Deane Keller (1901-1992)
Born in New Haven in 1901, Keller later attended Yale, where his father had been a sociology professor. He earned degrees in history and science in 1923, and a B.F.A. from the Yale School of Fine Arts in 1926. Awarded the Prix de Rome in 1926 as well, Keller studied at the American Academy in Rome for three years before beginning his career as a professor at his alma mater, where he taught for forty years. He also worked as a portrait artist, dubbed the “unofficial portraitist of the Yale faculty”, as he painted nearly 200 commissions from the university. In addition to these paintings, Keller painted portraits of President Herbert Hoover, Senator Robert Taft, and Gov. John Davis Lodge, as well as a mural at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
From 1943 to 1946 Keller served as a MFAA officer with U.S. 5th Army in Italy, working to protect and salvage art and monuments at each location he visited. He sometimes arrived only hours after a town’s capture, witnessing the worst of the devastation and the despair of citizens. Keller, along with fellow MFAA officer Lt. Frederick Hartt, was part of the team that triumphantly returned the Florentine museum treasures to the city in 1945. Arguably his most valiant effort was made in Pisa at the ancient cemetery structure called Campo Santo. Inside the enormous Gothic building, which flanks the Pisa Cathedral opposite the Leaning Tower, frescoes made in the 14th and 15th centuries had been severely damaged from fire caused during the battle for the city. Keller quickly moved to save these artworks, bringing in a team to salvage and conserve as much of the frescoes as possible.
Upon his return, Keller resumed teaching at Yale until his retirement in 1970, and was also a professor emeritus of painting at Paier College of Art in Hamden, Connecticut.
For his extraordinary efforts in art recovery he received several awards, including the United States Legion of Merit, the Member of the British Empire medal, the Crown of Italy Partisan Medal, the Medal of the Opera from Pisa, and the Order of St. John the Lateran from the Vatican. He died in 1992 in Hamden, CT. In 2000, he was buried at Campo Santo in Pisa, in recognition of his extraordinary wartime efforts in Italy with honors from the United States, Italy, and the Roman Catholic Church.
Keller’s wife donated his papers, including photographs taken during his MFAA service, to Yale University (Deane Keller Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library).
Photo courtesy of the Walter Gleason Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.