Theodore Rousseau, Jr. (1912-1973)
Art connoisseur, collector, curator, and historian, Theodore Rousseau, Jr. was born in Freeport, Long Island in 1912. The son of a wealthy French banker, he was exposed to the art world’s elite from a young age. He attended Eton College before studying art at the Sorbonne in Paris and Harvard University. In the years before his enlistment in World War II, he traveled throughout Europe conducting research on medieval French art. He also worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as an assistant curator.
Rousseau began his World War II service as an assistant United States naval attaché to the American embassies in Lisbon and Madrid, Spain. At war’s end he began service with the Office of Strategic Service (OSS) and was assigned to the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU). Responsible for uncovering information regarding Nazi looting, the ALIU was formed in 1944 to function as the intelligence component of the MFAA. Also assigned to the unit were Monuments Men Lt. James S. Plaut and Lt. Cdr. S. Lane Faison, Jr. After months of interrogating hundreds of Nazi officials and collaborators on the whereabouts of looted works of art, each of the three officers submitted in-depth reports regarding the three most important Nazi looting programs: the activities of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in France (Plaut), the collection of Adolf Hitler intended for his massive Führermuseum in Linz, Austria (Faison), and the collection of Hermann Goering (Rousseau). This wealth of intelligence data was supplied to the MFAA and greatly expedited the restitution process for millions of looted works of art and cultural objects. In his report, Rousseau said of Goering, “he was the prototype of all the worst of National Socialism.”
For his wartime service, Rousseau was decorated with the Legion of Merit and named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Letters (France), Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau (the Netherlands), Order of Alfonso X el Sabio (Spain), and Knight Officer of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy.
Upon his return from Europe in 1946, Rousseau began an almost thirty year career with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He rose up the ranks from Associate Curator of Paintings to Chief Curator and eventually Deputy Director. His privileged upbringing afforded social connections useful in acquiring numerous prominent collections for the museum, including the Robert Lehman collection. Shortly after becoming Curator of Paintings, Rousseau introduced the idea of hanging Old Masters next to modern works, an innovation considered radical at the time. Furor was sparked again when he led the Metropolitan in selling several donated paintings from the collection of Adelaide Milton de Groot. Nevertheless, Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan, said that he was “one of the finest professionals in the Metropolitan’s history” while the Board of Trustees referred to him as “one of the finest curators in the history of the museum.”
Shortly before his death, Rousseau became the first curator in the Metropolitan’s history to be elected to the Board of Trustees. He died of cancer on December 31, 1973, just one day before his retirement as Deputy Director and his first official day as a trustee.