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Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27124-2
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A sweeping and sensuous novel of a son’s quest to recover his family’s lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.
Max Berenzon’s father is the most successful art dealer in Paris, owner of the Berenzon Gallery, home to both Picasso and Matisse. To Max’s great surprise, his father forbids him from entering the family business, choosing instead to hire a beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant named Rose Clément. When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding, but when they return in 1944 their gallery is empty, their priceless collection vanished. In a city darkened by corruption and black martketers, Max chases his twin obsessions: the lost paintings and Rose Clément.


Chapter One
In the twilight of my life, I began to question if my childhood was a time of almost absurd languor, or if the violence that would strike us later had lurked there all along. I revisited certain of these memories, determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them: the sticky hand, the scattered nuts, the gap- toothed girl grasping a firecracker, a cap floating on the Seine, flayed legs swinging between a pair of crutches, the tailor and his mouthful of pins. Some of these were immediately ominous, while others only later revealed themselves as such. However, whether or not another boy living my life would agree, I cannot say.

Of the humble beginnings from which my father built his fame, I knew only a few details. My grandfather, Abraham Berenzon, born in 1865, had inherited an artists’ supply store. He sold tinctures, oil, canvases, palettes and palette knives, miniver brushes made from squirrel fur, purple- labeled bottles of turpentine, and easels, which my father described as stacked like a pile of bones. The shop was wedged between a cobbler’s and a dressmaker’s. Artists paid in paintings when they could not pay their bills. And as Renoir, Pissarro, and Courbet were far better with paint than with money, the family built up a collection.

When the value of a painting exceeded the price of its paint, Abraham sold it and invested the money with the Count Moïses de Camondo, a Jew from Istanbul with an Italian title and a counting-house that he named the Bank of Constantinople. Both men loved art, and they were fast friends. By 1900, Abraham could purchase an apartment on rue Lafitte, near Notre- Dame-de-Lorette, in a neighborhood known as the Florence of Paris. Soon afterward, Moïses de Camondo recommended that my grandfather invest in the railroads. Coffers opened by the beauty of paint were lined with the spoils of steel, steam, and iron, and my grandfather did not have to sell any more of his paintings.

As a teenager, I often passed by rue Lafitte and imagined the family home as it had once been, as my father had described it: each picture
on the grand salon’s walls opening like a window—onto a wintry landscape, a tilted table with rolling apples, a ballet studio blooming with turquoise tulle. The salon’s chandelier shone onto the street through windows which, as was the case across the Continent, were made from high- quality crystal. On sunny afternoons, Grandfather’s gallery was so ablaze with prismatic light that schoolchildren returning home for lunch thought they saw angels fluttering down rue Lafitte. They reported their sightings to the choirmaster at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. When he could no longer bear to tell any more youngsters that they had not seen angels but just rainbows, and from a Jew’s house no less, the choirmaster hinted to some older boys that perhaps they should break the windows, which they did.

At least that was how my father explained the attack on his childhood home in July of 1906. Then again, Dreyfus had just been exonerated,
and there were many such outbursts across Paris. Abraham had followed the trial closely, nearly sleepless until the Jewish captain’s verdict was announced. Two days later, hoping to spare a dog that ran into the road, he drove his open- roofed Delage into an arbor of pollarded trees on avenue de Breteuil. My sixteen- year- old father, Daniel, was pinned between the tree trunk and the crushed hood as
Abraham expired beside him. From then on, my father walked with a limp, which eight years later exempted him from service in the Great War. So whether he was lucky or unlucky, I could not exactly say.

In 1917, my father purchased the building at 21, rue de La Boétie, after my mother Eva agreed to marry him. For this young Polish beauty, whom he hardly knew, and who spoke comically stilted French, he bought a house in a neighborhood known for its tolerance of the creative temperament. Yes, as if in anticipation of the utter bleakness that would eventually follow, that block was home not only to my father the collector and my mother the virtuoso pianist, but also to a choreographer renowned for his collaboration with Diaghilev; the Hungarian trumpeter most preferred by European conductors to perform the second of the Brandenburg Concertos; a sculptor known for his works in bronze and his clamorous machines; and, three years later, though without the same fanfare, me.

From the well of my early childhood, only one half- lit event emerges: I am in the forest and a small girl shares a sweet bag of nuts with me. We dance on the mossy floor, and she holds my sticky fist in her own. Until late in my life, I supposed that the little girl in the white dress had been a dream, invented sometime in the crepuscular years before my seventh birthday. I remembered nothing at all before 1927, when Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget, on an airfield lit brighter than day. This absence of memory was natural, I imagined. I had no siblings with whom to compare my experience and was loath to press others into discussing my youth.

