A captivating true story that intertwines art, wartime, and a historical encounter between an iconic Hollywood star and a celebrated artist from Limburg has taken an unexpected turn. In 2011, a portrait by the renowned Dutch artist Charles Eyck (1897 – 1983) came into the spotlight when it appeared at an exhibition in Valkenburg. The sketch depicted the famous Hollywood actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, drawn by Eyck when she sat for him in a studio in Maastricht on a winter’s day towards the end of World War II. More than ten years later, Jim Pepels, an avid archaeology enthusiast with a passion for unearthing historical gems, was surprised to come across an almost identical sketch of Dietrich on an online auction site.

“I had to blink a few times,” Pepels said. “There was even a card signed by Dietrich dated February ’45 attached to it.” The portrait turned out to be from the estate of American soldier Charles “Charlie” Harold Gebhardt of Pennsylvania, who served in Europe during World War II as part of the US 9th Army. Moved by the historical significance of the sketch, Pepels bought the portrait and shared his incredible find on social media. After doing some research, he learned that Maastricht University’s (UM) Special Collections has a remarkably similar third sketch. The Special Collections also owns a photograph of what appears to be a painting of Dietrich, which the artist presumably painted on the same occasion. The whereabouts of this artwork remain a mystery.
Above: Charles Eyck’s different representations of Marlene Dietrich. Top left: A photograph of the painting. Top right: The sketch in the Special Collections. Bottom right: Jim Pepels’ acquired sketch. Bottom left: The sketch auctioned in 2011.
To comprehend the significance of this discovery, one must first understand who Dietrich was and why she was in Maastricht during a pivotal moment in history.
Born in 1901 in Berlin, she rose to fame as a renowned actress and singer, captivating audiences worldwide. Dietrich is perhaps best known for her rendition of “Lili Marleen,” a German love song that resonated deeply with both American and German soldiers during World War II. What sets her apart is her unyielding stance against the Nazi regime, a symbol of resistance and resilience in a turbulent era. Her journey eventually led her to the shores of America, where she would make her mark in the film industry, continue her successful singing career and renounce her German citizenship.

Above: Marlene Dietrich, signing autographs for American soldiers.

In January 1945, during the final year of World War II, Dietrich graced the stage of Maastricht’s Stadsschouwburg, today called De Bonbonnière, to perform for American troops stationed in the area. During this occasion, she apparently insisted on being portrayed by Eyck.
This month, Pepels visited the University Library with his sketch to meticulously compare it to the sketch and photograph housed in the Special Collections. He and Odin Essers, curator of the Special Collections, both found it remarkable that the sketches are almost identical with the same pose, but a slightly different style. Each portrait bears Eyck’s distinctive signature. Pepels suspects the three sketches were either test sketches for the painting or copies drawn afterward. The photograph is part of the Charles Eyck documentation collection, which previously belonged to the late journalist Wim Aerts, but there is no indication of where the painting is.

Above: Marlene Dietrich entertaining front-line soldiers in 1944.

“It was normal for painters to create quick sketches before painting,” said Pepels. Or perhaps Eyck made several copies to delight a number of soldiers and friends… “An old friend of mine, who was also a well-known artist, personally knew Eyck and he told me once that Eyck could almost instantly recreate a sketch that he made, almost like a copy.”

Maastricht itself played a crucial role in World War II during the post-liberation era when Dietrich visited the city. After the city was liberated in September 1944, it served as a “rest center” for American GI’s. Soldiers, on leave from the front line, sought solace and relief in the vibrant city. In contrast to the harsh realities of war, Maastricht offered them a glimpse of hope, with opportunities for dancing and enjoying a beer. Hollywood stars brought a touch of glamour to these rest centers, boosting the spirits of the troops.

Pepels is fascinated to know whether the painting still exists and where it is.

“The mystery of where Marlene Dietrich’s painting is located remains, but I bought this portrait because I knew this story is bigger than just a Charles Eyck drawing. This was a moment in Dutch history. For me, Eyck and Dietrich together symbolise a piece of Maastricht’s liberation.”

According to Essers, the portraits provide valuable historical detail and therefore it would also be of historical significance to find the original painting.

Above: Marlene Dietrich: Iconic German-American actress and singer of the 20th century.

“It is not just about Marlene Dietrich, it’s also a piece of history from Maastricht at that time… to know exactly what happened and how Marlene Dietrich performed here and how Charles Eyck also created those portraits… As a researcher or curator, like me, you naturally always want to know if that original still exists and where it is. So the search is ongoing.”

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Maastricht University Library stimulates, supports and facilitates the use of UM’s Special Collections and the thoughtful integration of digital technology to advance education and research. Think about how using these books can add value to some of your courses. If you want to know more about how we can support you, contact curator Odin Essers via Ask your librarian. Follow the Special Collections on social media: Maastricht University Special Collections (@specialcollectionsumlibrary) | Instagram and Special Collections – Maastricht University Library | Maastricht | Facebook