The Frick During World War II

Frick Art Reference Library

Selections from the Archives

The Frick During World War II
This online exhibition presents maps, correspondence, photographs, and reports that document three compelling narratives of our institutional history from the World War II era: "Maps for Monuments Men," "Safeguarding The Frick Collection," and "Overseas Connections."
Maps for Monuments Men
During World War II, the Frick Art Reference Library played a pivotal role in the international effort to identify and protect monuments and works of art in Europe from damage and destruction by armed forces. Helen Clay Frick, the founder and Director of the Library, invited the Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas to take up residence at the Library from 1943 to 1945. Working alongside art historians and other experts on the Committee, Frick librarians and photographers prepared maps detailing the location of many art treasures and landmarks throughout Europe.  

Letter from Francis Henry Taylor, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Helen Clay Frick, founder and Director of the Frick Art Reference Library, announcing that the Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas has accepted Miss Frick’s offer to put the facilities of the Library at the disposal of the Committee.

One of the maps created by the Committee at the Library, marking the locations of art treasures and monuments in Pisa, accompanied by an index.

Aerial photograph of Pisa after bombing, showing damage and bomb craters at railroad yards in the foreground and undamaged historic monuments to the north, which had been identified on the map prepared by the Committee.

Letter from Waldo Leland, Director of the American Council of Learned Societies, to Helen Clay Frick expressing his approval of the implementation of the project after a visit to the Library.

Encouraged by the work of the Committee and other private groups, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe (known as the Roberts Commission), on June 23, 1943. The Roberts Commission created the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives military section, a group of men and women with art expertise, later known as the Monuments Men. The maps and lists of cultural treasures prepared by the Committee were distributed by the Roberts Commission to the Allied forces, including the Monuments Men.

State Department press release announcing President Roosevelt's establishment of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe (also known as the Roberts Commission).

Letter from Sumner Crosby, Executive Secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies, updating Miss Frick on the activities of the Committee. Discusses the production of handbooks for military officers that will include the maps the Library helped create.

V-mail letter from Theodore Sizer, Monuments Man, reporting from the field, describing the usefulness of the maps.

Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas report discussing the production of maps at the Frick Art Reference Library.

Transcription of newspaper article describing “treasure maps” prepared by the Frick Art Reference Library and used by Allied bomber crews.

William Dinsmoor, chairman of the ACLS, comparing a U.S. Air Force photograph taken during a bombing attack to a keyed city map of Pisa and lists of the principal cultural monuments of the city.

Bill Burke and Jane Mull, members of the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas at the ACLS, working at the Frick Art Reference Library with Gladys Hamlin, draftswoman, on a map of Paris.

Excerpt of letter from Dinsmoor to Miss Frick discussing the reliance of the ground and air forces on the "Frick maps" and expressing thanks for the "invaluable help and generous hospitality" offered to the Committee.

Letter from Vice Chairman of the Roberts Commission expressing gratitude to the Library for their efforts with the ACLS.

After the war, the Library used its extensive resources to assist in the effort to restore looted art to the rightful owners.  Researchers continue to use the Library’s rich collection of photographs, catalogues and monographs for World War II provenance research.  A bibliography of these resources is maintained in our online catalog, FRESCO.

U.S. State Department letter requesting the Library's assistance with post-war efforts to identify and restore looted art objects to the rightful owners.

Safeguarding The Frick Collection
As the Monuments Men worked to preserve cultural treasures in combat areas abroad, The Frick Collection, along with other museums and cultural institutions in New York, directed its efforts to protecting cultural treasures on the home front.  As early as 1940, Frick staff began evaluating the safety of the collection and preparing contingency plans in the face of possible attack on New York. Construction of a new vault for works of art began in 1941, and by the spring of 1942, all of the enamels, most of the porcelains and small bronzes, and 65 paintings were placed in storage. Remaining works of art were displayed in order to keep the museum open to the public.     

Photograph showing the excavation process during the construction of the new vault.

View of John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden, with paintings stored in the New Vault.

View of sculptures stored in the New Vault.

Frick Collection Press Release announcing the removal of works of art to a place of safety and the re-hanging of the galleries.

