How Hitler's Watercolor Paintings Ended Up at a Military Base in Virginia

Art Curator Sarah Forgey shows Under Secretary of the Army Joseph W. Westphal four watercolors by Adolf Hitler at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Art Curator Sarah Forgey shows Under Secretary of the Army Joseph W. Westphal four watercolors by Adolf Hitler at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller, Defense Visual Information Distribution Service // Public Domain

During World War II, the U.S. military launched a full-scale effort to find and save pieces of European art stolen by the Nazis. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program—better known as the "Monuments Men"—would eventually liberate Rembrandt's Night Watch, parts of Hubert and Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. While a 2014 film by George Clooney helped popularize the organization's efforts, and it was recently announced that a modern version of the "Monuments Men" is being established (and is recruiting), less is known about the group's initiative to seize art made by the Nazis—including works by Adolf Hitler himself.

As an artist, Hitler is usually framed as a failure: He was rejected twice by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and spent his early twenties making postcards and street art. But he never really let art go. When he later entered politics, he came in with an understanding of art's emotional potential as a propaganda tool.

"As its leader, Hitler ordered the creation of a corps of artists to document the country's military exploits," journalist Andrew Beaujon wrote in a fantastic piece for the Washingtonian. "They made field sketches of German troops in action and later turned them into paintings, which were then sold to high-ranking officers and displayed in military-run museums and casinos. Other paintings depicted Hitler as half man, half god, often with medieval overtones."

By the height of World War II, German homes and public spaces were awash in these militaristic paintings and sculptures. But American President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the power of art, too, and in early 1945 he joined Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in pledging to, "remove all Nazi and militarist influences from public office and from the cultural and economic life of the German people."

As many of the Monuments Men were busy saving works of art stolen by the Nazis, one man—Captain Gordon W. Gilkey, of the military's Office of the Chief Historian—was busy stealing works of art made by the Nazis. As part of the Allied Denazification program, Gilkey and his crew seized nearly 9000 pieces of propagandist artworks considered too controversial for public consumption, including four watercolors painted by Hitler himself.

Eventually, this trove would be tucked away under lock and key at the Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia. While the most inoffensive artworks were repatriated to Germany over the ensuing decades, the U.S. military still possesses nearly 600 of the most flagrant Nazi works of art.

Overseen by the Center of Military History, the artworks in Virginia include a painting of Hitler fashioned as a medieval knight (with a bayonet hole through his head), a bust of the Führer (scuffed with American boot marks), and, of course, those four watercolor paintings.

In 2020, the U.S Army plans to open the National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir. Whether the 185,000 square-foot museum will exhibit any of these controversial works—or whether they will remain buried in the shadows of the fort's archives—remains to be seen.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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