Léo van Puyvelde ( 1882-1965 )
Belgian art historian, professor, and museum curator Léo Van Puyvelde was born in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium in 1882. A student of Flemish philology, he became an expert on the renowned Flemish poet Albrecht Rodenbach while pursuing his doctoral degree at the Catholic University at Louvain. In 1912, he began what would become a long and successful career as a lecturer and professor of art history. In addition to his position as Chair and Professor at the Higher Institute for Art History and Archaeology of the University of Ghent, he was a popular visiting professor to students around the globe. His lectures on seventh-century painting, medieval art and archeology, and the Renaissance were heard by students in Paris in 1932, Algiers in 1933 and even Princeton, Harvard and Yale in the United States in 1939.
During his lifetime, Van Puyvelde was regarded as one of Belgium’s foremost art experts. When restorers at the ancient Abbey of Ghent uncovered an ensemble of fourteenth-century murals in 1924, his expertise was utilized to examine them. His in-depth study of the important discovery was published in 1925. He also served as chief curator at The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, where he established the museum’s first art conservation laboratory.
During World War II, Van Puyvelde joined the Belgian Military Mission with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In April 1944, the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education in London established the Inter-Allied Commission for the Protection and Restitution of Cultural Materials, better known as the Vaucher Commission. Together, representatives from China, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States, Britain, and Belgium cooperated to collect and organize information regarding Nazi looting. As Belgium’s Director General of the Administration des Beaux-Arts, Van Puyvelde was chosen to lead the Belgian committee. He compiled lists of artworks looted from Belgium, as well as lists containing useful contact information for local experts in the field. This information was transmitted to the MFAA for the use of Monuments Men in the field and greatly expedited their recovery of Belgian works of art.
Unable to remain on the sidelines, Van Puyvelde was also active in the field. He took into custody the contents of the repository found in Amel, Belgium on behalf of the Belgian Government and liaised closely with Maj. Ronald E. Balfour and Maj. Paul Baillie-Reynolds, Monuments Men working in Belgium. The dramatic discovery by Monuments Men Capt. Robert Posey and Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, Belgium’s greatest artistic treasure, deep inside a salt mine in Altausee, Austria spurred Van Puyvelde into action. However, by the time he and his associate, Emile Langui, reached Altaussee, preparations to transport the priceless work of art to the Munich Central Collecting Point were near complete. Underscoring his eagerness, Van Puyvelde arrived at the mine without authorization and was turned away.
In August 1945, he was proudly on hand to welcome the Ghent Altarpiece to the museum, where it was placed on temporary display before its return to Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. When he at last retired from his position as chief curator of The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in 1948 after a long and successful career, Van Puyvelde’s colleagues and students honored him in the book Miscellanea Léo van Puyvelde.
Léo Van Puyvelde died in Ukkel, Belgium in 1965.
(Photo courtesy of the van Puyvelde family)