East Gallery, looking northeast, showing new hanging of paintings after many works were removed to the New Vault for protection during World War II. From left to right: "La Promenade" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan" by Paul Cézanne, "Drawing" attributed to François Boucher, "Perseus and Andromeda" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, "The Village Orchestra" by Jean-Baptiste Pater, "Uncle Dominic" by Paul Cézanne, "The Bullfight" by Édouard Manet, "Vétheuil in Winter" by Claude-Oscar Monet, "The Rehearsal" by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, and "Comtesse Daru" by Jacques-Louis David.

East Gallery, looking northwest. From left to right: "Selina, Lady Skipwith" by Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Elizabeth, Lady Taylor" by Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Procession of Italian Comedians" by Jean-Baptiste Pater, "A Lady on Her Day Bed" by François Boucher, "Poetry" attributed to François Boucher, "Tahitian Landscape" by Paul Gauguin, and "La Promenade" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. "Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux" by James McNeill Whistler can be seen through the arched doorway in the Oval Room.

Charles Meryon’s "Etchings of Paris" exhibited in the South Hall on the west wall.

West Gallery looking west. From left to right: "Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening" by Joseph Mallord William Turner, "Marchesa Giovanna Cattaneo" by Anthony van Dyck, "Officer and Laughing Girl" by Johannes Vermeer, "A View of the River Maas Before Rotterdam" by Jan van de Cappelle (Follower of), "Portrait of a Young Artist" by Rembrandt van Rijn (Follower of), "Sir John Suckling" by Anthony van Dyck, "Portrait of a Genoese Noblewoman" by Anthony van Dyck, "The Deposition" by Gerard David, "Village with Water Mill among Trees" by Meyndert Hobbema, "Cows and Herdsman by a River" by Aelbert Cuyp, "River Scene: Men Dragging a Net" by Salomon van Ruysdael, "Portrait of an Elderly Man" by Frans Hals, and "The Harbor of Dieppe" by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

List of works of art on view in each room after part of the collection was removed to the New Vault for protection during World War II.

In 1942, George Stout, Conservator at the Fogg Museum and former Frick conservation consultant, corresponded with Frick Collection Director Frederick Mortimer Clapp about the conservation of artwork during wartime. The following year, Stout was one of the first recruits to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (Monuments Men).

Letter from George Stout, future Monuments Man, to Frederick Mortimer Clapp, Director of the Frick Collection, regarding his report on the problem of museum conservation during wartime.

George Stout's report on the problem of museum conservation during wartime, April 21, 1942.

Overseas Connections
Beginning in the 1920s, the Frick Art Reference Library engaged overseas representatives to secure books and photographs. Clotilde Brière and Lea Danesi Tolnay acquired auction, sales, and exhibition catalogues, periodicals, monographs, and photographs from Europe, enriching the Library’s collection.  Photographer Mario Sansoni was hired to photograph paintings, monuments, and frescoes, many of which had no previous visual record.  During World War II, Helen Clay Frick and her staff remained in contact with Sansoni, Brière, and Tolnay, whose letters described their personal experiences and hardships in war-torn France and Italy. Despite the difficulties of war, all attempted to continue work on behalf of the Library, and their dedication is evident in their letters to Miss Frick. Once the war was over, all three resumed their work, purchasing photographs and books, as well as photographing monuments and works of art.In addition to his work for the Library, Mario Sansoni assisted the Monuments Men by photographing damaged works of art in Italy.

Letter from Frederick Hartt, Monuments Man, to the Library, relaying news of photographer Mario Sansoni and requesting funds to produce photos of the devastated frescoes in the Camposanto in Pisa, Italy.

Page one of letter (in Italian) from Mario Sansoni describing the terrible wartime conditions in Italy and his desire to assist the Allied Office for the Protection of Monuments.

Translation of letter from Mario Sansoni describing the terrible wartime conditions in Italy and his desire to assist the Allied Office for the Protection of Monuments.

Clotilde Brière in France, June 1945.

Translation of letter from Clotilde Brière describing the hardships of living in wartime France.

Lea Danesi Tolnay at the Chiesetta di San Giorgio, Tesido, Italy.

Letter from Lea Danesi Tolnay describing the suffering in Rome during wartime.

Credits: Story

Exhibition created by The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library Archives. Text and design by Susan Chore and Shannon Morelli.

All materials shown can be found within The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library Archives. Please direct inquiries to archives@frick.org.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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