Skip to next element


Four Things You Didn’t Know About Art and World War II

Art and war, two seemingly different realms, intertwine with profound complexity during periods of global conflict. World War II, a cataclysmic event in human history, was no exception, profoundly influencing the world of art in ways both devastating and inspiring. Join us as we explore this relationship, from the infamous Nazi looting of cultural treasures to the transformative impact on Post-War art. These stories not only reflect the turbulent history of the era but also underscore the enduring power of art as a witness to and commentator on the human condition.

Stolen Treasures: Nazi Looting and Recovery

During World War II, the Nazis orchestrated a methodical campaign aimed at seizing cultural treasures, notably priceless artworks, from the countries they occupied. In Anthony Doerr's acclaimed novel, All the Light We Cannot See, a poignant moment unfolds as the main character's father, Daniel LeBlanc, finds himself at his workplace, the Paris Museum just before the Nazis' arrival.

With the impending fall of Paris to Nazi rule, it became evident that the invaders would be relentless in their quest to seize priceless artworks and natural treasures. Faced with this dire situation and driven by a blend of ingenuity and desperation, Daniel concealed the museum's invaluable jewel collection within the skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, which was on its way out of the country.

This is a photo of Monuments men who are retrieving stolen art from Neuschwanstein Castle near the end of World War II. 1945.

This is a photo of Monuments men who are retrieving stolen art from Neuschwanstein Castle near the end of World War II. 1945. Source.


While this story is a work of fiction, it draws inspiration from actual historical events. Throughout World War II, the Nazi regime orchestrated the systematic looting of art museums and private collections in the countries they occupied. Consequently, when the war finally came to a close, a multitude of paintings by some of the world's most renowned artists had tragically vanished, leaving an irreplaceable void in the realm of artistic heritage.

Portrait of a Gentleman by Frans Hals.


Portrait of a Gentleman by Frans Hals. Circa 1630. M.S. Rau.


Here at M.S. Rau, we are fortunate to have a magnificent artwork that was recently discovered, having been previously stolen by Nazi looters. To any art history enthusiast, Frans Hals needs no introduction. The illustrious Dutch painter undeniably revolutionized portraiture, setting a new standard of intimacy and artistic virtuosity for portraits. His painting Portrait of a Gentleman was among many in the esteemed private collection of Jacques Goudstikker, a leading Old Master art collector of the 20th century.

However, the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands forced Goudstikker to flee the Netherlands and abandon his extensive art collection, comprising over 1200 invaluable Old Master artworks. Tragically, Nazi soldiers looted this entire collection, relegating artworks like Portrait of a Gentleman to decades of obscurity.

Wondering how this rediscovery unfolded? Read our fascinating blog to learn more!

The Art of Technology: The Enigma Machine

NEMA Cipher Machine. Circa 1946.


NEMA Cipher Machine. Circa 1946. M.S. Rau.


For World War II enthusiasts, the act of collecting weapons and wartime technology serves as a profound means to immerse themselves in the captivating era of global history. While the technology of that time may appear outdated by today's modern standards, it remains a poignant testament to human innovation and the triumph of resourcefulness. Among all the technological marvels of World War II, the Enigma machine arguably holds a paramount position.

The electro-mechanical cipher device known as the Enigma machine was conceived by the German engineer Arthur Scherbius in the aftermath of World War I. Utilizing rotating rotors to scramble the alphabet, this ingenious device produced a constantly evolving code, necessitating meticulous daily adjustments for decryption. While veiled in secrecy, a serendipitous packaging error led to the delivery of an Enigma machine to the Polish army in the 1920s. This twist of fate would prove to be a watershed moment, granting the Allies unprecedented access to German wartime secrets and paving the way for invaluable progress throughout World War II.

Code-breaking team at Bletchley Park. 1943

Code-breaking team at Bletchley Park. 1943. Source.


This Swiss NEMA cipher machine, known as the "New Machine," was developed by Zellweger AG in Uster, Switzerland during World War II. It aimed to replace the German "Enigma K" after Switzerland realized its traffic was being deciphered by both the Allies and the Germans. This rare wartime model features a 10-wheel mechanism, including five "stepping" or "drive" wheels, four coding wheels (rotors), and a movable reflector wheel for encryption. The NEMA's innovative design, with the movable reflector and stepping wheels, enhanced code complexity, making it more challenging to decipher.

