David Edward Finley, Jr. was the eldest child of Congressman David E. Finley (1862–1917) and Elizabeth Lewis Gist. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1910 and received his law degree from George Washington University in 1913. Finley practiced law in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. and during World War I served in the U.S. Army Air Service. In 1921 he joined the legal staff at the Treasury Department where he met Andrew W. Mellon who would greatly influence Finley’s career. By 1927, Finley began assisting Mellon with his art collection and also became his special assistant on his plans to found the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Although Mellon died in 1937, Finley continued with Mellon’s plans and became the first Director of the National Gallery, serving from 1938 to 1956. In 1931 Finley married Margaret Morton Eustis (1903–1977), a Washington socialite, sculptor and architect.
While U.S. art leaders began to discuss how they might aid in the protection of U.S. and European cultural monuments following the German occupation of France in June 1940, the debate turned into reality soon after the attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The larger U.S. museums such as the Frick, Metropolitan and the National Gallery began to quietly move their most precious artworks into safe storage to prevent their destruction in the event of an air attack. While the National Gallery was closed on New Year’s Day, 1942, Finley and his curators removed selected paintings from the gallery walls and by January 12 the paintings were safely in their shelter at Biltmore House in North Carolina.
By 1942 the leading U.S. museum men such as Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paul J. Sachs, associate director of the Fogg Museum of Fine Arts at Harvard, George L. Stout, head of conservation at the Fogg Museum, William B. Dinsmoor, president of the Archaeological Institute of America and David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington joined together to focus more intently on the precarious situation in Europe. Finley, with his years of experience as a government insider, was instrumental in the foundation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas in the summer of 1943. Finley served as Vice Chairman of the Commission, better known as the Roberts Commission, named after its chairman, Justice Owen J. Roberts of the United States Supreme Court. While Justice Roberts was primarily engaged with Supreme Court business, Finley, the Vice Chairman, essentially ran the Roberts Commission out of the National Gallery offices.1 In the fall of 1943, upon the recommendation of the Roberts Commission, the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division formally established the MFAA branch to coordinate the protection and restitution of Europe’s cultural treasures.
In addition to his work at the National Gallery and the Roberts Commission, Finley took up numerous other cultural endeavors and his impact on the American arts was far reaching. In 1943, President Roosevelt appointed Finley to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and he later served as its chairman from 1950 to 1963. In 1947 Finley was instrumental in organizing the private non-profit group the National Trust for Historic Preservation and served as the chairman of the trustees throughout the early years of the trust. Finley also took up Mellon’s dream of forming a National Portrait Gallery and appealed to President Eisenhower to create the National Portrait Gallery in the Old Patent Office Building slated for demolition. In 1961, at the urging of Jacqueline Kennedy, Finley and Mrs. Kennedy formed the White House Historical Association and published the first guide to the White House in July 1962. Mrs. Kennedy asked Finley to never resign his position, and he remained as chairman of the Association until his death in 1977.
In 1957, Finley was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal by the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association and in 1968 was given the Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry Medal. Finley died in 1977 at his home in Georgetown and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.
(1) David A. Doheny, David Finley, Quiet Force for America’s Arts (Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2006), 213.