Unlike his own father, mine maintained no particular attachments to the paintings that found their way into his possession upon Abraham’s death. Father sold this collection as the first exhibition of the Daniel Berenzon Gallery in the early 1920s. He explained that, at the time, he had been under the influence of the German philosopher Goethe. “Remember the Theory of Colors, Max,” he said, as he paced the gallery. “When you stare steadfastly at an object, and then it is taken away, the spectrum of another color rises to your mind’s eye. This second image now belongs to the mind. The object’s absence or presence is irrelevant. They’re all up here”—he tapped his head—“so why worry about them out there?” He gestured to the carmine and gold gallery walls. “You’ll have a museum of the mind.”

And for him this was true. To hear my father describe the paintings he had sold—which I thought of as lost—was as if their watery images, quivering and illuminated, were projected on the dark walls of the gallery from a slide carousel. These pictures possessed a certain patina—of regret, of time, of absence, of value—which lent my father’s descriptions a deeper beauty than I had been able to see when the paintings hung before me.

Indeed, my father was among a tiny group, the heirs to the patron spirit of Catherine de Médicis and the savoir faire of Duveen or Vollard, whose genius was not in the handling of paint itself, but in the handling of men who painted. They encouraged the artists’ outrageous experiments so that they could paint without fear of financial ruin. They were not just rug merchants and moneymen. They were as devoted as monks to the beauty of their illuminated manuscripts. Or so my father said, in his most rhapsodic moments. And I believed

Pablo Picasso was my father’s most famous artist, and he too came to live on rue de La Boétie, at number 23. When my father passed below on the street, Picasso would stand in the window and hold up canvases for my father’s approval, and approve he always did. Father encouraged the Spaniard’s experiments, understanding that Picasso’s genius resided not in a single style but in his ability to reinvent himself. He was, Father said, our Fountain of Youth. Since Monsieur Picasso’s art would never grow decrepit or stale, neither would Father and neither would their glorious world of paint. Yet Father kept not a single Picasso in our family collection; what hung over our dinner table would likely be sold the next week. Our walls were never bare, nor were they familiar. “We’re trying to give what we have away,” Father said. Though he hardly gave the paintings away, I wondered, sometimes, if he felt that he had.

Beginning in my earliest years, each night before Father locked the doors to the art gallery, I was called downstairs from my bedroom and, with my eyes closed, was told the name of a past exhibition and made to recite each painting’s artist, title, and composition: a Morisot Woman in White looking like an angel with the dress slipping from her shoulder; the Vuillard odalisque NudeHiding Her Face from 1904; an iridescent 1910 Bonnard, Breakfast, of woman, jam, and toast.

After we reviewed the present exhibition, we would recollect past ones, of Sisley and Monet’s winter scenes; Toulouse-Lautrec’s portraits on cardboard with low- grade paint; the occasion on which Father had furnished the exhibition rooms with rococo settees and ormolu chiffoniers and then hung above them the most wild drawings by Braque, Miró, Gris, and Ernst, so as to indicate that modern art could indeed decorate a home. Though Father’s clients purchased mostly for this purpose, privately he scoffed at those who arrived with a scrap of drapery when choosing a painting. “The artist is an aristocrat, Max,” my father told me. “He has suffered for his art. And yet still he is generous, because he offers us a new language that permits us to converse outside of words.”

I often wished that Father would not converse outside of words but, rather, raise other subjects during these meetings and guide me on boyhood matters, such as girls in sweaters or my birthday choice of alpine skis. Once or twice, I sensed that he tried to. I waited patiently, nearly holding my breath so as not to break the spell when Father began, “Over the years, I have wanted to tell you—” But this sentence, though repeated, was never finished, and eventually I gave up hope. Still, the nightly recitations were treasured occasions with my father, a man for whose attention many people, including my mother, had to fight.

In my memory of those nights in the gallery with pictures orbiting around me, my father is splendid, luminous even. He had a brushy mustache, a neat chin, and a slim neck. He wore a white collar and a long tie the shade and sheen of obsidian: a lean, angular man, as if he had stepped out of a canvas by Modigliani and, dusting the paint from his dinner jacket, taken his place against the gallery’s doorjamb. He parted his black hair on the side and his eyebrows looked penciled in. His face might have seemed too small were it not for the significant ears, the plane of his cheekbones, and his long, sloping nose.

