Those Williams Monuments Men
“The successful activities of these few men is out of all proportion to their number and their position within the military machine. The task was nothing less than to preserve as much as they could of man’s creative past.”
—Report of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, 1946
It was a time for showing physical bravery and bravura connoisseurship, an unlikely pairing. This was the dynamic duo necessary for the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA) of the Allied forces in Western Europe. Williams professors and alumni S. Lane Faison Jr. ’29 and Charles Parkhurst ’35, as well as professors Kenneth Lindsay, Lecturer Andrew Ritchie, Visiting Professor Charles Mitchell, and Visiting Lecturer Ellis Waterhouse all played real life parts in the now cinematically captured story of The Monuments Men. George Clooney’s feature film includes moments of surprise attacks by the enemy while stopping for a cigarette and instances of the assertive connoisseurship necessary to recognize that a faux-seeming Cézanne on the wall of a German farmhouse breakfast room was, indeed, a Cézanne, one missing from the Rothschild collection, in fact.
Clooney’s film is based on Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name. Matt Damon plays Lt. James Rorimer, Parkhurst’s immediate supervisor who spent his entire career (outside of the war) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; he became its Director in 1955.
Faison’s role was as one of the three OSS (Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA) officers known as the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU). The unit researched and reported directly back to the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, better known as the Roberts Commission. The trio was in search of Hitler’s grand scheme for Nazi looted art and for the Führermuseum to be built in Linz, Austria. (A model of the museum is shown in the movie.) Faison was hand-picked by Francis Henry Taylor, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to work alongside James Plaut and Theodore Rousseau. While Faison focused on the Führermuseum, Plaut reported on the activities of Alfred Rosenberg’s Nazi looting task force and Rousseau uncovered the story behind Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s ill-gotten personal art collection.
Faison arrived in Germany at the end of the war in spring 1945 after training in Washington and London. He had enlisted in the navy in fall of 1942. Straight from his teaching post at Williams, he was first assigned to teach aircraft and ship recognition to pilots. But the OSS had better plans for him involving duty in Europe requiring knowledge of art. Right by the Altaussee salt mine, near Salzburg, Austria, an interrogation center had been set up to question suspects involved in Nazi art looting. Among them, Faison interrogated Hitler’s primary art dealer Karl Haberstock, the director of the Führermuseum Hermann Voss, Göring’s curator Walter Andreas Hofer, and Göring’s wife. It turned out that Altaussee was the main repository for works destined for the Führermuseum.
Faison’s report “Linz: Hitler’s Museum and Library” presented Hitler’s plan to “bring art under the shadow of the Swastika.” In it, he identified the key figures behind the operation both within and beyond the Nazi party and detailed their acquisition methods and sources. The lists of looted works and key figures compiled by Faison’s ALIU became the major sources for Monuments officers in their search for the stolen art.
After the war, when Faison was back at Williams teaching and running WCMA, an exhibition came to the museum of works from private Dutch collections that had been pillaged by the Nazis, Paintings Looted from Holland. Faison was all too familiar with these works and had been instrumental in getting the exhibition to travel to Williamstown along with twelve other more notable cities. Faison returned to Europe to become the last director of the Munich Central Collecting Point for nine months in 1950-1951. In that role, he oversaw the last American attempts to repatriate works of art. He then returned to his key position as mentor to what would become the Williams Art Mafia, teaching for forty years and directing WCMA from 1948 until 1976. After his retirement in 1976, he made a few appearances in art history classes to indoctrinate the new art history majors (myself among them) on the subject of the primacy of the art object but rarely spoke of his wartime heroism.
Parkhurst, by contrast, was a member of the MFAA, or, as they were sometimes called, one of the “Venus Fixers.” He had gone to Williams after starting out college at Oberlin, where he grew up. Parkhurst became a research assistant at the National Gallery of Art, alongside Craig Hugh Smyth, under whom he would serve in the MFAA in Germany. When war broke out, Parkhurst volunteered for the Navy and served as a gunnery officer in the Mediterranean. In 1943, Parkhurst was recommended for the art recovery group soon after its creation by the Roberts Commission. He became deputy chief of the MFAA in Germany right after the war. During that period, the group protected, preserved, or returned more than five million artifacts and artworks to their rightful owners.
Parkhurst recalled in an interview in 1982, “Germans are very methodical in general and by training and habit and they kept very good records—even the looters kept good records and they’d loot stuff from Italy, France, wherever, pack it in cases very well, and then make complete and thorough lists of the contents of each package and mark the boxes. So we just would spot-check crates. . . . Then we would check museums. ‘Where is your art?’ We would get tales from all kinds of German sources as to where these things were. The French knew a good deal about the locations, who had done what to whom, and the Dutch were there and the Belgians were there. So among these international people assembled we were able to get a great deal of information and pinpoint on the map some 1,036—I remember the number—repositories—some of it German art that had to be protected; some of it looted art which had generally been sequestered in salt mines and castles in certain locations.”As Clooney’s movie presents, treasures such as Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna were held in the salt mines near Altaussee, and the Rothschild collection was found at Neuschwanstein Castle. As the MFAA approached Neuschwanstein, Parkhurst recognized a bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais sitting abandoned by German troops in the snowy forest outside the castle. It seems to have been too heavy for the Germans to bring up the mountain, so they left it there. While Clooney’s film shows a scene of MFAA officers coming upon Rodin’s Burghers, he presents it as abandoned in the courtyard of the castle, rather than in the more distant forest. Parkhurst also convinced the caretaker of Neuschwanstein to tell him where the Bavarian crown jewels were hidden (deep inside a massive tower accessible only through a fake wall in the castle covered with shelves of jars in the pantry).
