Art lovers flocking to local movie theaters to the see actors George Clooney and Matt Damon in “The Monuments Men” — a film that focuses on a military team of art experts who saved Europe’s fine art during World War II — may be surprised that the art used to train several actual members of that team is currently on view in the exhibition “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum.”
Here is the back story. It is 1939 and World War II begins in Europe. Hitler’s plan for Europe includes plundering masterpieces and cultural monuments from conquered nations and destroying what he considers “decadent art.”
President Roosevelt responds to concerns regarding the destruction of European cultural artifacts and art by approving the 1943 American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monument in War Areas.
The result is the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Service, a division of nearly 400 volunteer art specialists dispatched to Europe to help protect world heritage art.
Allied Force Commander Dwight Eisenhower captures the effort’s spirit in a letter to his commanders: “Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which their civilization helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect these monuments so far as war allows.”
One of the first challenges for the MFAA is during the liberation of Italy. To help Allied troops understand the effort, the pamphlet “A Soldier’s Guide to Rome” is created by Lt. Col. Ernest DeWald.
More than a soldier, DeWald received his Ph.D. in art history from Princeton and studied with Allan Marquand, the man who helped to build the university’s nationally recognized Italian art collection.
The guide’s introduction states, “Let us remember that Rome is the first capital city to be entered by us in our task of liberating Europe. Rome is the heritage of all the world and not only of Italy — Rome is the fountain of civilization. The eyes of all the world are upon our actions in the ‘Eternal City,’ and we will show the world by our example the high standard of conduct and bearing of our victorious Allied Armies.”
“Few institutions in the United States are more connected with the history and legacy of the Monuments Men than the Princeton University Art Museum,” notes current art museum director James Steward, who adds that two former museum directors served as Monuments Men (but are not characters in the film).
One predecessor was DeWald, who joined the MFAA when he was in his 50s and later served as museum director from 1947 to 1960. The other is Patrick Kelleher, who received an M.F.A. from Princeton in 1942 and led the military division involved with recovery of stolen art. He served as museum director from 1960 to 72.
While Kelleher turned toward the future and brought contemporary sculpture to the campus, DeWald continued to serve Italian art. He wrote the introduction for the 1946 book “Lost Treasures of Europe,” authored the 613 page book “Italian Painting: 1200-1600,” and participated in the rescue of art after the 1966 Arno River flood in Florence.
Princeton’s other Monuments Men, Steward writes, were S. Lane Faison (Graduate Class of 1932), Craig Hugh Smyth (Class of 1938, Graduate Class of 1956), and Charles Parkhurst (Graduate Class of 1941), as well as Robert Koch (Graduate Classes of 1949 and 1954). Koch “went on to teach at Princeton for forty-two years and was the last of our surviving Monuments Men, dying only two years ago,” writes Steward.
With a devotion to art and participation in two World Wars, DeWald perhaps provides the most tested voice of memory. A 2010 Princeton Alumni Magazine notes that his wartime diary in the Firestone Library contains “the excitement and danger of these tumultuous times. Air-raid sirens howled as he reconnoitered medieval towns for endangered art. DeWald often came upon Army engineering units bulldozing fallen buildings out of roadways, using the debris to patch holes in blown-up bridges — until he frantically waved them to stop, pointing out fragments of historic sculpture, fresco, and manuscripts mingled with the rubble” — scenes worthy of the film that captures the times of this unusual wartime effort.
Less cinematic is the emotion that this soldier fighting for art shares. “The loss or destruction of these prized heritages of the past becomes in fact a personal loss comparable to that of a friend,” writes DeWald in “Lost Treasures.”
Fortunately his other “friends” are safe and waiting at the Princeton University Art Museum to remind visitors of what the struggle was about. They also are a reminder that art matters so much that men and women will put their lives on the line to share it with the world.
— Dan Aubrey