Herbert Stewart Leonard (1908-1952)
Museum director Herbert Stewart Leonard was born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1908. He studied art history at the University of Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor’s of Philosophy (Ph.B.) in 1930 and a Master’s degree in 1934. In 1932 and 1933, while completing his graduate studies, he was a lecturer at the Stone City Art Colony and School in Stone City, Iowa. Founded by the artist Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame) and museum directors Edward Rowen and Adrian Dornbush, the colony was created to be a haven for American artists in the Midwest. There, Leonard led discussions on modern art and Chicago architecture. In 1934 he moved to Key West, Florida, where he participated in the art initiative of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). He also served as Director of the Key West Art Gallery and Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission. From June 1935 to 1941, he served as the first director of the Zanesville Art Institute in Zanesville, Ohio.
Leonard enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1941 and began basic training at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base (Ft. Warren) in Cheyenne, Wyoming. After attending Officers Candidate School, he returned to Ft. Warren as an instructor in the Officers Replacement Pool. In April 1943 he was named adjutant, and later commanding officer, of the 3rd Battalion, 476th Quartermaster Truck Regiment of the War Department Tactical Motor Vehicle Pool. In the course of his duties, he supplied various military organizations with their authorized vehicular equipment.
In March 1946 Leonard was assigned to the headquarters of the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) in Berlin as an MFAA Specialist Officer. He reported for duty with the MFAA Section, Restitution Division, on April 19, 1946. A bomb-disposal expert, he was responsible for dismantling twenty-two bombs placed around Chartres Cathedral. In Nuremberg on August 30, 1946, he interrogated Hermann Goering about his notorious art looting activities. At the conclusion of the interrogation, he informed Goering for the first time that his prized painting, Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, supposedly painted by Jan Vermeer, was in fact a forgery by Hans van Meegeren. Upon realizing that he had been duped, Leonard said that Goering “looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.”
In 1947 Leonard became Chief of the MFAA Section for Bavaria. In this position, he also served as Director of the Munich Central Collecting Point. From July 1947 to November 1948, he oversaw the sorting, cataloguing, rehabilitation, and eventual restitution of hundreds of thousands of looted works of art and other cultural objects. He resigned from this position in November 1948 in opposition to OMGUS’s decision to return seventeen paintings and one sculpture to the Italian government. While Italian authorities maintained that the collection had been seized by Fascist leaders and gifted to the Nazis, Leonard and many German workers at the collecting point believed the collection had been legitimately purchased by Nazi Germany before 1943. Thus, in their opinion, the Italian government had no right to the collection. Despite his protests, he was overruled. In addition to Leonard’s resignation, similar letters of protest were sent to the U.S. Secretary of State, including a letter signed by thirty-six German staff members at the collecting point along with a letter from a professor at the University of Munich signed by eighty-eight German officials.
Upon his return to the United States in early 1949, Leonard became the assistant director of the City Art Museum of St. Louis (today called the St. Louis Art Museum) serving alongside its director, Perry T. Rathbone. During this time, Leonard published several articles in the museum’s magazine, The St. Louis City Art Museum Bulletin, detailing current exhibitions and profiling numerous leading artists. However, his influence was short-lived, for he died suddenly on May 12, 1952.
Photo courtesy of the Zanesville Times-Recorder Archives.