Parkhurst had been one of the Monuments Men who signed the Wiesbaden Manifesto, a letter that refused an order to move German-owned artworks from a collecting point in Wiesbaden to the United States under the guise of “protective custody,” the same term the Nazis had used to loot art from other countries in the first place. When the navy tried to pressure the signers of the Wiesbaden Manifesto with the possibility of court-martial if they did not comply with their orders, Colonel Henry McBride, who was among the chief officers and who knew Parkhurst personally, summoned the young officer to his room in Frankfurt and told Parkhurst that he could not afford to take the position he was taking. When Parkhurst asked “Why not?” he was told “You have a wife and two children;” Parkhurst reported that he “turned on [his] heel and walked out” and that he didn’t “sit still for treatment like that.”
When Parkhurst was discharged from the navy in 1946, he went to work at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo (today, known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) as an assistant curator under Andrew Ritchie, another Monuments man and soon-to-be Williams lecturer. Later, in 1949, he returned to Oberlin as their Chair of Fine Arts and Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. In 1962, he became Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art; in 1970, he was appointed Assistant Director and Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Art. It was upon retiring from the Gallery in 1983 that Parkhurst came to Williams to teach and to serve as deputy director of special projects at WCMA. He left Williams to become director of the Smith College Museum of Art in 1992.
The other Williams-related Monuments officers included Andrew Ritchie, who was a civilian with the rank equivalent to a colonel. Parkhurst recalled that Ritchie had been the one responsible for taking Vermeer’s famous The Art of Painting back to Vienna in a night coach “nursing it like a baby all night to make sure it didn’t jiggle or anything happen to it.” By Ritchie’s own report, he “locked himself in a sleeping compartment with the picture and a splendid picnic of pheasant and Burgundy supplied by a French colleague.” Ritchie was a Scottish-born art historian who emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. After early work at the Frick Collection, he became Director of the Albright in Buffalo in 1942. Following his MFAA service, he became Director of the Painting and Sculpture Department at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949 and Director of the Yale University Art Gallery in 1957. He came to lecture at Williams after retiring in 1971.
Charles Mitchell, another MFAA man, was a Clark Professor at Williams in 1982 after his retirement from his post as professor of art history at Bryn Mawr. This British art historian also served in naval intelligence. Mitchell claimed his years of art-historical training helped with his analysis of German uniforms during the war.
Williams Professor Kenneth Lindsay was assigned to the Wiesbaden Collecting Point after being drafted, serving with signal intelligence, and marching through France. Lindsay uncrated the ancient Egyptian Bust of Queen Nefertiti at Wiesbaden and noted that “within an instant, every man in there fell hopelessly in love with her—that face—absolutely beautiful.” After teaching art history at Williams from the end of the war until 1951, he left for SUNY Binghamton.
Finally, British art historian and Williams College lecturer Sir Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse joined the MFAA in 1945 and worked on restitution efforts in Holland. While there, he identified a painting attributed to Vermeer as a fake. That version of the Supper at Emmaus (then at the Museum Boymans in Rotterdam), along with another fake Vermeer in Hermann Göring’s collection, led to the exposure of Vermeer forger Hans Van Meegeren. Waterhouse’s long career included stints at the British, Scottish and American national galleries; Oxford University; and the Yale Center for British Art.
WCMA is among several museums, including the Met, The National Archives, the Smithsonian, and the Worcester Art Museum Library, that are presenting special Monuments Men-related programs or exhibitions. The National Gallery of Art currently has a small documents exhibition The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art in their Founders Room that includes several photographs and papers from the Charles Parkhurst papers housed there.
Most importantly, on March 7th, please join Lane Faison’s son, Gordon, and Charles Parkhurst’s wife, Carol Clark, for WCMA’s own Monuments Men program, an evening of storytelling and reminiscing hosted by WCMA Director Christina Olsen. It’s sure to be illuminating regarding Venus Fixers and WCMA and Williams Art Mafia builders!
For more information see:
The Monuments Men Foundation website www.monumentsmenfoundation.org.
Nancy H. Yeide and Patricia A. Teter-Schneider, “S. Lane Faison, Jr. + Art Under the Shadow of the Swastika,” Archives of American Art Journal 47: 3-4, p.30.
Oral history interview with Charles Parkhurst, 1982 October 27, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
—Jane R. Becker, WCMA blog writer