An Iowan plays a pivotal role in one of the greatest treasure hunts in history.
During the past 50 years, though, his story, and that of his colleagues — a group of art conservators — has gone untold.
It is the true tale of how a group of men and women saved the world’s prized art and architecture from destruction during World War II that is being brought to life in multiplexes across the country in “The Monuments Men,” a film by actor and director George Clooney.
At the center of this story, which opened in theaters Friday, is George Leslie Stout, a Winterset native and University of Iowa alum. Stout — who inspired Clooney’s character in the film, Frank Stokes — not only played a central role in discovering and saving priceless works of art but also was a leader in the art world by revolutionizing the field of conservation.
“He’s a real hero,” says Sean O’Harrow, University of Iowa Art Museum director. “He not only fought in two World Wars but also revolutionized a field and saved world culture.”
Stout, born in 1897 to parents Abraham Lincoln Stout and Lulu Mae (Mcbride), spent two years at Grinnell College before joining an Army medical unit in World War I.
In a 1978 interview collected by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Stout said despite growing up with a fondness for art he didn’t consider pursuing it until an army friend suggested attending the University of Iowa after the war.
“He says ‘Why don’t we go to the University of Iowa? They’ve got an art department there and it would be a chance for us to do what we enjoy doing and learn something more about it.’ So we did,” Stout recalled.
Stout spent his remaining undergraduate years at the UI, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1921.
While a student, he was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan, manager of the Hawkeye yearbook, a member of the men’s singing group the Apollo Club and an artist for the satirical campus magazine FRIVOL, among other fine arts-related activities.
The UI also is where Stout met his wife and fellow art student Margaret Hayes, daughter of UI law professor Samuel Hayes.
The two taught art classes at the UI after graduation and following their 1924 wedding, they traveled across Europe. When they returned to the United States, Stout began graduate school at Harvard University.
He graduated from Harvard in 1929 and joined the art conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, where he’d become head of the department from 1933 until 1947.
The UI’s O’Harrow says it was at the Fogg that Stout and Harvard chemist Rutherford Gettens developed “the scientific, chemistry-based approach to art conservation” through the study of rudiments, art degradation and reparation.
It was the start of World War II that set in motion Stout’s next adventures. Stout was placed on active-duty in the military in 1943 and soon became one of the first to join the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program established by the Roberts Commission — chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts — to work with the military to recover art ransacked by the Nazis and protect monuments on the ground in Europe.
The Monuments Men Foundation estimates that the group found, saved and returned more than 5 million items of artistic and cultural significance stolen by the Nazis.
Records show Stout was considered a dedicated and meticulous worker by those who worked with him. Official military papers lauded Stout as a man dedicated to his work and who “spent almost all of his time alone in the field, disregarding comfort and personal convenience … his relationship with the many tactical units with whom he worked were managed with unfailing tact and skillful staff work.”
Stout proved this during one notable discovery of the stockpile of priceless art and the Reich’s gold-reserves stashed in 35 miles of tunnel work in the Merkers salt mine complex in Germany. He and his crew recovered the art in only six days with less-than-ideal packing supplies.
‘A QUIET MAN’
This extraordinary story didn’t gain much attention until author Robert Edsel published a book chronicling the Monuments Men’s adventures in 2009.
“I don’t think anybody is very aware of (Stout),” says Nancy Trask, director of the Winterset Public Library and local Stout researcher.
O’Harrow, who studied art at Harvard and has been the director of multiple museums, says he didn’t know about Stout until the screening of a film based on another of Edsel’s books chronicling the art rescue efforts in Italy.
“I personally would like to see some part of the (university art) museum honor Stout in some form,” O’Harrow says of the UI’s new art museum, currently under construction after extensive damage in the Floods of 2008.
Those who knew Stout say he was a quiet, humble man that didn’t brag about his accomplishments but instead worked tirelessly to preserve art.
“It’s the same with the rest of (the World War II) generation. They just didn’t brag about what they’d done,” says Winterset library’s Trask.
Stout’s granddaughter Lauren Parker was young when her grandfather died in 1978 at age 80, but she doesn’t remember him talking much about his accomplishments.
“He was a very quiet man as I knew him,” remembers Parker, 52, who lives in Indiana. “He was reserved in a very classy way and always appeared to me as one of those people who could sit there and observe and take in every moment.”
Joyce Hill Stoner, professor and paintings conservator at University of Delaware-Winterthur, worked with Stout for several years after he established the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation’s Oral History Project. Together they interviewed conservators and conservation scientists. Stoner also interviewed Stout.
He had a “wonderfully wry sense of humor,” was perfectly dressed and always poised, she says.
Stout was meticulous in his work and always brought the focus back to the importance of art, instead of his own accomplishments, says Stoner, 67.
“I think he would chuckle,” about the recent Hollywood attention, she says.
“He wasn’t a gusher. He’d chuckle and be amused and be fine because it brought attention to the field of art conservation.”
Parker attended the world premiere of “The Monuments Men” movie in New York last week. She’s thankful to Edsel for filling in the gaps of her memories of her grandfather.
“It really wasn’t until Robert Edsel’s book came out that I learned all that he did,” she says.
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