As pictures were hoisted to the walls and then lowered, President Doumer was shot dead at a book fair, the Lindbergh son was kidnapped, and America choked in a cloud of dust. All of France seemed to be on strike. By eleven, I was expected to discuss various genres and artists.

“On still lifes,” my father began, and walked to the back of the red divan.

“The lowliest of genres,” I said. “Courbet painted his in prison.”


“With landscape painting only slightly superior.”

From upstairs, we heard Mother singing along with her piano playing. Sometimes she sang the orchestra parts to Brahms or Beethoven, or hummed along with the piano melody so as not to lose her place in it as her fingers whirled through their steps. If Father was rehearsing the art of recollection with me, we both knew that Mother, with her hundreds of hours of music committed to memory, reigned supreme.
Whatever sensitivity Father and I might have possessed, Mother surpassed this, too: she heard sharps in the opening and closing of my dresser drawers and an unpleasant A-flat when the telephone rang. She thanked Father for choosing an automobile whose motor played an excellent C. When Mother traveled to Zurich and London to perform, I was left in the care of our housekeeper, Lucie, and our chauffeur, Auguste. Both loved music and, fortunately, both loved me.

I grew from a boy in pajamas to a young man who lit his father’s cigarette before smoking his own. The fixed point in Father’s collection was Manet’s Almonds, painted in the years between 1869 and 1871. It was the one painting from my youth that had never left 21, rue de La Boétie, not in the first auction nor in the dozens that would follow. When Father bought Manet’s The Bar at the Folies- Bergère before lunch and sold it by dinnertime to a British sugar magnate, Almonds stayed behind; Picasso’s The Family of Saltimbanques was shipped to New York, but Almonds stayed behind. Even when Mrs. Guggenheim was on her campaign, as she told Father, to buy “a picture a day,” Almonds remained. Father claimed that no one offered him the right price for it, though later I came to understand otherwise. Father loved the painting, though he would not say why, except that it was painted by a humbled man nearing the end of his life, when Manet’s legs were weak with syphilis and the artist could no longer stand at his grand canvases, as he had done with The Execution of Maximilian or The Bar at the Folies- Bergère. The man whose life had begun to still began to paint still lifes. I did not consider Manet’s Almonds beautiful. I found it morbid and sad to look at in the morning hours, when the light was clear and bright. In comparison to Cézanne, who often had to replace his pyramids of apples with wax versions because the real fruit rotted after a fortnight of study, Manet’s almonds were the ones that had been passed over, deemed too inferior to eat, painted by someone who’d had his fill.

When the time came to take my winter exams, Father explained that he could not “with good conscience” pass his beautiful gallery down to me. The day before, there was news of Kristallnacht in Berlin; Mother had said, “surely your courses will be canceled,” but they were not.

For a year, we did not rehearse the paintings. Rather, I rehearsed Father’s sudden rejection: I lacked, he had said, the memory, the business acumen, the ruthlessness, and the lucidity of vision to predict what could be bought one spring and sold a dozen Junes hence. “I wish for you a stable life,” he said. “My father drove too fast.” This I did not hear. I was made to fill out the exams and forms for the schooling that would land me in the hospital, not as a patient like my father long ago, but as a doctor. I resolved to fail as brilliantly as I had once studied to inherit the gallery. Eventually, Father and I resumed our nightly study of the paintings, but it was never the same as before. I was seventeen years old.

From the Hardcover edition.
Sara Houghteling|Author Q&A

About Sara Houghteling

Sara Houghteling - Pictures at an Exhibition

Photo © Jonathan Sprague

Sara Houghteling graduated from Harvard College and received her master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, first prize in the Avery and Jule Hopwood Award for novels, and a John Steinbeck Fellowship. She currently lives in California, where she teaches high school English.

Author Q&A

Q: Pictures at an Exhibition tells a story that centers on the looting of European art in Paris during World War II. What drew you to this time and place, and where did the idea for this novel come from?
A: My father’s family lived in Paris after the war. My grandfather was officially working for the Marshall Plan, but was in fact a member of the OSS—the precursor to the CIA—gathering information about French bridges in preparation for the possible next war. My grandmother Fiora’s stories from this time made me feel as if I had been living on rue Scheffer in the 1940s. She told me about the Russian count who lived across the courtyard, about the rationing of butter and gasoline, and how she was recognizable as an American to Frenchmen on the street by her shiny hair: the French used the same soap to wash their hair as they did the floor and the dishes. Only Americans used shampoo, imported in their suitcases, alongside silk stockings, cigarettes, and coffee. My father’s memories are a child’s memories: pushing a toy boat in the Luxembourg Garden fountain; wearing short pants even in winter; sharing the tub with my grandmother’s friend’s children since the French family couldn’t afford to heat the water for their bath; being surprised that French children did not like peanut butter. I found this contrast between adult and childhood memories intriguing. I knew I wanted to write about France in this post-war period, and I knew I wanted to write about Edouard Manet’s paintings, which I find beautiful and unsettling. Whenever I was stuck in the novel, I would study a new painting and see where it took me.

