WASHINGTON, D.C. — The film The Monuments Men (debuting February 7), based on Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, dramatizes the efforts and successes of an unlikely group of aesthetes in uniform. In peacetime, many were art historians, curators, archivists and librarians who staffed cultural institutions such as National Gallery of Art, which was in its infancy when the war broke out.
The officers who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program rescued masterpieces from Nazi thieves during the chaos of liberation. Prior to the war, six of these officers were associated with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and in later years three held important positions at the museum. Perhaps more important, even before the MFAA operation was established, the gallery was the center of lobbying efforts to create such a program and later, in association with the Roberts Commission, worked tirelessly to support MFAA activities in the field.
“The gallery is proud to have played such an integral role in the story of these real-life Monuments Men,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “These men — and women — worked to protect Europe’s cultural heritage at the height of World War II, ensuring its safety in the aftermath and returning works, when possible, to their rightful owners once peace and security were restored.”
On Sunday, March 16, at 2 pm, the gallery will host the lecture, “Inside Story: The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art” detailing its relationship with the Monuments Men of the MFAA. Speakers will include Maygene Daniels, chief of Gallery Archives; Gregory Most, the gallery’s chief of library image collections; and Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Faya Causey, head of the academic programs department, will moderate. The event is free and open to all and the audience is invited to participate in an open discussion afterwards.
During the time period detailed in the Monuments Men, the gallery sent its most fragile and irreplaceable objects to Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., less than a year after it opened. They remained there until 1944. Meanwhile, the National Gallery in London had long since stripped its walls and secured its most important works in Welsh coal mines. An exhibition of late Eighteenth–Nineteenth Century French masterpieces organized by the Louvre was left stranded in South America; through the efforts of Walter Heil, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the show was resuscitated for a tour of museums in the United States, including the National Gallery of Art, where the collection remained from 1942 until the end of the war.
Troubles in Europe left the cultural communities in both the United States and abroad disquieted at best, panicked at worst. Amid the air of uncertainty and uproar that engulfed academics, artists, historians and museum professionals alike, the American Defense-Harvard Group — established by university faculty and personnel — began working with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to devise plans for protecting cultural property in Europe. Gallery Director David Finley and Chief Justice and Gallery Chairman Harlan F. Stone became the groups’ spokesmen in Washington, an advocacy that ultimately led to the formation of a government organization to protect and conserve works of art and other cultural treasures during the war.
In December 1942, Stone took their proposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, in turn, created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. Later the commission’s scope was expanded to include all war areas. He appointed Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts as chairman; hence, the new group became known as the Roberts Commission.
Throughout the war, the gallery provided offices and staff for the Roberts Commission and was deeply involved in its activities: Finley served as vice chairman and de facto head; the gallery’s Secretary and General Counsel Huntington Cairns was secretary; Chief Curator (and Finley’s eventual successor as director) John Walker was a special advisor.
The MFAA’s officers bravely followed frontline troops into war zones. Among them were Lieutenant Charles P. Parkhurst Jr, the gallery’s former registrar and eventual assistant director, and Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Captain Edith Standen, secretary to the Widener Collection, the great gift of donor Joseph P. Widener that had only recently been installed in the museum’s galleries.
“The finding [of looted art] was either easy or accidental,” Parkhurst told a Gallery oral historian 45 years after his service in the MFAA. “Usually we had clues from shippers, from local residents who said, ‘Well, there’s something funny about that castle’.”
Chasing one such rumor, Parkhurst happened upon a full-sized cast of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” 1884–95, which German soldiers en route to Baden had been forced to abandon on a mountainside. Parkhurst continued up the mountain to the castle at its peak and found room upon room of plundered art. “The owner of the castle gave me a cup of tea and a list of the objects. [He] said, ‘I’ve been wondering how long it would take you guys to get here!’”
For her part, Edith Standen dug up an antique bronze cannon with her own bare hands. The Nazis had taken the priceless mortar from Paris — where it had been since Napoleon captured it more than a century before — and buried it in Stuttgart shortly before the Allies arrived. “I was delighted to [have been] able to give the cannon back,“ she later said, though the gesture was tinged with controversy. Some felt that the cannon should remain in Stuttgart because that was where it had been cast in the late Sixteenth Century. “Of course [the idea] was rubbish,” she said. “It had been taken from the Musée de l’Armée. It went back to the Musée de l’Armée.”
The 202 — as a group of Berlin paintings were popularly called — arrived in Washington in 1945 under military escort and remained there until 1948. The gallery put the 202 on view with very little ceremony, but within hours, visitors flooded in. For 40 days, the line often wrapped around the block. The exhibition drew in 964,970 people, an unprecedented number at the time. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about these works or trying to catch a glimpse, from President Harry S. Truman, who dropped in twice, to Clara Bryant Ford (the wife of Henry Ford) and John D. Rockefeller. All 202 works were returned to Germany: the most fragile paintings went directly back, while the others were sent on a tour of a dozen cities first.
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.nga.gov or 202-737-4215.