Climate Activists Who Targeted Vermeer Painting Spared Prison Time

The prison sentence might have had a "chilling effect" on people's freedom of expression, the court said.

Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, 27 October 2022. Photo: Lex van Lieshout/ANP/AFP via Getty Images.

A Dutch court has ruled that three climate activists who targeted Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in October 2022 will no longer go to prison. The trio, one of whom glued his head to the world famous masterpiece, were originally given two month sentences but have now been left off.

Acting on behalf of Just Stop Oil Belgium, the three men carried out the protest at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague on October 27, 2022. After one man glued his head to the protective glass, another man poured soup on top of him and then glued his hand to the wall beside the painting. The third man filmed these events. Although the painting was not harmed, its glass cover was slightly damaged, according to the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service.

The activists were eventually removed by the police and were detained for 23 days. They were later charged with destruction of property and public violence against the painting. Only a month after the incident, each were handed two month jail sentences with one month suspended.

In court, the public prosecutor said, “an artwork hanging there for all of us to enjoy has been smeared by defendants who felt their message took precedence over everything else.”

Later, the case was transferred to The Hague Court of Appeal, which upheld the convictions but revoked the sentences. It declared that a prison sentence would be “too drastic” an action because of the more than three weeks that the demonstrators already spent in pre-trial detention. The court was also concerned about cracking down too harshly on peaceful protests.

“The court is of the opinion that the application of criminal law may not be so drastic as to have a ‘chilling effect’ on people who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in the context of a protest action,” it said in a press statement.

Late 2022 saw a spate of climate protests targeting art in museums across the world. There has been a recent resurgence in this style of activism. In late January, the Mona Lisa was attacked by the same group at the Louvre in Paris. Hanging inside a bulletproof protective glass case, it was entirely undamaged. Two weeks later, two members of the group Riposte Alimentaire (Food Counterattack) threw soup over Monet’s Spring (1872) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, also in France.

In Italy, two protestors for L’Ultima Generazione pasted photos of extreme flooding over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

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