This Friday, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the end of World War II. In the BMA collection, we have a close connection to WWII, both in our history and our art. We have two works in our collection that were saved by the Monuments men and our first director was a Monuments men himself.
The Monuments men were a group of 350 men and women from thirteen nations, who volunteered for military service to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of WWII. In civilian life, many were museum directors, curators, artists, architects and educators. You may be familiar with their stories after seeing the movie Monuments Men, which was in theaters this spring.
The first director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Richard Howard, was one of those heroes. He, along with many others, worked furiously and secretively to track, locate, and ultimately return more than 5 million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.
Among the objects rescued are two beloved pieces that now hang in the European galleries at the Birmingham Museum of Art as part of our permanent collection. Entrée d’un Gave, 1876, by Gustave Courbet, is a stunning landscape painting, renowned for the artist’s use of texture and visual drama. In the painting, Courbet recalls the striking topography of his native region in eastern France, as he created the piece while living in political exile on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The piece became a part of the Museum’s collection in 1999.
The second piece is Les Portraits de MM. De Béthune Jouant avec un Chien (Children of the Marquis de Béthune Playing with a Dog), 1761, by François Hubert Drouais. This painting perfectly characterizes Drouais’s work and the playful, lighthearted temperament of the Rococo period. Since this piece is such a fine example of the period, it was stolen during WWII to be added as a piece to Hitler’s Führermuseum. This museum was planned as a place to keep all of the artwork stolen by the Nazis after the war; however, this plan was never full realized. After the war, the piece was rescued and returned to its original owner. The piece entered the Museum’s collection in 1991.
Although we can’t be sure that Richard Howard had direct interaction with our pieces in particular, we are honored to have a permanent reminder of his and others unprecedented contribution in preserving some of the world’s most precious cultural treasures.