A curious article appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 26 December 1917 concerning a painting of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the possession of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The letter was from a concerned citizen who wrote the newspaper wondering if, with the United States now at war with Germany, it was appropriate for the Kaiser’s likeness to remain in the museum’s collection. The portrait of the German leader had been given to the Brooklyn Museum of Art eleven year previously under happier circumstances; in a very public ceremony on 16 July 1906 Herr von Gneist, Consul General of the Port of New York, had presented the 6’ x 9’ full portrait to the Brooklyn Museum on behalf of the Kaiser and the German government. Accepting the work for the museum was the Prussian-born former mayor of Brooklyn, Charles Adolph Schieren. The Reverend Dr. S. Parkes Cadman gave an address to an assembled crowd. The Kaiser’s portrait held a prominent pride of place in the Brooklyn Museum for several years thereafter. The painting—a copy of a more famous work—had more historical than artistic merit however, and was later quietly relegated to a small cove and eventually the storage basement out of public view. This apparently all happened before the start of the war in 1914 and had nothing to do with the Kaiser’s damaged reputation once the conflict began. In the basement the portrait sat, unseen and all but forgotten until Boxing Day 1917.
This tempest all came about because, a few days before Christmas, Harvard theologian Francis Greenwood Peabody had very publicly returned to the Kaiser the Order of the Prussian Crown medal he had been awarded several years earlier while a visiting professor at the University of Berlin. Newspapers across the country had covered Peabody’s gesture and now, after reading about the theologian and how he returned his decoration, this Brooklyn Daily Eagle reader was calling on the museum to return its Wilhelm painting. On 28 December the newspaper ran a letter from someone using the pseudonym “Flatbush,” proposing a contest in which readers could suggest what might be done with the painting. The Eagle duly agreed and dozens of entries poured in over the next week. The winner was to win one ton of coal, which was no small thing.
The preponderance of the entries were banal; multiple readers argued for burning the art work while others suggested using it for target practice. Other suggestions were more imaginative and included hanging it upside down from the Statue of Liberty or giving it to Wisconsin’s isolationist Senator Robert M. La Follette. One of the best came from someone suggesting it should be sent to Buckingham Palace to be placed next to a portrait of the late Queen Victoria, the Kaiser’s grandmother; in an obvious dig at the inbred familial ties of the European royal rulers who had stumbled into the war, this individual noted wryly that “blood is thicker than water.”
The extent to which the Eagle and its readers were being sincere or ironic is difficult to gauge a century later, but the contest was representative of the wider anti-German sentiment common in America during the war. Museum officials responded to all this with a firm calmness and the painting was never in danger. On 31 December A. Augustus Healy, the president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences, the parent organization under whose auspices fell the Brooklyn Museum of Art, announced that it was the Insitute’s duty and responsibility to preserve the portrait. Healy averred that the museum’s stewardship of the suddenly-controversial artwork, like all the artwork in the museum, was “a perpetual trust.” Healy took his stewardship of that perpetual trust seriously. Born in 1850 and active in Brooklyn political and philanthropic causes throughout his life, Aaron Augustus Healy had been appointed president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences in October 1895 during the Institute’s crucial transitional decade when it founded and built the Brooklyn Museum of Art. On 14 December 1895 Healy presided over the laying of the cornerstone of the iconic McKim, Mead & White building that still stands on Eastern Parkway today. Mayor Schieren, who eleven years later as an Institute vice president accepted the Kaiser painting from the German Consul General, laid the cornerstone.
The contest over what to do with the Kaiser’s likeness came to its conclusion just after the New Year. The winner turned out to be one Charles A Jaqueth. In a moment of lucidity all the way around, Eagle editors agreed with Jaqueth that the painting should be kept in the museum for posterity. Jaqueth explains in this letter published in the Eagle on Thursday 3 January 1918:
True to its word, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle paid up on the ton of coal; in its 10 January 1918 edition the newspaper published a letter from Jaqueth thanking it for the delivery. Jaqueth expressed his appreciation for the coal and noted that with the war on and it now being January: “the “black diamonds” are almost as difficult to obtain as those of fairer hue.”
(images/top, New York Public Library; bottom two, Brooklyn Daily Eagle)