Edwin Carter Rae (1911-2002)
Eminent scholar of medieval Irish art and architecture, Edwin Carter Rae was born in New Canaan, Connecticut on August 31, 1911. His studies began at Harvard University, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in art history before continuing on to graduate school. During the course of his graduate studies, he worked as an instructor at Brown University and Pembroke College. In 1939 he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He completed his dissertation, Gothic Architecture in Ireland, in 1942 and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1943.
Rae enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in June 1942 and was stationed in the bombardment department of the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics in Orlando, Florida. Following the German surrender, he was transferred to the MFAA in Germany. There, he worked alongside Monuments Men Lt. Col. Daniel J. Kern, Lt. Cdr. J. Hamilton Coulter, and Lt. Craig H. Smyth. In August 1945 he was appointed Chief of the MFAA Section, Restitution Branch, in Bavaria. In this position, Rae supervised work at the various collecting points, signed restitution receipts, and filed reports with headquarters.
One of his chief concerns, however, was the rebuilding of public cultural institutions in Germany. He worked closely with denazified German art scholars and historians to reassemble museum staffs, teaching faculties, and art restoration centers. Rae organized the first exhibition of German art in Germany since the end of the war, which included masterpieces of the German Renaissance by Dürer and Grünewald. Similarly, Rae supervised plans for the creation of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History). Established in the Munich Central Collecting Point at the conclusion of restitution activities, the Institute was intended to serve as a center of advanced study for German scholars and graduate students. It remains today as the only independent art historical research institute in Germany.
For his devoted service to locate and return looted European works of art and other cultural objects to their home countries, Rae was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.
Upon returning from Germany in 1947, Rae resumed his position as Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, becoming Chairman of the Art History department in 1954. In addition to his lectures, he conducted research on Irish architecture and sculpture of the late medieval period, notably the tomb sculpture of the O’Tunney atelier and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. A regular contributor to scholarly journals, he was also the author of the chapter on medieval architecture and sculpture in Oxford’s New History of Ireland 1169-1534 (1987) and worked with Harold G. Leask, Inspector of National Monuments in Ireland, on Leask’s multi-volume Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings (1955). In a gesture of support for his valuable research contribution, Leask dedicated the second volume to this dedicated scholar.
Rae retired from the University of Illinois in 1979. During his nearly forty-year career at the university, he planned multiple modern art exhibits at the university's Krannert Art Museum and expanded the department’s faculty from four to twelve. Before his retirement, he began plans for the creation of a doctoral program in art history, which endures today.
Edwin Rae died in Urbana, Illinois on April 12, 2002.
Today, Rae’s wealth of knowledge has been made available for the next generation of art historians. His extensive collection of photographs of Irish stone monuments are conserved at The Irish Art Research Centre at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. Rae’s collected papers, which include diaries, notes, and photographs detailing his service as a Monuments Man, are available to researchers at the University of Illinois Archives. Of particular note is a photo album depicting activities at the Munich Central Collecting Point, which has been digitized online.
Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, Edwin C. Rae Papers, Record Series 12/3/26.