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 Lincoln Edward Kirstein (1907-1996) 


Poet, playwright, art connoisseur and collector, and patron of the arts, Lincoln Edward Kirstein was one of the greatest creative minds of the twentieth century. Born in Rochester, New York on May 4, 1907 to a wealthy family, he was surrounded by fine art and antiques from a very young age. He visited Chartres Cathedral in France at age twelve, published his first play at age fifteen, and bought his first sculpture by age sixteen.


Raised in Boston, Kirstein attended Harvard University, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in 1929 and a Master’s degree in 1930. It was at Harvard that he would build the foundation for an extraordinary legacy as patron of the arts. In 1927 he founded the Harvard literary magazine Hound and Horn, which included early writings by such well-known writers as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and e.e. cummings. In 1928 he co-founded The Harvard Society for Contemporary Art with fellow students John Walker II and Edward M.M. Warburg. The Society’s first exhibit in February and March 1929 included works by Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and Georgia O’Keefe. Similarly, the Society’s December 1930 to January 1931 show was the first ever Bauhaus exhibition to be held in the United States. The influence of the Harvard Society served as the inspiration for the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City in November 1929. Along with Warburg and Walker, Kirstein served on MoMA’s advisory committee before the start of World War II.


Kirstein is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking patronage of ballet in the United States. After attending great ballets from a young age, he met the legendary choreographer George Balanchine in London in 1933 and convinced him to move to the United States. Together, the pair embarked on a lifelong partnership that would forever alter the fabric of dance in America. In addition to founding the School of American Ballet in 1934, their partnership established a string of touring dance companies which ultimately culminated in the creation of the New York City Ballet in 1948. In 1964 the Ballet established its permanent home at what is now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, designed by Kirstein’s friend from Harvard, architect Philip Johnson. Kirstein served as President of the School of American Ballet and General Director of the New York City Ballet from their respective beginnings until his retirement as Director Emeritus in 1989. Both institutions remain today as the pinnacle of ballet instruction and performance in America.


In February 1943 Kirstein enlisted in the United States Army and completed basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was then sent to Fort Belvoir in Virginia to train as a combat engineer. To overcome the monotony of writing training manuals and performing menial tasks, Kirstein began a project devoted to gathering and documenting the art of his fellow soldiers. With the help of Kirstein’s influential contacts in the art world, the project soon grew from its humble beginnings at Fort Belvoir to a spread in Life magazine and exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and MoMA in New York. Meanwhile, he began plans for a National War Art Museum (which were never realized).


In spring 1944 Kirstein was recommended for service with the MFAA by David Finley, Director of the National Gallery of Art and Vice Chairman of the Roberts Commission. Kirstein traveled to SHAEF headquarters in London in June 1944, where he worked as a French interpreter before being transferred to a unit in France in September. There, he began composing a series of poems based on his experiences, which were later published as Rhymes of a Pfc(1964). In January 1945 Kirstein was at last commissioned into the MFAA as assistant to Capt. Robert Posey, Monuments Man for General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army.


Together, Posey and Kirstein were involved in the discovery of some of Europe’s greatest masterpieces which had been looted by the Nazis or placed in harm’s way during the war. In late February 1945 they came upon a fourteenth-century wall painting of the Annunciation at the Priory Church of Mont Saint Martin in France near Luxembourg. Covered by layer of plaster for centuries, the painting had begun to emerge after a combination of bombings and water damage. Soon after, in Hungen, Germany, Posey and Kirstein discovered eight buildings that comprised the Race Institute, used by Alfred Rosenberg, leader of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi looting agency tasked by Hitler to assemble works of art for his planned Führermuseum at Linz, Austria), to “research” the various peoples victimized by the Nazis. Inside were rooms filled with Torah scrolls, anti-Semitic propaganda, Jewish archives, and other confiscated materials. Their greatest discovery, however, was that of the vast salt mine in Altaussee, Austria in May 1945. Hidden inside miles of tunnels and caverns, the ERR had hidden Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer, the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, and thousands of other works of art and culturally significant items. These masterpieces were later evacuated to the Munich Central Collecting Point by a team of Monuments Men led by Lt. Cdr. George Stout and returned to their respective home countries.


Kirstein was discharged from military service in September 1945 and returned home to his beloved ballet. For his extraordinary contributions to the preservation and promotion of art in all its forms, Kirstein received numerous accolades. He was the recipient of the Order of the Sacred Treasure Fourth Class from the Japanese Government (1960), the National Gold Medal of Merit Award of the National Society of Arts and Letters (1980), the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (1981), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1984), and the National Medal of Arts (1985). A prolific writer, he published hundreds of articles, books, monographs, poems, and novels. In 1955 he founded the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, and produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the festival’s first season. In March 1965 he participated in the historic second march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama advocating for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Lincoln Kirstein died in New York City on January 5, 1996, leaving an indelible legacy for not only American ballet but for American culture as a whole.

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, Archives.

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