George Leslie Stout (1897-1978)
Legendary art conservator George Leslie Stout was born in Winterset, Iowa on October 5, 1897. After graduating high school Stout studied at Grinnell College for two years, but left early due to the onset of the First World War. It was then, while serving in a military hospital unit, that Stout first saw the effect that war had on art and culture. After returning to the US he studied art at the University of Iowa, becoming the editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan, and earning a Bachelor’s degree in 1921. He worked as an instructor at the University of Iowa and the University of Pittsburgh before spending two years studying abroad in Europe. In 1926 he enrolled in Harvard University as a Carnegie Fellow, earning a Master’s degree in 1929. As Director of Technical Research at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and part-time Conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, he became a pioneer of scientific techniques in art restoration. Fascinated with the science behind the artistic process, he conducted in-depth laboratory research on color spectroscopy, paint composition, methods of authentication, and the influence of atmospheric conditions on works of art.
In the early days of World War II, Stout learned from his professional contacts in Europe that museums and institutions were evacuating and safeguarding their collections. To duplicate this effort in the United States, Stout helped establish the American Defense Harvard Group, which was instrumental in the formation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, later known as the Roberts Commission.
Stout enlisted in the U.S. Navy in early 1943 and began developing camouflage techniques for military aircraft. He was transferred to the MFAA in June 1944 and served first with U.S. First Army and later with 12th Army Group. Along with Monuments Man Maj. L. Bancel LaFarge, Stout was one of the first Monuments Men to go ashore at Normandy. As the Allies marched through France and Germany, he was near the front lines helping to rescue cultural treasures in places like Caen, Maastricht, and Aachen. His expert knowledge of safe transport for works of art was put to the test repeatedly in evacuations of repositories in Siegen, Heilbronn, Cologne, Merkers, and Altaussee, each time using improvised materials and unskilled labor.
Stout departed Europe at the end of July 1945 and briefly returned to the United States for reassignment. In October he was sent to the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, in Tokyo, Japan. As Chief of the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section, Stout laid the groundwork for the work of the Monuments Men in the Pacific Theater, which eventually included Monuments Men Langdon Warner, Maj. Laurence Sickman, Lt. Richard S. Davis, Capt. Walter D. Popham, Sherman Lee, and Howard Hollis.
The significance of George Stout to not only the MFAA but the preservation of Europe’s cultural patrimony as a whole cannot be overstated. In the words of fellow Monuments Man Capt. Walker Hancock, “I can’t imagine what we would have done without George Stout’s experienced guidance.” According to the records of 12th Army Group, “art treasures of incalculable value were secured and preserved… due to his [Stout’s] energetic and resourceful action.” For his devoted service as a Monuments Man, Stout received the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal.
Following his return to the United Stated in mid-1946, Stout resumed his post at the Fogg Museum. He became Director of the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947 and Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1955 until his retirement in 1970. He was a member of the American Antiquarian Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, and participated in multiple international conferences on conservation. His many publications, which remain today at the cornerstone of art conservation research, include Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts (editor, 1932-42), Color and Light in Painting (editor, 1941), Painting Materials, A Short Encyclopedia (1942), The Care of Pictures (1948), and Treasures from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (1969).
George Stout died in Stanford, California in June 1978.
Photo courtesy of the Walker Hancock Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, the National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.