Portrait of a Woman in White

portrait of a owman in whitePortrait of a Woman in White by Susan Winkler is the story of a family of wealthy Jewish art collectors in Paris that begins before World War II. That’s all I need to say, and you can imagine the rest. You already know what tragedy will befall them even if they don’t. We know they will be forced to flee France, or worse, and that their art will be looted.

But it’s what we don’t know that makes us keep turning the page. Who will survive and how? What becomes of the family’s most precious possession, a Matisse portrait of their mother? And finally, what will become of the young lovers who are separated at the border of France and Spain?

By now most of us know about The Monuments Men, the story of how the Nazis systematically looted the art of Paris. We’ve seen the images of Hermann Göring marching into the Jeu de Paume in Paris to claim more trophies for his art collection under the watchful eye of Rose Valland. But to hear the story from the point of view of one young woman, Lili Rosenswig, brings it all to life and makes the tragedy that more real.

First, Lili witnesses her mother posing for Matisse in his studio on Boulevard Montparnasse in a lovely white satin gown. The portrait becomes a prized family possession, and hangs from the wall of the Rosenswig’s salon in a gilded wood frame. As the Rosenswigs prepare to flee France, they hide the Matisse at their relative’s country villa, planning to see it again soon. Instead, the family is betrayed and the portrait is seized by the Nazis along with most of their other valuables, and taken to the Jeu de Paume.

As Winkler explains in the book:

The Jeu de Paume was a serene pavilion set in the northwest corner of the Tuileries Garden, opposite the Louvre, in the center of Paris. Napoleon had built it to house tennis courts, and its high white walls had served most recently as an impressionist museum. But when the Nazis arrived in Paris and began seizing private Jewish collections, the initial storage rooms in the nearby German embassy were soon filled to overflowing. Urgently, four hundred cases of work were moved to the Jeu de Paume, which then became the official repository and sorting center for all the art that the Nazis confiscated in France.


Rose Valland is the lone French member who remained on the staff of the Jeu de Paume after the Germans requisitioned it, and managed to keep a secret record of all of the stolen art that came in and out of the museum.

Jeu de Paume Plaque

The plaque on the side of the Jeu de Paume commemorating Rose Valland’s heroism on behalf of French art. It explains that from the fall of 1940 until the summer of 1944, the building was requisitioned by occupying German forces storing art stolen from the French. Rose Valland took great risks to record the location of the stolen art, which resulted in the restitution of over 45,000 works.


Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946

Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946. Source: Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si/edu

In Winkler’s book, Valland watches as Göring marches into the Jeu de Paume with his entourage of German officers and curators. The Matisse portrait catches Goring’s eye and leaves him breathless. Lili’s mother looks just like Göring’s deceased wife Carin. Göring claims the painting for his personal collection in his hunting estate near Berlin, named Carinhall after his first wife.


Goring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia

Göring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia


The painting has its own journey, just as Lili Rosenswig and her family do. What became of the thousands of pieces artwork that Göring had installed in Carinhall by the war’s end? As bombs fell near Berlin, Göring was loading trucks and trains with his 1,375 paintings, 250 sculptures, 108 tapestries, 75 stained-glass windows and 175 objet’s d’art, sending them to secret locations in various mountain villages, including a mine shaft in Altausee, Austria and Bertchtesgaden in Bavaria.

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

The story of A Woman in White is even more interesting because a very similar art mystery was just resolved earlier this year. A real-life Matisse painting called Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace was the property of Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg, was looted by the Nazis and sold to an unscrupulous French art dealer. A Norwegian art collector bought it in 1950, unaware of its provenance, and proudly installed it in the Onie Onsted Art Museum near Oslo, Norway. In 2012, Rosenberg heirs asserted a claim against the museum, and in March, 2014, after its own investigation, the museum agreed to give the $20 million painting back to its original owners, in accordance with the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, to which Norway is a signatory. To read more, click here.

The road to reunite pre-war owners of Nazi looted art is long and complicated. And so it is for Lili and the Portrait of the Woman in White. Will Lili and her family every see their beloved painting again? You’ll just have to read Susan Winkler’s book to find out.


