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Bremen Bombed, Art Destroyed

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Bremen in ruins after heavy bombardment. Gift in Memory of Robert John McNary Smith, 2011.168.411

The city of Bremen, Germany had been beneath the shadows of British bombs since May 1940. British bombing raids—later joined with those of the US 8th Air Force—grew more and more common in the following years. When on this day in 1942 more than 200 British aircraft flew over Bremen, more than 100 people were killed, hundreds more injured, and vast damage was done to the infrastructure of the city. It would be repeatedly hit in the years following.

The Kunsthalle Bremen, the city’s art museum, was among the damaged buildings. While most of the artwork had been removed to safety for the very reason of the possibility of bomb damage, one piece was left where it hung: German American artist Emanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, which at 12 x 21 feet was too massive to move. The September 5th strike burned many of the museum’s galleries, and also burned and destroyed Leutze’s painting. The piece by the same name which you may have seen hanging in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was the second version of the painting, replicated by Leutze himself just after painting the original in 1850-51.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Having learned the lesson the hard way, the directors of the Kunsthalle Bremen split up the collection and moved it several times, with a portion of it finally settling in a castle outside of Berlin. That particular portion of the museum’s collection, including masterpieces by van Gogh and Titian among other notable artists, was captured by Soviet Capt. Viktor Baldin, and sent back to Russia where they remain—albeit controversially—to this day. The pieces are now referred to as the Baldin Collection, and are held at the Hermitage despite Baldin’s attempts in the years after the war to have the works returned to the Kunsthalle Bremen. Russian leadership has categorically refused. Hundreds of pieces of the Kunsthalle Bremen’s collection not accounted for in the Baldin Collection remain missing to this day.

This post by Curator Meg Roussel

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