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Stealing a Monet


First I decided I needed to steal a picture. Then I had to work out what to steal. Nothing too obscure. It ought to be an artist everyone had heard of. An Impressionist, maybe? Monet, perhaps? Eureka!

The idea for my novel Girl with Parasol came from a 2008 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Paris called “A Qui Appartenaient Ces Tableaux?” (Looking for Owners). The exhibition showed pictures stolen by the Nazis whose owners had never been traced. There were paintings by Delacroix, Courbet, Vlaminck, Cézanne and Manet, among many others. It struck me at once that there was a book in there, but I was busy with another project and it was several years before I came back to it.

I returned to the museum bookshop in 2011, and I asked what to read. They started me off with a couple of books on Nazi looting.  I read at random, trying to find a way into the theme. I needed characters, I needed a plot, I needed a painting.  Weirdly, they all dropped into my head at breakfast one morning over the cornflakes, and the title of the book appeared later the same day.  Girl with Parasol, of course. What else?

“Girl with Parasol” does not exist.   Monet painted several pictures entitled “Femme à l’Ombrelle,” but there is no “Jeune Fille à l’Ombrelle.”  Fusing the existing portraits and the lily pond and the Japanese bridge, I invented the painting. The model for the fictional portrait is the daughter of Monet’s art dealer (also fictional). She is is fifteen when Monet paints her, and her name is Tania. By the time the novel gets under way in 1940 she is dead. My main character is her daughter Corinne. Monet’s portrait of Tania has great sentimental value for Corinne. When the Germans invade France, she conceals the fact that she is part-Jewish, and she hides the portrait from the Nazi looters.

The second character, Rose, I did not make up. From 1940-44, Rose Valland was the sole French curator at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, which was used as a transit point for looted artworks. Everything pillaged from Jewish dealers and collectors was sent there to be evaluated and inventorized before being shipped off to the Reich. The museum was guarded, and its existence kept secret. Rose eavesdropped on conversations, noted what paintings came in, where they had come from, when they were going to be shipped. At the risk of her life, she passed the information to the Resistance. Rose was dowdy of dress, unobtrusive of manner, meticulous and determined. She was the perfect spy. When I came to write about her, I discovered that her autobiography had been out of print for years. (Rose was no writer, and her book is virtually unreadable, but that’s not the point.) Happily, Le Front de l’Art was re-published when the feature film The Monuments Men was released in 2014. In the movie, Rose is played by Cate Blanchett. I doubt she was as glamourous in the flesh, but at least she’s getting the recognition she deserves.

Rose seems to have had no sex life – she lived on art alone – but Corinne needed a love interest, and this turned out to be Thomas, an up-and-coming German diplomat. Thomas is not a Nazi, he’s an opportunist. He thinks he can use the Nazis to get on in life, but realizes too late that he’s been outmanoeuvered. His role was originally to make friends with Corinne, discover the portrait, betray her, and bow out. It rapidly became clear that he had other ideas. He betrays Corinne, but he falls in love with her too. His scenes with Corinne wrote themselves. This is not always an advantage, and I had a bad experience with a needy character in an early book. But this time it served a purpose, so I let him stay.

“Girl with Parasol” is confiscated by the Gestapo in 1942, and sent to Berlin at the request of the Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who, unlike most of the Nazi hierarchy, had a fondness for the Impressionists. The portrait hangs in his office for about a year, until Allied bombing of Berlin impels Hanna, one of the Minister’s secretaries, to rescue the painting and take it home with her. Hanna keeps it safe till the end of the war, but then it is stolen again – this time by the Russians. The Russians were sole occupiers of Berlin for two months at the end of the war, and during that period they seized all the artworks they could get their hands on. They took far more pieces than the Nazis, in a far more disorganized manner, shipped them back to the USSR, and stashed them out of sight.

Like many authors, I like to see the places I write about for myself. I knew the Hermitage from previous trips, and doubted I would be able to get in to see either the Director’s office or the basement at first hand. I knew Berlin already too, but I made another trip there one summer to inspect the remains of the Foreign Ministry and scout out locations for Hanna’s apartment. Eventually I settled her in Charlottenburg. From there I thought about going to Dachau, where Corinne has a life-changing experience towards the end of the book, but in the end I chickened out. Having seen both Buchenwald, which was weird (the exhibition I saw was from the time of the DDR, and the East German curators were keener on glorifying anti-Fascist resistance than on discussing loss of life), and Auschwitz, which was terrible, I decided I knew enough to write one scene in the camp.

Other than that there wasn’t much travelling, since most of the book is set in France, where I live. In Paris, I revisited the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume. I tracked down Rose’s building on Rue de Navarre, near the Arènes de Lutèce, and located Thomas’ lodgings in the Hôtel d’Orsay, where a lot of German personnel were housed. I took a tour of the Hôtel de Beauharnais, which was the German Embassy during the war. I selected Corinne’s apartment on Rue du Bac and found her a suitable gallery to rent on Rue de Verneuil.

And then I went south. After her run-in with the Gestapo, Corinne flees over the Pyrenees into Spain, and goes to New York to join her family. I put out feelers in St. Jean de Luz to see if anyone remembered the wartime exfiltrations, but no one wanted to talk about it. Are the routes still in use? Are the memories too painful? In the end I had to rely on books, but the Basque passeurs I mention were all real people, and the escape route is one that was frequently used for “night work.”

“Girl with Parasol” reached Leningrad in October 1945. For the next fifty years the portrait was stored in the basement of the Hermitage, along with thousands of other looted artworks. No one knew they were there: the works were believed to have been destroyed. The museum did not reveal their existence until after the Soviet collapse, in 1994.

When the trove comes to light, Corinne is eighty-four and living in Connecticut. Her son Daniel travels to St. Petersburg, locates the painting, and buys it illicitly off a museum employee who needs money for her sick mother. He flies back to New York with the stolen Monet, and restores it to Corinne at the end of her life.

April 2015

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