During World War II, Nazi plunderers focused their greedy eyes on Paris and began looting the city's artwork — operating according to Hitler's plan to open a massive, self-aggrandizing museum in Germany. Savvy employees at the Louvre emptied the museum and stashed its paintings in dark basements of the Parisian suburbs. So, the Nazis turned to Jewish art collectors and gallery owners, and used the Jeu de Paume Museum (formerly Napoleon III's tennis courts) as a depository for their booty.
Rose Valland, a Louvre employee assigned to oversee the Jeu de Paume under the Nazis, kept a secret list of the paintings the Nazis had stolen, where they came from, and where in Germany they were being shipped. After the war, Valland worked to recover the lost artwork and, in the process, became a real-life heroine. More recently, she was the inspiration for the fictional Rose Clément, in the debut novel by the Brookline-born Harvard grad Sara Houghteling, Pictures at an Exhibition.
"She was so heroic, but so modest," says Houghteling, on the phone from Berkeley, California, where she teaches high-school English. "And for the most part, the Nazis overlooked her. She was deliberately unassuming, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, even wearing a man's military uniform. But beneath this understated demeanor, she acted with incredible independence."
Houghteling's novel centers on a fictional Jewish art dealer, Daniel Berenzon, and his family during the beginning and end of World War II — with a quick foray through the Jewish evacuation of Paris. Berenzon's son, Max — the book's narrator — and Clûment have a tumultuous love affair. Early on, the novel offers in-depth looks at the Parisian art world, the artist–art dealer relationships, and highbrow auction houses, turning it into another kind of love story — one dedicated to Manet, Matisse, and Picasso, who both the book's characters and its author admire.
"I knew I wanted to write about Manet," says Houghteling. "His paintings are very strange, there's something incomprehensible in them." Manet's lost painting Almonds, looted during the war but never recovered, appears on page one of Pictures and plays prominently in the book. Houghteling says it mirrors Max's character.
"It's what someone chose not to eat, what they left behind," she says, of the mud-colored, murkily painted nuts. "That's what Max feels — he's been left behind."
Sara Houghteling will read from Pictures at an Exhibition on Wednesday, February 25, at 7 pm at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, Cambridge. Call 617.661.1515. She'll also be at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Brookline, on Thursday, February 26, at 7 pm. Call 617.566.6660.