Q: Is it true that many of your central characters are based on real people? How did you come
across these individuals and what drew you to them?
A: Rose Clément is the novel’s most important historical figure. She takes her name and much of her story from Rose Valland (1898-1980), the curator of the Jeu de Paume. Valland stayed on in the Modern art museum after it was occupied by the Nazis and transformed into a sorting center for looted artwork. The Nazis couldn’t believe that such an unassuming woman could disobey their orders, and so even when they caught her writing down lists of paintings, she managed to convince them the notes weren’t important. Her prodigious memory, clandestine communication with the Free French, and meticulous documentation of looters, the looted, and the destination of the spoils saved thousands of paintings for their eventual repatriation. Many of the novel’s other characters are true as well, ranging from Max’s best friend Bertrand Reinach, to the art dealers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and the Bernheim-Jeune brothers, to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Colonel von Behr, and Ambassador Otto Abetz—and the dealers who collaborated with the Germans, such as the Wildensteins, Cailleux, Lefranc and Fabiani. The Berenzon family is most closely based on that of Paul Rosenberg, who was Picasso and Matisse’s dealer before the war, modern art’s passionate champion, and a kind of mythic figure—he was an electrifying presence at the auctions. The Berenzons, like the Rosenbergs, lived at 21, La Boétie. I had the pleasure of meeting Marianne Rosenberg, Paul Rosenberg’s granddaughter, who helped me immensely. Marianne’s father, Alexandre, appears briefly in my novel as well, for his incredible feat of halting the last train of looted art leaving France, bound for Germany. (When Alexandre opened up a boxcar, he found dozens of his father’s paintings.) Years later, Marianne told me, he didn’t let her become an art dealer, perhaps because he felt that the profession had changed so completely. This paternal prohibition against Max pursuing a career in the art world is also key to my novel. So it was a startling moment when I realized that I guessed something right through fiction.

Q: How much looted art is still missing from this time and what do you know about ongoing attempts at recovery?

A: France had more artwork looted than any other country in Europe. Over one-third of all privately-held artwork was seized by the Nazis: in all, over 100,000 works of art and several million books. According to the Mattéoli Commission report, issued by the French government in 2000, 61,233 pieces of art were recovered after the war, of which 45,441 were returned to their owners. Two thousand works whose owners could not be identified were placed in national French museums, which inventoried them in “recovery collections,” under the code of MNR (Musées Nationaux Récupérations). In the 1950s, 13,500 of the remaining paintings, deemed of “lesser artistic value,” were sold. Then, almost no further research was carried out to determine the legitimate owners of the plundered art until the publication of Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa and Hector Feliciano’s The Lost Museum in the 1990s. The location of some 40,000 art objects remains unknown. They are in public and private collections and, many believe, the former Soviet Union. Today, the ongoing attempts at recovery are largely legal ones.

Q: You describe the looting, collection, and dispersal of stolen art in such detail. It’s really an insider's view of how such wide-scale theft and deception was carried out. Can you tell us what sort of research went into the novel? Is a scene like one where Goering visits the Jeu de Paume based on actual accounts?

