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A failed painter who channeled his obsession with art into grandiose plans for a "Thousand Year Reich," Adolf Hitler ordered the pillaging of masterpieces from occupied Europe, then cherry-picked his favorites while paging through photo albums assembled by aides.
One work he long coveted was Johannes Vermeer's "The Astronomer." After the Nazis snatched it, their chief art confiscator, Alfred Rosenberg, sent a triumphant note to Hitler's closest aide to announce the news, which "will I believe bring him great joy," according to Hector Feliciano's 1995 book "The Lost Museum."
Hitler wanted the Vermeer to be the centerpiece of a museum he hoped to build in his hometown. Now it will be on view at Minneapolis Institute of Arts starting Thursday -- part of a blockbuster show from the Louvre that has brought the Dutch masterpiece to the United States for the first time.
"There are so few Vermeers and they're all great," said Patrick Noon, the Minneapolis museum's painting curator, who helped persuade the Louvre to lend "The Astronomer." Only about 35 paintings by Vermeer are known to exist, and the Louvre owns two.
A contemporary of Rembrandt, Vermeer (1632-75) was prized then, as now, for the rarity of his paintings and the almost hypnotic spell cast by their tranquil subjects and light-filled interiors. "The Astronomer" also appealed to Hitler's nationalistic ambitions, because it celebrated early "Germanic" scientific achievements, and it was originally paired with another Vermeer, "The Geographer," that had wound up in Germany.
Less than 20 inches tall, the 1668 work was to star in a new museum of traditional Germanic and Northern European art that the Führer planned for Linz, his Austrian hometown.
The painting was confiscated, along with more than 5,000 other artworks, from Jewish financier Edouard de Rothschild, whose family had owned it for half a century. Before that it had been in private hands in Amsterdam for two centuries.
The Vermeer was packed into crate H13 (H for Hitler), loaded onto a train and shipped from Paris to Germany on Feb. 3, 1941.
Rescued from a salt mine
"The Astronomer" was found in May 1945 with more than 8,000 other paintings, sculpture and artworks, hidden deep in a mountain salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. With it were Michelangelo's tender "Bruges Madonna" sculpture, dumped on a filthy mattress, and Jan Van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece," a dozen panels that constitute one of the greatest treasures of the early Renaissance.
The Allies sent a cadre of art specialists known as "Monuments Men" to recover the objects. The mouth of the mine had been dynamited shut, and they feared everything had been destroyed in compliance with Hitler's orders to prevent anything falling into the hands of the "conquerors."
"Fortunately those orders were subverted by two mine engineers who blew up the passages so the Nazis couldn't get past" to detonate the rest of the mountain, said Robert Edsel, author of "The Monuments Men," a new book about the heroic efforts to save Europe's art treasures. "I've been in that salt mine and in most cases it's not wider than your shoulders; it was a very, very terrifying moment."
After the war "The Astronomer" was returned to its owner, whose family gave or sold it to the Louvre in 1983.
Curiously, the Louvre exhibit makes no mention of the painting's Nazi past, even though it figures prominently in numerous accounts of German looting. In France alone the Nazis confiscated more than 21,000 art objects, enough to fill 120 railway cars. At the end of World War II, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art estimated that the Nazis had stolen the equivalent of $27 billion in today's dollars.
However, the show's catalogue does explain the Nazi history of a sculpture in the exhibit, "Character Head" by F.X. Messerschmidt. Confiscated by the Nazis, the head was exhibited at the Historisches Museum of Vienna after the war and finally returned to the owner's heirs in 2003. The Louvre bought it in 2005.
This is only the second appearance of "The Astronomer" in the United States, following its debut this year at the High Museum in Atlanta, which organized the show in conjunction with the Louvre.
Minneapolis officials knew the painting's Nazi history but that wasn't the reason they wanted to borrow it.
"That was the last thing on my mind," Noon said. "We pushed for 'The Astronomer' because it's a wonderful painting that had never been shown in America."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431