Editor’s Note: This Memorial Day, we again remember ‘The Monuments Men’ and their invaluable work to locate and save European art looted by the Nazis during World War II as well as their continued efforts to conserve and preserve art after the war, including art at Historic Kenmore. This post originally appeared on Lives & Legacies on May 20, 2015.
Recently, while flipping through old files of the Kenmore Association dating back to the 1920s and looking for anything related to our portrait of Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston (ca. 1765), I spotted a familiar name: George Stout. It took me only a moment to realize why the name was familiar. Those of you who read Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History or saw the movie The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray may also recognize the name.
During World War II, George Stout was a member of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, nicknamed the “Monuments Men.” These soldiers volunteered to leave their jobs as curators, historians and conservators to travel the frontlines in Europe, documenting, cataloging and in some cases saving priceless cultural artifacts in harm’s way. Along with serving as a Monuments Man, Stout is widely considered the father of modern methods in art conservation in the museum world. He’s kind of a rock star to all of us who work in museums, as are all of the Monuments Men. It is not often that curators get to be the hero, but those men were.
After the war, many of the Monuments Men returned to their museum jobs where they continued to work together, revolutionizing the care and conservation of artwork and historic objects. They established standards for conservation practices, ethics for conservators, and tested new scientific methods for preserving all varieties of artwork. Perhaps their greatest legacy was that many of them established schools for training conservators, ensuring the future of the field. For the first time, American museums had a cadre of experts to turn to when masterpieces in their collections needed help.
Kenmore’s old files perfectly reveal the post-war story of George Stout and the Monuments Men. It’s a story that also involves numerous other luminaries of the art conservation world such as John Walker, Harold Cross, Sheldon and Caroline Keck, and Russell Quandt.
It all started in 1949, when John Walker, then Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Art, visited Kenmore. His visit moved him to write a letter to Kenmore’s own Louise DuPont Crowninshield, praising the Kenmore Association for its work in saving the property and for its fine collection, which included the Wollaston portrait of Fielding Lewis. Mr. Walker felt very strongly that the Wollaston portrait was in need of immediate conservation treatment. He recommended a young man named Harold Cross, the new restorer at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for the project.
John Walker was not a Monuments Man but he was heavily involved in the complicated and tedious post-war effort to identify artwork looted by the Nazis. This brought him in close contact with many of the Monuments Men over several decades. He suggested the Kenmore Association contact George Stout, then at the Worcester Museum of Art, to get a personal testimonial as to Harold Cross’s abilities. Cross apprenticed under George Stout, receiving training in Stout’s scientific methodology. Mrs. Crowninshield contacted Stout, who highly recommended his former student. Cross performed the first ever restoration of the ca. 1765 Wollaston portrait. The post-war Monuments Men network had made its first mark at Kenmore by saving our only image of Fielding Lewis.
The next involvement of the Monuments Men with the Wollaston portrait came in 1952, when the ladies of the Kenmore Association became concerned that the portrait was warping at an alarming rate. Through personal connections, they learned that Sheldon and Caroline Keck would be visiting Colonial Williamsburg in January. Sheldon Keck was a former Monuments Man and the chief restorer at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; his wife Caroline was also a restoration specialist at the same museum. Together, they trained more than 150 conservators before they retired.
Their presence in Virginia was fortuitous, and the decision was made to pack up the Wollaston and have Executive Director Mary Mason take it directly to Williamsburg. Mr. and Mrs. Keck agreed to take a look at the painting, and apparently performed their treatment of it in their hotel room, “re-keying” the wooden stretcher so as to tighten the canvas and reduce the warp. The Kecks did not charge for their emergency services “in the field”, rather they indicated that it was their pleasure to assist in the preservation of such an important work.
Finally, in 1957, the Wollaston portrait’s care was passed on to the capable hands of another heir to the Monuments Men legacy. When new preservation issues surfaced, the Kecks recommended a former student of theirs, Russell Quandt, examine the painting. Over the next decade, Mr. Quandt would be the primary conservator of the portrait, performing treatments on it both on-site at Kenmore, at his lab at the Corcoran, and eventually at his own private-practice studio.
All told, the Monuments Men were either directly responsible, or had trained those responsible, for the preservation of Kenmore’s Wollaston portrait for almost 20 years. It can be argued that they continue in that role today, as we hire conservators whose professional training has been a direct result of the methods, systems and institutions established by them. Many of today’s conservators are still inspired by the wartime service of the Monuments Men. As Memorial Day approaches, the museum world in both Europe and in this country owes them an immense debt of gratitude.
Visit http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/ to learn more about George Stout and Sheldon Keck, their comrades, and their wartime work.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations