One of the challenges in writing a weekly history column is constantly coming up with new ideas about old things. Today’s subject was inspired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles which recently called on its online followers to re-create master artworks using ordinary household items. The internet responded with thousands of home quarantine masterpieces. One of my many artistically talented friends posted her creation on Facebook. It was her version of Leonardo da Vinci’s A Lady with an Ermine. That was all I needed. It sent me searching for an old photograph I recalled seeing of that particular painting being returned to its rightful owner, the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland way back in 1946.
And the Easton connection? Frederick Charles Shrady, a world-renowned sculptor and artist who lived in Easton for over thirty years, from 1959 until his death in 1990. Shrady was the first American artist to receive a papal commission for his work. His ten-foot high bronze statue of Our Lady of Fatima has adorned the gardens in the Vatican since 1983. Shrady’s home and studio were originally built by author Edna Ferber and the estate was known as Treasure Hill. During World War II, Shrady was part of the group officially labeled as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (MFAA) but known widely as the Monuments Men, an assemblage of 345 men and women representing fourteen different nations that located, identified, and saved some of the greatest artistic masterpieces ever created.
A Lady with an Ermine is a painting created by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci sometime around 1489 or 1490. The subject of the portrait has been reported to be Cecelia Gallerani, the mistress of da Vinci’s employer at the time, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. She was one of only four women whom da Vinci painted during his entire lifetime. The painting was acquired in Italy in 1798 by Prince Adam George Czartoryski and then added to the family’s extensive art collection in Poland.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the painting was seized and sent to the Kaiser Friederich Museum in Berlin. In 1940, the governor of then German occupied Poland had the painting brought to Krackow where it hung in his office at Wawel Castle for nearly a year before being transferred to a warehouse containing hundreds of other precious pieces of artwork that had been plundered by the Germans in their march across Europe.
On June 23, 1943, President Roosevelt approved the formation of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas.” The group of men and women assigned to locating and protecting the artist treasures of Europe quickly became known as the Monuments Men. When A Lady with an Ermine was recovered, it was repatriated to its rightful owners by members of this very dedicated group of art saviors in 1946.
From the Monuments Men Foundation biography on member Lt. Frederick Charles Shrady: Shrady’s already impressive career as an artist was placed on hold with his enlistment in the U.S. Army in June 1943. In July he was appointed the head of the Fine Arts Department at Camp Upton in New York. In addition to a brief assignment with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, D.C., Shrady served with the Model Making Detachment of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Due to his fluency in French, he was selected as a liaison officer to the Free French Forces.
In August 1944 Shrady applied for an assignment with the MFAA. He was eventually attached to U.S. Third Army in Germany. In June 1945 he assisted Monuments Men Lt. Cdr. Thomas Howe, Jr., Lt. Cdr. George Stout, Lt. Stephen Kovalyak, and Lt. Lamont Moore with the evacuation of the mine at Altaussee, Austria. Together, they carefully packed Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Artist’s Studio, and the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. Shrady and the Monuments Men evacuated these great works of art, along with over 15,000 other works of art and cultural objects, to the Munich Central Collecting Point. In the following months, Shrady conducted inspections of churches, castles, and museums in Wiesbaden, Germany. While serving in Vienna, Austria, he met his wife, Maria Louise Likar-Waltersdorff, who was an interpreter for the MFAA. They married in 1946.
Altaussee had been chosen for its bunker-like attributes. Hidden deep within an Austrian mountain, it was veritable fortress, impervious to aerial bombing raids. It also had all the characteristics of a climate-controlled vault in that the temperature and humidity were perfect for preserving the artistic treasures hidden within. The artwork stored there was all destined to go to Hilter’s Führermuseum, a museum complex Hitler had planned to open in Linz, Austria after the war’s end.
As the war raged on and it became apparent that the Nazi regime would likely be toppled, the Altaussee depot was to be destroyed with its hidden art treasures buried and forever lost to the rest of the world. Provincial governor August Eigruber stored enough explosives there to do the job. The plan was part of Hitler’s Nero Decree, a diabolical scheme, whereby the Nazi leader ordered the destruction of German infrastructure to make it unusable to the victors as the Third Reich failed.
Perhaps Eigruber had second thoughts, or maybe the local workers sabotaged his plans by using far less explosives to create the illusion that the mines had been destroyed. But on May 17, 1945, only days after Nazi forces had surrendered, miners using nothing more than picks and shovels dug through the wall of rubble at Altaussee. After moving through a 12-meter thick layer of debris blocking the entrance to the salt mines, inside, they discovered one of the largest caches of stolen artwork ever amassed. Once the Monuments Men entered the Altaussee Salt Mine, they found hidden inside its 137 tunnels more than 6,500 paintings and in excess of 170 sculptures including such masterpieces as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and the Ghent Altarpiece.
Lt. Frederick Shrady was among the men and women who made that discovery and then worked to inventory it and then move it out. Their abilities to identify and preserve some of the greatest art treasures ever created have made them true heroes in the minds of grateful art lovers from all over the world.