matisse. "The Plumed Hat," 1919 oil on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art; Chester Dale Collection)

A condition of her release after her April arrest required that Burns sign a form June 24 agreeing to “stay away from all ­museums and art galleries in Washington D.C. including the National Gallery of Art.”

“The Plumed Hat,” was completed in 1919 and shows a pensive brunette wearing a head covering adorned with large white feathers.

After her alleged April attack, Burns told an investigator that she thinks the Gauguin painting “Two Tahitian Women,” completed in 1899, “is evil. 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.”

The painting shows two women; one is bare-breasted, the other has a blue cloth covering one breast.

“What she did was strange,” said a police officer, who asked not to be named. “But when you think about all the homicides in this city, it’s really not so bad. Maybe she just really hates art.”

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