Like many gifted pupils from humble backgrounds, she received a scholarship in an école normale, a teacher school. She graduated in 1918, with the plan of becoming an art teacher and went on to study art at the École nationale des beaux-arts de Lyon, graduating in 1922. After two years of training in the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, Valland then became a drawing teacher in high schools, but began to study art history in the école du Louvre and the university of Paris. She graduated in 1931 with a special diploma from the école du Louvre and engaged in graduate studies at the collège de France. In 1932,
In 1941 Valland was put in paid service and became the overseer of the Jeu de Paume Museum at the time of the German occupation of France. Through the "Special Staff for Pictorial Art" (Sonderstab Bildende Kunst) of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die besetzten Gebiete (The Reich Leader Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories or ERR) the Germans began the systematic looting of artworks from museums and private art collections throughout France. They used the Jeu de Paume Museum as their central storage and sorting depot pending distribution to various persons and places in Germany.
While the Nazi plundering was being carried out, Rose Valland began secretly recording as much as possible of the more than 20,000 pieces of art brought to the Jeu de Paume Museum. Valland kept secret from the Germans the fact that she understood German. In fact, she never formally studied this language, but some trips in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s had helped her to get a good grasp of a then widely used scholarly language. Valland regularly informed Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musėes Nationaux, about the status of Nazi art looting. In addition, for four years she kept track of where and to whom in Germany the artworks were shipped and risked her life to provide information to the French Resistance about railroad shipments of art so that they would not mistakenly blow up the trains loaded with France's priceless treasures. The museum was visited by high-ranking Nazi officials, and Valland was there when Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring came on 3 May 1941 to personally select some of the stolen paintings for his own private collection.
On August 1944, a few weeks before the Liberation of Paris, Valland learned that the Germans were planning to ship out a last five boxcars full of art, including many of the modern paintings which they had hitherto neglected. She notified her contacts in the Resistance, who prevented the train from leaving Paris. The train was subsequently liberated by the French Army.
Following the liberation of Paris by the Allied Forces, Rose Valland worked as a member of the "Commission for the Recovery of Works of Art" (Commission de Récupération Artistique). Valland was appointed a conservator of the French Musées Nationaux and in 1954 was named Chair of the "Commission for the Protection of Works of Art" (Chef du Service de protection des oeuvres d'art).
In 1961, she wrote about her wartime experiences in a book published under the title, Le front de l'art (republished in 1997). The 1964 John Frankenheimer film The Train was loosely based on her book, and includes a character named "Mlle Villard". Valland's role in preserving the stolen art was discussed as part of the book and documentary, The Rape of Europa.
A number of books have been based on Rose Valland: She was the subject of Corinne Bouchoux's biography Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum (2006); she is a character in Portrait of a Woman in White (2014) by Susan Winkler; in Sara Houghteling's novel, Pictures at an Exhibition (2009), the character of Rose Clément is based on Rose Valland.
Rose was one of the main subjects of Robert M. Edsel's book The Monuments Men (2009) which later served as the basis of a film of the same name. She was an inspiration for the character of Claire Simone, portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the George Clooney-directed film The Monuments Men (2014).
She died on 18 September 1980 and is buried in her hometown of Saint-Etienne-de-Saint-Geoirs. The Association de la Mémoire de Rose Valland is now based in her hometown in her memory.