For further reading:

A previous post reviewing the book Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling












My prior post about The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal



Mary Cassatt’s Chicago Mural

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman Mural (1893)

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman Mural, as photographed in the Women’s Building of the Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

In 1892, Mary Cassatt and Mary MacMonnies, both of whom were American artists living in France, were commissioned to paint giant murals for the Chicago World’s Fair. Bertha Palmer, a Chicago philanthropist and wife of the rich and powerful Potter Palmer, had been named the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the fair, and was determined to fill the walls of the Women’s Building with original art by talented women.

Cassatt was not Bertha Palmer’s first choice. Palmer preferred the more traditional style of Elizabeth Gardner, an American painter who lived in Paris with the famous French academic painter William Adolphe Bourguereau. But Gardner turned down the commission, claiming that it would be too physically demanding for her at the age of 55.

Sara Hallowell, an American art dealer who had been appointed Assistant Chief of the Fine Arts Department of the fair, urged Palmer to consider the more modern Cassatt. Although Bertha Palmer was familiar with her work, Cassatt was not well-known in America at the time, despite the fact that she was nearly 50 years old and had been painting for over 30 years.

Cassatt had mixed feelings about the commission, as shared in a letter to her friend Louisiana Havemeyer:

I am going to do a decoration for the Chicago Exhibition. When the committee offered it to me to do, at first I was horrified, but gradually I began to think it would be great fun to do something I had never done before and as the bare idea of such a thing put Degas into a rage and he did not spare every criticism he could think of, I got my spirit up and said I would not give up the idea for anything.


Degas considered “decorations” such as mural work beneath a true artist, but his opposition “got her spirit up” and convinced her to accept the commission. The theme was Modern Woman, which Cassatt would explore with the smoldering feminist point of view of a successful single female at a turning point in history.

Cassatt’s mural was a 58×12 foor triptych that featured women picking fruit, dancing, playing instruments and interestingly, young women chasing a flying nude female figure. Cassatt fully intended all of the underlying feminist symbolism (women picking the forbidden fruit for themselves and passing it on; young women chasing fame, being chased by a gaggle of geese) but the subtext and the modernism of Cassatt’s technique shocked Chicago audiences.

Cassatt received horrible reviews for the work, which disappeared after the fair and has never been found. Some speculate it was destroyed while in storage at the end of the fair, while others hope that it might still be uncovered in the back room of some small midwestern college.


I already knew the story of the mural when I set out to see Chateau Beaufresne, Mary Cassatt’s country home in Le Mesnil-Theribus, feeling a special connection between my hometown of Chicago and France. I also knew that Cassatt didn’t buy Chateau Beaufresne until 1894, so I knew she didn’t paint the mural there. In fact, Cassatt painted the mural at another country home that she rented in nearby Bachivillers, France. I was determined to find it.

Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt's summer home in 1891 and 1892, not far from Le Mesnil-Theribus

Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt’s summer home in 1891 and 1892, not far from Le Mesnil-Theribus


Chateau Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt's rental home north of Paris the summers of 1891 and 1892, the place where she painted the Modern Woman Mural for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Chateau Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt’s rental home north of Paris during the summers of 1891 and 1892. This is where Cassatt painted the Modern Woman Mural for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

I never would have found the right house were it not for the help of Marianne Caron of the French organization Les Amis de Mary Cassatt. The home is privately owned, and there are no plaques or commemorative signs to identify it. Caron and I drove over from the nearby village of Le Mesnil-Theribus on a narrow little country road surrounded by farmland. Caron confirmed that this would have been the very same road on which Cassatt and her father would have traveled in their horse-drawn carriage. The smell of moist soil rose from the newly tilled fields. It felt like we were a million miles from Paris and decades – if not centuries – back in time.

Caron told me that the current owners of Chateau Bachivillers are aware of the house’s history and have actually hosted a Mary Cassatt lecture in the home, which Caron participated in.

And then I asked her about the trench. I had read that Cassatt built a special outdoor glass-roofed studio at Chateau Bachivillers in order to complete the mural. She had workmen dig a giant 60×6 foot trench into the soil below. This way, Cassatt – who was almost 50 years old – wouldn’t have to climb on ladders to reach the upper portions of the mural. Instead, the workmen would lower the mural into the trench.

I wondered, would remnants of the trench remain all these years?

While I wasn’t able to enter the property and examine the yard for myself, Caron told me the story about the time she did exactly that. When she was there for the Mary Cassatt lecture, she walked out to the side yard (indicating to the left of the home) with another local expert, and they spotted some disruption in the soil. However, something about its location made them skeptical, it being more likely that the studio would have been located to the rear of the chateau where there was no evidence of a trench.

