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Wartime Beginnings

Gilbert Stuart, Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates), 1793/17941793/1794

Gilbert Stuart, Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates), 1793/1794, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.4

The relevance and urgency of that claim—and the need to preserve and protect the nation’s art treasures—became clearer when the United States entered World War II in December 1941, just nine short months after the Gallery had opened. Many of the museum’s early activities were dictated by the war. Nightly blackouts began on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and in 1942 the Gallery’s most important paintings and sculptures were evacuated to art connoisseur and collector George Vanderbilt’s palatial Biltmore estate near Asheville, North Carolina, for safekeeping. Among these works were three American paintings: Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington and Catherine Brass Yates (fig. 3), (all Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940) and Edward Savage’s The Washington Family.

Meanwhile, the Central Gallery on the Ground Floor hosted many temporary exhibitions “centered on the Nation’s war effort,” according to the early Gallery guides. These included American Artists’ Record of War and Defense (1942), War Posters (1943), and Wartime Paintings of the Army Air Forces (1944). Moreover, the Gallery served as a refuge and inspiration for members of the armed forces stationed in Washington, DC. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, in 1943 the Gallery became the headquarters for the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. In the context of such a devastating global conflagration, the heroic efforts of the commission to redress the cultural losses of the war illuminated just how profound the Gallery’s own central mission was to preserve and exhibit the artistic legacy of Europe and America, not only for Americans but also for the world at large.


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