Revisiting 30: Fragonard at Neuschwanstein

My 4/22/19 posting “The Easter egg in the salt mine” took off from this archive photo used in an Economist article:


The article tells us nothing about the provenance of the photo or about the scene represented in it, though in the context of the article, we’re invited to suppose that the photo shows us the retrieval of Raubkunst, art seized by the Nazis from Jewish families during World War II. From which we guess that the soldier is an American G.I., the time is 1945, and the locale is one of the Nazi storage places for stolen art, perhaps even one of the celebrated salt mines used for this purpose. (All of this is assumption and guesswork, not a single actual fact in the pack.)

The painting in the photograph is in the courtly style of the 18th century — I speculated on what the scene might be — but not one famous enough to be identified through various sorts of searches.

Then in a comment, John Baker came to the rescue, enabling me to make substantial advances: the painting is a Fragonard (apparently a minor one) — as it turned out, one recovered by Americans in a gigantic hoard of Raubkunst in Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (the fantasy castle Ludwig II built for Richard Wagner).

John wrote:

using, I was able to find the original picture on Getty, which says the painting is by Fragonard

And I replied:

I now have some material on Neuschwanstein and the Monuments Men [details below], thanks to you. I’ve tried to identify the specific Fragonard, but the man was regrettably prolific, and this painting seems never to have been well-known. In the process, I’ve discovered that Fragonard in bulk is very very hard to take.

Now the details. Information from the Getty Images file:

Painting Uncovered

May 1945: A US Army soldier unwraps an old master painting by the 18th century painter Fragonard. This along with other art treasures was found at Neuschwanstein Castle, Fussen, Germany, where the Nazis kept treasures stolen from throughout Europe during the Second World War. (Photo by Horace Abrahams/Keystone/Getty Images)

The castle:


(This was Ludgwig’s idea of a fairy-tale castle, and now it’s everybody’s.)

Fragonard. From Wikipedia:

(#3) Fragonard, The Musical Contest, 1754–55 (Wallace Collection, London)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (4 April 1732 – 22 August 1806) was a French painter and printmaker whose late Rococo manner was distinguished by remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism. One of the most prolific artists active in the last decades of the Ancien Régime, Fragonard produced more than 550 paintings (not counting drawings and etchings), of which only five are dated. Among his most popular works are genre paintings conveying an atmosphere of intimacy and veiled eroticism.

Scanning through dozens and dozens of reproductions, in (fruitless) search for the painting in #1, has left me sated for life with Fragonard’s overheated, mannered painting.

The Monuments Men. The photo in #1 shows a scene from the immediate post-war efforts at rescuing stolen art. The “Monuments Men” who did this work were military officers wth art-historical credentials. The larger retrieval program (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) became famous though a 2014 film. From Wikipedia:

(#4) A theatrical poster

The Monuments Men is a 2014 war film directed by George Clooney, and written and produced by Clooney and Grant Heslov. The film stars an ensemble cast including Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett.

The film is [very] loosely based on the non-fiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. It follows an Allied group from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program that is given the task of finding and saving pieces of art and other culturally important items before Nazis destroy or steal them, during World War II.

Now for a historical account by archivist Greg Bradsher on the National Archives blog on 9/1/15, “The Monuments Men in May 1945: Buxheim and Neuschwanstein”:

Schloss Neuschwanstein, two miles east of Fussen, a picturesque little town, some 80 miles south of Munich, in southern Schwabe, Bavaria, had been a central Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) repository for looted cultural property. A considerable bulk of this material, including the most important, had since been removed to other repositories, most notably to the salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria. Still, it contained a large amount of ERR loot which if not the very best was still important – pictures, furniture, a large amount of silver and fine jewels.

… The route from Augsburg took [the “Monuments Men” James J. Rorimer and John D. Skilton, Jr.] some 50 miles southwest to Memmingen. There they stopped and learned that a couple of miles away in the Carthusian monastery at Buxheim activities had taken place in connection with shipments of works of art from France and other countries. They set out immediately for Buxheim. 

As they entered the monastery they found an incredible collection of loot. In one of the rooms they found an item marked on the back in red with the collection number of the former owner David-Weill, and just below this in black, the letters ERR, followed by numbers. According to Skilton, this was, as far as he knew, the first time a member of the MFA&A staff had actually seen the ERR marking. The corridors were stacked with pre-19th Century furniture. There were ethnographical materials from Russian museums – Kiev in particular. In one enormous hall there were piles upon piles of oriental rugs, tapestries and textiles. Many bore tags with the names of the original owners. They found 72 packing cases with 158 paintings, including those by Boucher, Nattier, Watteau, Fragonard, Delacroix, Goya, David, Lebrun, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Renoir.

The next morning they set out on the 45-mile drive from Buxheim to the “the fairy-like castle of Neuschwanstein.” Planned by Ludwig II, the mad King of Bavaria, the castle, Skilton observed, occupied “the entire summit of a lofty peak rising abruptly from the valley floor like an island in a sea of mist-hung mountains.” At Fussen, they met with the Public Safety officer of the local Military Government detachment and then continued on their way to the castle.

“If we had been astonished at Buxheim,” Skilton wrote, “we were overwhelmed by the stupendous collection at Neuschwanstein.” At the castle, according to Rorimer, “Works of art were everywhere, most of them marked with Paris ciphers. Confusion indicated that this repository was being emptied when the Nazis had vanished a short time before the arrival of our troops.” Besides the confiscated paintings from France, there were 1,300 paintings which had been sent there by the Administration of Bavarian Castles. These were from the Munich museums, the Munich Residenz, and the private collections of the royal Bavarian Wittelsbach family, and had been deposited there before the place was used by the ERR. “In several of the rooms,” Rorimer wrote, “we found the art libraries of Paris collectors. Thrown behind and between the books were rare engravings, drawings, and paintings.” He added: “We were guided to a hidden, thick steel door; this one locked with two keys. Inside there were two large chests of world-famous Rothschild jewels and box upon box of jewel-encrusted metalwork. There were also rare manuscripts and more than a thousand pieces of silver from the David-Weill and other collections.”

One Response to “Revisiting 30: Fragonard at Neuschwanstein”

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