A: Many of the scenes, including the one with Goering, are based on actual accounts, often first recounted in Rose Valland’s 1961 autobiography, Le front de l’art: défense des collections françaises 1939-1945. Valland reprints a photograph of Goering at the Jeu de Paume, his massive body perched in excitement at the edge of a sofa, a fat cigar in one hand and a Corot in the other. There are bottles of Champagne in the background. It’s a chilling and enraging photograph. Goering is sitting on a sofa that once belonged to one Jewish family, and appraising art that was stolen from another.
My research began while I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, when I received a grant to go to France for the summer. A family friend introduced me to Théo Klein, a former member of the Resistance, who had become the head of the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives en France (CRIF - Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France). Once I met Monsieur Klein, many doors opened for me. Mr. Klein put me in touch with a Lithuanian survivor named Adam Loss (an unbelievable name, I know), who was the head of a Jewish claims organization immediately after the war. Mr. Loss recommended I contact the Kraemers, who own a gallery on rue de Monceau and who had sold art to the Reinach-Camondos sixty years before. The story in the novel where a young man recognizes an armoire at an auction preview when he crouches down to examine it—bends down to the height he was before the war—comes from Mr. Kraemer. Kraemer is in business with his two sons. I remember watching one of them address an envelope to the Élysées Palace while I spoke to his father; the other son stayed in the room during much of the interview, typing noisily away at a typewriter, which made the tape very difficult to transcribe. I think he was really keeping an eye on his father to make sure the elder Mr. Kraemer was not upset by the interview. This family friend also put me in touch with Didier Schulmann, who had curated the Pompidou’s watershed show of ownerless MNR paintings in 2000. Didier read parts of my novel, pointing out such details as that the statues on the Pont d’Alexandre were black (not gold, as I had written) until Malraux’s cleaning project in the 1960s. Didier Schulmann recommended I speak to Mr. Abel Rambert, whose gallery is on the “same street” as Madame de La Porte des Vaux’s, in my novel. Mr. Rambert was oracular, wore perfect three-piece suits during a scorching summer, and spoke in stately rhetorical sentences.
It was Rambert who told me that the loss of a painting is like the death of a child. This pronouncement established one of the central plot twists of my novel. . . .I spent many hours in the Centre de documentation juive contemporaine (CDJC—the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation), which is now a part of the new Holocaust memorial and museum on rue Geoffroy l’Asnier. I read denunciation letters there of the kind that Max and his father find in their apartment; movers’ orders issued by the Nazis for looting different houses; and letters from the Jews interned at Drancy (the French camp on the outskirts of Paris that was the way-station before Auschwitz) asking their neighbors if they had received previous letters and requesting that they send blankets, soap, and tooth powder.

Q: Max Berenzon sets out after the war to try to find and reclaim his family’s art collection. His journey—in terms of his passage through his devastated city and the people he meets along the way—is almost Homeric. Was this intentional?

A: I think I knew all along that Max would not uncover exactly what he was looking for, and that the paintings would remain elusive, as they have for many families. If I had a classic in mind, it was more Dante’s than Homer’s—a voyage through a broken landscape where the sinners keep sinning even as they are being punished for exactly that sin—so that Madame de La Porte des Vaux still has the same attitudes about Jews that she had before the war, and it only takes a little while for them to reveal themselves. Overall, the roots of each individual’s character are deeper than the war: so Max misunderstands his father’s aloofness completely, thinking that it has everything to do with Max himself, whereas it does not; Chaim, despite living through the most gruesome period imaginable, is essentially an optimist and good-natured.

Q: Can you talk a bit about how the theft of art in particular was emblematic of the greater
crimes being perpetrated?
A: The lootings are but a shadow of the total horror of the Holocaust. In Hitler’s Beneficiaries, Götz Aly cites a speech Goering delivered in October of 1942, in which he announced, “If someone has to go hungry, let it be someone other than a German.” “Hunger,” for Goering, was assuaged not only by food. Aly argues that Hitler’s success was due to both deep national anti-Semitism as well as the German population’s contentment to receive quotidian Jewish goods. In one month during the war, Aly’s aunt, a very glamorous lady, received sixty pairs of shoes from her boyfriend stationed abroad. Later, the Germans blamed Allied incompetence for their food shortages after the war; rather, it should have indicated the extent of the looting.

Q: While the loss in this novel is heartbreaking, this is really at its heart a story about family and legacy and love that survives after the most horrible acts have been committed. Was this idea of inheritance—of things seen and unseen—important for you as you set out to write this novel?

A: Yes. Even the novel’s title deals with this idea of what remains. It comes from Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano suite, which Mussorgsky wrote in memory of Victor Hartmann, an artist who died young. Hartmann’s friends had mounted a posthumous exhibition of his paintings, and Mussorgsky attended. Each movement in Mussorgsky’s piece takes its title from a picture at the Hartmann exhibition. These musical pictures are linked with the famous Promenade theme in B-flat major, which is used to mark “physiologically” (Mussorgsky said) how long it took him to walk from painting to painting. All of these pictures have been lost; only the music remains.