As I stood outside Chateau Bachivillers, I tried to imagine Cassatt’s trusted friends and family arriving to witness Cassatt’s progress on the mural, including Chicago art dealer Sara Hallowell, Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and possibly Cassatt’s friend and neighbor in L’Oise, Camille Pissaro. Cassatt longed for Degas’ advice, but never invited him out to see the mural for fear of his savage opinions.

In the end, Cassatt was paid $3,000 for the mural, which was the same amount that men were paid for their similar murals for the fair. It was enough to compensate Cassatt for her many expenses, including the cost of the models, the workmen, the studio and the trench. Cassatt was able to shake off the criticism of the unsophisticated American audience and continued to work quite happily on new paintings with some of the same models. Just as the Chicago World’s Fair closed, Cassatt’s first major Paris exhibition opened at Durand-Ruel’s gallery, featuring 100 of her paintings.

A talented and independent woman still hitting her stride at the age of 50. In 1894. I’m humbled and inspired. . . .


For further reading: Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt by Sally Webster and Mary Cassatt: A Life by Nancy Matthews

Eve's Daughter








Cassatt A Life, Mathews

Mary Cassatt’s Gravesite

I recently wrote about my trip out to Chateau de Beaufresne, Mary Cassatt’s country home north of Paris in Le Mesnil-Theribus. There, I made the acquaintance of Marianne Caron, local tour guide and Cassatt expert, who took me on a short walk from the chateau to the Cassatt family gravesite.

On the way, we talked about our shared interest in Cassatt and the local stories about Cassatt’s involvement in the community. Cassatt employed many locals as domestic staff, gardeners and models, and thus had very deep connections to the community.

Many of the local women worked in a button factory, and according to local legend, Cassatt intervened on their behalf in a wage dispute and strike against their employer. Cassatt cared so deeply about the local children (many of whom were here little models) that she built them a small schoolhouse and arranged for them to go to public school. On our way to the cemetery, Marianne Caron pointed out the building that once housed the school that Cassatt built.

Rumor has it that Cassatt gave some of her artwork to local friends and supporters as gifts. In fact, she once offered her gardener (whose descendants are known to Marianne Caron) to take his pick of a selection of canvases that were propped up against the wall. He declined and lived to tell his children that he wished he hadn’t.

Once we reached the gravesite, I was struck by the fact that both of Cassatt’s parents were buried here, along with her sister Lydia and her younger brother Robert (“Robbie”). Cassatt truly did consider France her home, and wanted her loved ones nearby. Robbie died of bone cancer in Germany in 1855, and was originally buried in Germany. (I believe Caron told me that Cassatt moved his remains to France after World War I.) Lydia died in 1882 at the age of 45. Robert Cassatt died in 1891, before Mary purchased Chateau de Beaufresne. Mary and her mother lived there together for just one year before her mother passed away in 1895. Ever since 1926, they have all rested peacefully together in Le Mesnil-Theribus.

The cemetery gates of Le Mesnil-theribus

The cemetery gates of Cemetiére Saint Louis in Le Mesnil-Theribus


The sign honoring Mary Cassatt in French and English, donated by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt

The sign honoring Mary Cassatt’s legacy in both French and English, donated by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt


Locals donated this plaque to remember Mary Cassatt and her contribution to the community

Locals donated this plaque to remember Mary Cassatt and her contribution to the community. Le Moulin Vert is the current name of the old Chateau Beaufresne, named after the green water mill on the property.


Mary stevenson Cassatt (1845-1926)

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) – but doesn’t the grave say 1843?


Family Cassatt's grave marker

Family Cassatt’s grave marker

A building in Le Mesnil-Theribus that Cassatt is said to have built as a schoolhouse for the local children

A building in Le Mesnil-Theribus that Cassatt is said to have built as a schoolhouse for the local children. It is located just down the street from the cemetery.


The lovely chemin from the chateau to the cemetery.

The lovely tree-covered chemin from the chateau to the cemetery.



For Further Reading: I Have Always Loved You by Robin Olivera, in which the story begins and ends at Chateau de Beaufresne, as Cassatt is remembering her relationship with Degas.

My Review here: Cassatt and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you