Monuments Man Francis W. Bilodeau (1915-2004)
The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney and starting Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and others, tells the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, an Allied group charged with the task of saving art objects and other cultural items looted by the Nazis during World War II. The group consisted of soldiers who had experiences in museums and other cultural institutions as curators, registrars, and educators. One of the Newark Museum’s own staff members was a member of this important elite group.
Francis W. Bilodeau was a young graduate of Bowdoin College in his native Maine when he joined the staff of the Newark Museum in 1938. Initially assigned to the Lending Department (later the Education Loan Collection), he was soon transferred to the Registrars’ Department where he was in charge of the care and preservation of American paintings and sculptures. In 1940-41 he took of year off to study art history at Yale University, and in 1942 he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
During the war, Bilodeau served as Staff Sergeant with the Combat Engineer Battalion of the 8th Division, in which role he saw active duty in Normandy. Immediately after the war, he was assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program and posted to the Marburg Collecting Point, which was one of three centers in the American zone of occupied Germany. His group was responsible for conserving artwork damaged during the war and returning it to its rightful owners. As director of the Marburg Collecting Point and later the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, he was instrumental in arranging a series of exhibitions displaying these masterpieces to a population that had been deprived of art for most of the war. These exhibitions were some of the first to be presented in post-war Germany, and some of them even traveled to the United States. One of his most unusual accomplishments was his oversight of the reburial of the bodies of Frederick the Great; his father Frederick Wilhelm, the “soldier king;” and Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, the World War I hero, and his wife.
After his service in the military government, Bilodeau returned to the States to finish his graduate studies at Yale University and to start a doctoral program at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In 1951 he returned to the Newark Museum as the curator of the American art collection, but in 1952 he left to become the Education Supervisor at the New-York Historical Society. In his long career in the museum field, he also served as an administrator at the John Herron Art Museum in Indianapolis (now the Indianspolis Museum of Art); the Sheldon Swope Art Gallery in Terre Haute, Indiana; the R. W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana; and other cultural organizations.
In 1998 the Federal Republic of Germany honored Mr. Bilodeau for his “remarkable and successful efforts to save valuable works of art” by “protecting German property and works of art and preventing the perpetration of new wrongs.” “Your distinguished, indeed, exemplary service in this post remains unforgotten,” wrote the German Foreign Minister.
– William A. Peniston, PhD., Librarian/Archivist
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