Q: Many real paintings figure prominently in your novel, none more so that Manet’s Almonds. Why did you choose to make this painting in particular so significant?
A: Looking at still-lifes, I have always been struck by the sense of a human presence that has only seconds before left the scene. Despite this absence, one is reminded of deep human themes: from mortality (there are lots of beautifully dead animals, skulls, and scales), to passion (overturned wine goblets, gorgeous bunches of grapes, sensuous drapery). Almonds is a mute painting in the way that Manet’s Olympia is not—it gives you few clues of how to decode it. I wanted Max’s ability to interpret the painting to parallel his understanding of his family’s hidden history and his relationship to his father.

Q: Do you have an art history background?
A: Nothing too formal, but I have always loved studying art, even when I wasn’t supposed to. I was an English major in college, but wrote my thesis on the role of museums in Henry James’ The American and The Golden Bowl. While I was getting my MFA at Michigan, a fantastic art history professor, Howard Lay, let me enroll in two of his classes, and tolerated novel chapters in lieu of essays. In my own novel, I wrote about Matisse, Manet, Vuillard, Picasso, and Morisot because I loved their artwork and wanted an excuse to learn more about it. T.J. Clark’s Manet: The Painter of Modern Life and Anne Higonnet’s book on Berthe Morisot were very helpful to me. Higonnet was also my advisor when I had the Fulbright in Paris. She would always take me to restaurants that had very healthy portions, which I was very grateful for. At the time, she was writing a critical study of great art collectors and theorizing that their impulse to collect was an attempt to stave off death, an idea that was very influential for my novel.

Q: You won a Fulbright scholarship that you put toward a year of research in Paris. The Paris streets really come to life in Pictures. Did you write much of the novel while you were living there?
A: I did. When I re-read my novel, it is a geography of the places where I lived: rue Rousselet, rue de Sévigné, rue de Mézières. It reminds me how it snowed when I was living there in 2005 and how the Jardin de Luxembourg was closed so that passersby could admire it in snow (rather than walk through the park, which would obviously ruin the pristine whiteness). So the novel is a kind of “picture book” for me. Yet, in Calvino’s sense that every city contains multiple invisible cities, Paris also became painted with the scrim of its wartime collaboration. All the fancy hotels (the Ritz, the Crillon) billeted Nazis. Résistants were killed in the Métro at Concorde. There’s only one, clandestinely-taken photograph of the French police rounding up Jews into a Paris city bus in the early morning of July 16th, 1942—the widespread sweep of Jews known as the rafle du Vel d’Hiv—and I remember walking down a street in the Marais and having a sick feeling that it was familiar, and then understanding that it was the street from the Vel d’Hiv photograph.

Q: This is your first novel. Have you always been a writer? What inspires you to write?
A: I have always wanted to be a writer, and I think my parents did me a great favor by throwing out our television when I was eight. I didn’t really learn to read until it was gone. Nowadays, often, music is what inspires me. I listened to Brahms’ Piano Concerto in B-Flat Major over and over while writing this book (Eva, the mother, plays the concerto in one scene). I’m currently working on a new novel that also involves this piece of music.

From the Hardcover edition.



“[A] captivating first novel…. At once crisp and poetic, detailed and spare.” --The New York Times Book Review

 “Graceful, persuasive…. The details—whether the contents of Matisse’s studio, or the packing and transporting of ‘Winged Victory’ from the Louvre in 1940—ring true…. Houghteling is a writer to watch.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“[A] lean, atmospheric novel…. Paris, even under the Germans, is storybook wonderful, and an unending display of great art marches through these pages.” —Dallas Morning News

“Evok[es] the atmosphere of Paris in the 1930s and ‘40s, using that mixture of the historical and the fictional that Alan Furst has made his metier. . . . Pictures at an Exhibition is an entertaining read and a window into a period in the history of the art market that was quickly denied.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Intelligent. . . . [Houghteling] does an excellent job of portraying the varying degrees of complicity of Paris’s remaining art dealers and leads a reader with a sure hand through a closed and rarified world.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“More than most writers, Houghteling succeeds in making us feel and understand the full, perverse impact of the German pillage of art in World War II, its sickening human cost.” —The Washington Post Book World
“A timely and touching first novel set in the World War II Paris art world that will appeal to all art lovers and especially to those addicted to following the vagaries of Nazi loot.” —Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa
Pictures at an Exhibition . . . offers a free trip to Paris. . . . This is the Paris of Impressionist paintings and 18th-century apartments, the Paris of classical music floating out of bay windows at 4 a.m. while young swains buy pretty girls daffodils from pushcarts on Les Halles. This is the Paris of balusters and brocade, marbled light and Maurice Chevalier, the Paris of cobblestone alleys and bustling boulevards, opinionated greengrocers and passionate lovers.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“This powerful first novel sets the historical tragedy [of Nazi looting] against a sad yet compelling tale of love and loss. The characters, all in their own ways emotionally wounded, seem as real as our neighbors. Marvelous little asides about art are scattered throughout the story, but what most struck me was the power of the prose. . . . Masterful.” —Stephen L. Carter, The Daily Beast
“Haunting. . . . With amazing authenticity, the author tells [her characters’] stories with all the twists and turns of the very best fiction.” —The Free Lance-Star
“[Pictures at an Exhibition] is more than just a love story and a description of Nazi greed. It is a metaphysical narrative that delves into themes of friendships and family relationships.” —San Antonio Express-News
“What a beautiful book! Sara Houghteling’s theme here is attachment: to the beauty of art, to childhood, to a world before loss and tragedy. The Paris she conjures for us is vivid and sad, the paintings she describes are glorious.” —Sophie Gee, author of The Scandal of the Season

