The Monuments Men

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Ernest T. DeWald ( 1891–1968 )

Museum director and eminent scholar of medieval and Renaissance art, Ernest T. DeWald was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on September 18, 1891. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers University in 1911, he continued his studies at Princeton University, where he received a Master’s degree in 1914 and a Ph.D. in 1916. During World War I, he served as a lieutenant in the Infantry and was later appointed Assistant Military Attaché in the American Legations at Berne and Warsaw. Following his return to the United States, he taught briefly at both Rutgers and Columbia. He then became Associate Professor of Art at Princeton in 1925 and full Professor in 1939.

In 1943 DeWald took a leave of absence from Princeton to join the U.S. Army. He began work in northern Africa pinpointing monuments with historic or artistic importance to U.S. troops and officers involved in the forthcoming invasion of Italy. He then served as Director of the MFAA Subcommission of the Allied Control Commission in Italy from 1943 to 1946 first as a major, and later as a lieutenant-colonel. In his March 23, 1944 statement to the Secretary General of the Allied Control Commission, DeWald explained the mission of the MFAA:

To prevent as far as possible destruction of and damage to historical monuments, buildings, works of art and historical records in Italy; to safeguard and preserve them, and to give first-aid in repairs when needed; and to assist in the recovery and restitution to their rightful owners of any works of art which have been looted, removed, or otherwise misappropriated.

As the Allied invasion of Italy advanced, DeWald accompanied U.S. Armed Forces through Sicily and the Italian mainland. In addition to supervising the emergency repair of damaged monuments, his duties also included locating and returning art that had been hidden for safekeeping by the various Italian museums in locations across the Italian countryside. Among the innumerable damaged buildings he inspected in Italy was Monte Cassino, the historic abbey severely damaged by Allied bombing based on the misguided assumption that the monastery was being used by German defenders.

In early 1944 DeWald was named Director of the MFAA in Rome. There, he prepared The Soldier’s Guide to Rome, a small guidebook designed to familiarize American soldiers with the cultural value of the ancient treasures of Rome. This guidebook also served as a reminder that “the eyes of all the world are upon our actions in the “Eternal City”, and we will show the world by our example the high standard of conduct and bearing of our victorious Allied Armies.” In 1945 DeWald was transferred to MFAA operations in Austria, where he supervised the return to Italy of a collection of paintings and sculptures looted from Monte Cassino by the Hermann Goering Panzer Division and intended for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

By the time he returned home to the United States in early 1946, DeWald reported that “all of the movable works of art in important Italian collections, with the exception of eighteen paintings, had survived the war undamaged.” He returned to his position as Professor of Art at Princeton, where he taught a popular course on Italian painting. Also in 1946, he wrote the introduction to Henry La Farge’s book, Lost Treasures of Europe, a photographic documentation of art and architecture lost during the war. In 1947 he was named Director of the Princeton University Art Museum, where he remained until his retirement in 1960. During his tenure as Director, he undertook the cleaning of numerous Old Master paintings in the museum’s collection. His own self-taught knowledge of conservation techniques was a product of not only his work as a Monuments Man but his continued correspondence with leading conservator and fellow Monuments Man George L. Stout.

In 1967 DeWald was named a member of the United States National Advisory Committee to the National Committee to Rescue Italian Art after floods severely damaged Florence. A prolific scholar of medieval illuminated manuscripts and early Italian painting, he wrote numerous articles and books, including The Stuttgart Psalter (1930), Pietro Lorenzetti (1930), The Illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter (1932) and Italian Painting 1200-1600 (1961). He received numerous awards during his lifetime, including the Knight of the Crown of Belgium on behalf of King Leopold for arranging a Belgian art exhibition in 1937. For his service with the MFAA, DeWald was awarded multiple international honors, including the Order of the British Empire (1946), the U.S. Legion of Merit (1946), and the Stella della Solidarieta by the Italian Government (1951).

Ernest DeWald died on October 6, 1968. Today, his papers are conserved in the Rare Books and Special Collections of Firestone Library at Princeton University.