Imagine the Louvre without the Mona Lisa, The Winged Victory of Samothrace or Venus de Milo or the Grand Gallery stripped completely bare of masterpieces by Rembrandt and da Vinci. Imagine the Hermitage without its Rembrandts or the Rijksmuseum void of Van Dyck or Vermeer. If you lived in Europe from 1939 to 1945, such was the case. In order to keep Hitler from destroying or looting the world’s masterpieces, museum curators began crating, moving and storing their works of art in caves, abandoned castles and quarries. Most of the major museums closed during the long years of WWII: National Gallery of London, National Gallery of Holland, Tate, the Hermitage and all Paris museums.
Finally, in 1945, Western Allied Forces entered Germany on their final push towards Berlin. Since the major cities in Germany had been destroyed, the focus shifted to locating and restoring the moveable pieces of art back to their owners. These Forces discovered that throughout WWII, Hitler and the Nazis had stored, stashed and buried art treasures in one thousand repositories. These treasures had been stolen from churches, museums and individuals all across Europe.
When the U.S. forces landed in Europe, they assembled a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, and art historians known as the “Monuments Men”. Robert Edsel, in his book Rescuing Da Vinci, tells the story of Nazi theft and the Allied rescue of Europe’s art including hundreds of photographs of those works of art that were recovered as well as the ones that are still missing.
I first read Edsel’s book after it was published in 2006 and was fascinated to learn that many of the incredible works of art that I have seen around the world were at one time in danger of being lost or destroyed. Edsel recounts this valiant effort of the Monuments Men to find these works of art and their perseverance and dedication in seeing these works returned to their rightful owners and museums. There are vintage photos of the curators of the Louvre, Hermitage, and National Gallery rolling up their treasures to be stored such as the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and The Nightwatch by Rembrandt. One photo showes the Tent Hall Room of the Heritage Museum after the removal of the Dutch Old Master collection and the Rembrandt Room completely emptied of the tour-de-force paintings such as Return of the Prodigal Son. The historical photos and documents alone are well worth the purchase of this unique documentation of World World II.
Edsel also includes haunting photos of Hitler in Nuremburg, Linz, and Italy as he begins his reign of terror. Edsel gives background to Hitler’s personal reasons for acquiring these masterpieces as his desire to be an artist at an early age was discouraged by his father. Hitler was also rejected from the Vienna Art Academy in 1907 and remained bitter for the remainder of his life. Consequently, when he became Chancellor of Germany in 1937, he held a “Degenerate art exhibition” to ridicule artists that he felt were racially inferior such as Degas, Van Gogh, Chagall, Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse and Gauguin.
Hitler traveled across Italy and Europe visiting the Louvre, Uffizi, the Hermitage, and the National Gallery to view the paintings that he hoped to add his own personal collection by artists he loved such as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Eyck. He stole Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Artist’s Studio to place in his own museum in Linz, Germany, which he hoped would surpass all the other famous museums.
Fortunately, many European capitals began to protect and preserve their art at the beginning of WWII. For example, the following great masterpieces were entombed or crated:
Last Supper by da Vinci; David and Moses by Michelangelo; Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo at the Louvre. Many of the major museums closed during the war: National Gallery of London, National Gallery of Holland, Tate, the Hermitage and all Paris museums.
Robert Edsel spent over 15 years researching for his book and interviewed soldiers who risked and dedicated their lives to preserving these art treasures. George Clooney has also paid tribute to these heroes in a film coming this December called “Monuments Men” staring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman.
Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Edsel, R. (2006). Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art, America and Her Allies Recovered it. Laurel Publishing: Dallas
- Hitler, Adolph.(1925). Mein Kampf. Franz Eher Nachfolger: Weimar Republic
- Nicholas, Lynn (1995). The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Vintage Books: New York.
- Gellately, Robert, ed. (2004). The Nuremberg Interviews. Alfred a. Knopf: New York.