“Houghteling’s knowledge of the inner workings of the early to mid-century art market—clearly the product of prodigious research—serves her well. . . . An engaging tale of familial love and redemption told through a search for artworks that are ultimately surrogates: The thousands of missing paintings stand in for the millions of people who perished in the camps.” —The New Leader
Pictures at an Exhibition has the fine-grained feeling of photographs by Kertesz or Atget. . . . Sparkling. . . . Houghteling writes with a spare grace, every scene supple and brisk, on this dark odyssey through a spiritually dimmed city.” —The Weekly Standard
Pictures at an Exhibition is remarkably self-assured, astute, worldly, and well-informed; in fact, it does not look like a first novel at all. Its subject-matter–stolen paintings, and Nazis, and the insatiable hunger for beauty–requires both erudition and brilliance, and Sara Houghteling has plenty of both, along with a sense of humor and a warm heart.” —Charles Baxter, author of The Soul Thief
“Moves with fluid grace between the real and the un, between bureaucratic and poetic. . . . Houghteling’s love of her subject is unmistakable. ”—Time Out Chicago
“Shows the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of mid-century Paris quite well. . . . A skillful work.” —Chattanooga Free Press
“Engrossing reading. Miss Houghteling has done her research well, and her descriptions of real paintings and places have depth and beauty.” —The Washington Times
“An impressive debut . . . Pictures at an Exhibition is both well-prepared and well-written, it grabs you and drags you along as it creeps through shady backalleys looking for black-market art dealers, and it stuns you just as it stuns Max Berenzon when some disturbing revelations are made.” —Sacramento Book Review
“Compelling and important.” —The Jerusalem Post
“Remarkable. . . . A refreshingly understated work that offers a subtle but powerful exploration of loss, and of the pain and havoc left in its wake.” —Haaretz
“In times like this, one turns to books like Pictures at an Exhibition for their exhilarating sense of wonder and ambition. No other book I have read in a long time has such depth of history and intelligence, setting art as antidote for suffering, and love as both a cause and remedy for pain.” —Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli

“In Pictures at an Exhibition, Sara Houghteling breathes new life into one of history’s great, unfinished stories. As exquisitely detailed and lavishly sensuous as the paintings that populate its pages, this is a riveting debut.” —Dustin Thomason, co-author of The Rule of Four
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

 “This book will conjure up the colors of Manet and Picasso more effectively than a glossy reproduction. . . . A thriller, a travelogue, and a mystery.”  —Minneapolis Star Tribune

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Sara Houghteling’s remarkable debut novel Pictures at an Exhibition