Illustration: Propaganda and Public Support

From A Flying Fortress Over England by Peter Hurd.

From A Flying Fortress Over England by Peter Hurd. 1942. M.S. Rau.


Since ancient times, successful war efforts have been only as successful as the bank that funds them. In the context of World War II, the role of art in illustration took center stage, playing a crucial part in this financial underpinning. While American families on the homefront didn't directly engage in combat during the 1940s, the decade marked a period of significant tension and transformation.

Millions of American soldiers were deployed overseas, while countless women took up assembly line jobs. Wartime production played a pivotal role in lifting the nation from the lingering grip of the Great Depression, ushering in an era of burgeoning middle-class prosperity. American culture saw a resurgence of national pride, with unwavering support for the troops becoming an everyday theme often reinforced by advertisers and the government alike.

Advertisers and illustrators alike understood the immense value of garnering public support for the war effort, and art was a crucial means by which they could stoke a unified patriotic spirit. Illustrators were recruited to create images to promote enlistment in voluntary emergency services and war bonds. Publications shifted away from light-hearted approaches to depicting everyday life to compositions that reinforced American values and patriotism.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Fireside Chat, 1933 by Mort Künstler.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Fireside Chat, 1933 by Mort Künstler. M.S. Rau.


Rockwell created one of his best-known series, Four Freedoms, for the Post in 1943 based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress. In it, the president outlined four basic freedoms all Americans should enjoy, and from that, Rockwell created four paintings meant to inspire patriotism and hope in the Post’s readership. The series was such a success that the original paintings went on a national tour in a campaign to sell war bonds and stamps, ultimately raising $133 million.

Unlike newspapers and radio broadcasts that focused on current events, magazine illustrations offered a poignant view of soldiers abroad and women contributing to the war effort at home. These artworks were crafted to uplift spirits and evoke a profound sense of national pride. Norman Rockwell's iconic Willie Gillis series, featured on Saturday Evening Post covers, championed "the plight of an unassuming, ordinary individual thrust into the chaos of war." This comic yet patriotic portrayal introduced the American wartime audience to a young soldier they came to cherish, akin to a friend, brother or son. Willie Gillis became so beloved that numerous letters were penned to the Post, inquiring about his well-being.

Post-War Art: Representing the Irrepably Changed Human Experience

Aoum II By Auguste Herbin. 1944.


Aoum II By Auguste Herbin. 1944. M.S. Rau.


The scars of battlefield trauma, the devastation of atomic bombs and the horrors of genocide, among numerous other tragedies, collectively lead to a global awakening to the depths of human capacity for evil and the fragile nature of peace.
The art world certainly reflected this shift. In the wake of World War II, artists shifted their focus from the subject matter of their paintings to the act of painting itself.

Drawing inspiration from the Surrealists, whose art delved into the realm of psychoanalysis, a new generation of painters emerged, crafting monumental artworks that served as profound expressions of their inner selves. While Abstract Expressionism was not a traditional cohesive movement, artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still shared a commitment to spontaneity and the expression of deep emotions. Historically, their works have been categorized into two main styles: "Action Painting," exemplified by Pollock's drip paintings, and "Color Field Painting," represented by Rothko's ethereal, geometric forms.

Abstract In Pink, Purple, And White by Frank Sinatra.


Renowned entertainer Frank Sinatra drew inspiration from the leading figures of his time, notably Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Abstract In Pink, Purple, And White by Frank Sinatra. 1989. M.S. Rau.


Read more about the fascinating world of Post-War art here.

So why collect World War II art and technology?

To many, the urge to collect World War II art and memorabilia is insatiable. Collectively, these objects reveal not only the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit but also the enduring ability of art to capture, reflect and influence the course of history. Are you looking to enhance your collection with pieces that embody a pivotal moment in history? Immerse yourself in the tangible echoes of human resilience with our selection of World War II items.


Sign up below to be the first to know about new acquisitions, exhibits, blogs and more.

back to top
back to top