Craig Hugh Smyth (1915-2006)
Professor and scholar of Italian Renaissance art, Craig Hugh Smyth was born on July 28, 1915. He learned to play several musical instruments from a young age, including the saxophone, trombone, and clarinet. In 1933, at the age of seventeen, he conducted an orchestra aboard the passenger ship S.S. President Roosevelt during one of its crossings to Europe. His interest in art history dates from his years of study at Princeton University, where he earned an A.B. in 1938, an M.F.A. in 1941, and a Ph.D. in 1956. Prior to the war, he worked as a researcher and senior museum aide at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II, the National Gallery began preparations to move its most important works of art to safety at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. After assisting with the evacuations in January 1942 Smyth served as curator of the collection during its temporary storage at the Biltmore. He monitored the condition of the paintings, controlled the atmospheric conditions of the storage rooms, and supervised the guards.
In 1942 Smyth enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserves and served as an instructor first at Newport Naval Training Base and later at the U.S. Navy Reserve Midshipmen's School at Columbia University. In April 1945 he was selected for service with the MFAA. He arrived in Europe alongside fellow USNR Monuments Officer Lt. Cdr. Thomas Carr Howe, Jr. in May 1945. The pair reported to Monuments Man Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, head of the MFAA Section at SHAEF Headquarters at Versailles, and were assigned to SHAEF’s G-5 Division (Civil Affairs). After two weeks of training, they were sent to Wiesbaden, Germany. There, Smyth was assigned to the Bavarian Regional Military Government and tasked with establishing the Munich Central Collecting Point, the largest storage depot for works of art and other cultural objects looted by the Nazis during the war.
Smyth arrived in Munich on June 4, 1945 and served as Officer-in-charge at the collecting point until April 1946. The collecting point was established in the Führerbau and the Verwaltungsbau, buildings that had once served as Hitler’s office, and the
headquarters of the Nazi Party, respectively. Under Smyth’s leadership, the collecting point became an organized and efficient institution that received tens of thousands of artworks and objects, including Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, Vermeer’s Astronomer and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. For his efforts to recover and restitute looted artworks during and after World War II, Smyth was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. He was awarded the U.S. Army Commendation Medal and the Netherlands Medal for Service to the States.
Soon after his return to the United States in 1946, Smyth held prominent positions at some of the nation’s greatest cultural institutions. He was a lecturer at the Frick Collection in New York and later Director of The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In 1973 he became Professor and Director of Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s prestigious Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. After retiring from Villa I Tatti as Professor Emeritus in 1985, he remained active with The American Academy in Rome and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
A devoted academician, Smyth wrote and edited many publications, including Mannerism and Maneira (1963), Bronzino as Draughtsman (1971), Michelangelo Architetto (1988), and The Early Years of Art History in the United States (1993). In 1988 he published Repatriation of Art from the Collection Point in Munich After World War II, a firsthand account of his work as a Monuments Man. He was an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, Chairman of the advisory committee for the J. Paul Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, and a member of the U.S. National Committee for the History of Art.
Craig Smyth died on December 22, 2006 in Englewood, New Jersey. The Craig Hugh Smyth Papers, including photographs and documents detailing his MFAA service, are conserved in the Gallery Archives of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.