About the Guide

Set in Paris during the chaos of World War II, Pictures at an Exhibition is narrated by Max Berenzon, who from the vantage of a quiet old age looks back at his turbulent youth during the years just before, during, and after the war. It is a coming-of-age novel, chronicling its hero’s loss of innocence and painful awakening into mature knowledge. But it is also a love story and a fascinating historical fiction, firmly rooted in actual events, about Nazi art theft and valiant attempts to save some of France’s greatest artworks.
As the novel begins, the young Max is suffering two major disappointments. His father, one of the most important art dealers in Paris, has decided not to pass on his gallery to him, arguing the Max lacks the necessary skill and passion. And when his father hires a beautiful gallery assistant, Rose Clément, Max is siezed by an infatuation that will hold him spellbound for years.
As Paris falls to the Nazis, the Jewish Berenzons go into hiding in the French countryside. And when they return to Paris in 1944, they discover to their horror that the father’s entire art collection, including masterpieces by Picasso, Pissarro, Manet, Matisse, and many others, has been looted by the Nazis. The elder Berenzon is broken by this catastrophe, but Max sees in it a chance to win redemption in his father’s eyes by recovering his paintings. And if he cannot find them all, then he will devote himself to recovering his father’s most prized possession, Manet’s Almonds. His desperate search will take him into the duplicitous and dangerous world of corrupt art dealers, black-market collectors, Nazi collaborators, concentration camp survivors, and members of the French Resistance.
As well as an outward journey to reclaim his father's stolen paintings, Max’s quest is also an inward one that leads to greater self-knowledge and a painful loss of illusions. Along the way, he learns much about himself and his deepest motives, stumbles on a traumatic family secret, discovers the unsung heroism of Rose Clément, and is forced accept the fateful disappearance of his best friend Bertrand.
What makes Pictures at an Exhibition so remarkable is that it combines all these elements—Max’s quest for his father’s paintings and his own identity, the tragedy of the massive Nazi art theft in France, and the compelling story of a real-life hero of the Resistance, Rose Clément—so seamlessly. But the major focus of the novel is Max, who is driven by an extraordinary intersection of family dynamics, romantic illusions, vast historical forces, and his own unfolding personal psychology. His story provides a unique and emotionally resonant portal into the complexities of the war years in Paris.
Written with a sure grasp of historical fact and a powerful narrative drive, Pictures at an Exhibition takes readers behind the scenes of the Parisian art world, revealing an aspect of World War II that has rarely been so deftly explored.

About the Author

Sara Houghteling is a gratuate of Harvard College and received her master's in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, first prize in the Avery and Jules Hopwood Awards, and a John Steinbeck Fellowship. She currently lives in California, where she teaches high school English.

Discussion Guides

1. Pictures at an Exhibition is framed by the much older Max reflecting on his youth during the war years in Paris. How does this frame affect how the novel is read? Why does Max feel compelled to revisit his memories “determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them”? [p. 3].

2. Sara Houghteling has obviously gathered a wealth of research for Pictures at an Exhibition. By what means does she manage to weave this information into a compelling fictional narrative? What is the effect of mixing both actual historical figures—like Rose Clément, Hermann Goering, and others—with purely fictional characters?

3. What are the pleasures of reading historical fiction? What might account for the great resurgence of the historical novel in past decade?

4. When he first meets him, Chaim asks Max if he is "lost in the spiritual sense” [p. 108]. Is Max spiritually lost? In what sense is his quest to find his father’s paitings a spiritual quest?

5. Rose tells Max: “I think that you are looking for extraordinary happiness, with me, with these lost paintings, and it is not here. Not in this lifetime. Only aspire, Max, to ordinary happiness” [p. 169]. Is Rose right about Max’s aspirations? Does he find “ordinary happiness” in the end?

6. In what ways is Max’s relationship with his father complicated and difficult? What does Max ultimately hope to accomplish by finding his father’s stolen paintings?

7. By what means is Rose able to lull the Nazis into trusting her? How does she manage to turn herself into a “registry of lost art” [p.151] and thereby help rescue hundreds of paintings after the war?

8. How does learning of his sister affect Max? Why does he consider it a betrayal that his parents and Rose have kept Micheline’s existence and her death a secret from him?

9. Late in the novel, it occurs to Max that “the child believes his parents’ behavior has everything to do with him, always, and that this will then be the source of a life’s worth of misunderstandings” [p. 219]. In what ways is this true of Max? What misunderstandings have resulted from his feeling that his parents’ behavior was always about him?

10. What does the love story—Max’s unrequited love for Rose—add to the novel? Why does Rose repeatedly reject him?

11. What does Pictures at an Exhibition reveal about the inner workings of the art world in Paris before, during, and after World War II? In what ways were art collectors and dealers often complicit in the theft and resale of great artworks during this period?

12. What are the many ways in which the theme of loss gets played out in the novel? What are the major losses that Max suffers?

13. After Max is mugged and beaten on the streets of Paris, he thinks to himself: “My father had been right—the paintings were not to be found—and had turned back as soon as he sensed this, which was almost instantly. I had gone on, blindly. I was a work on paper: weightless, sketchy, all impulse” [p. 210]. Why does Max keep searching “blindly” for his father’s paintings? In what sense is he a “work on paper, weightless, sketchy, all impulse”?

14. What does Pictures at an Exhibition add to our knowledge of World War II?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart; Peter Carey, Theft; Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others; Louis de Bernières, Corelli’s Mandolin; Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray; Graham Greene, The End of the Affair; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient.

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