The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

The Other Alcott is a novel I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I’ve known about Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister – the artist, the one after whom the fictional Amy March was created – and I knew the outlines of her story. But that is like the difference between sketching a skeleton and the full, live human figure.

In Elise Hooper’s able and generous hands, May’s story is fleshed out. It thrums with life, passion and imagination, and becomes one that we can relate to. It speaks to us across the centuries, a timeless story of one woman artist that can inspire, encourage and guide 21st century women still trying to figure it out today. What else could you possibly ask from historical fiction?

I have to admit that even I underestimated May Alcott. When I first saw the illustrations May drew for her sister Louisa’s book Little Women, I agreed with her contemporary critics. The drawings were amateurish, not lifelike enough, the product of an artist not without natural born talent, but still, with a long way to go.

The Nation’s critique was brutal: “May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in Little Women betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.”

The criticism stung. But yet she persisted.

May might have been hurt, but she was humble enough to understand that she needed professional instruction. (Lesson #1: Accept valid criticism.) So she figured it out.

In 1860s America, art training wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to find, especially in a small town like Concord. Victorian society was squeamish about women looking at naked bodies or studying anatomy. Nevertheless, May found a doctor in Boston who offered anatomical drawing classes to women. (Lesson #2: Ignore the prudes.) Thanks to the money from the sale of Little Women, her sister Louisa was able to afford an apartment in Boston for the two of them to share. (Lesson #3: Accept help graciously.)

May absorbed everything in Dr. Ritter’s drawing classes, but there was no drawing from life. Day after day, the women copied sketches of hands and wrists or they drew from plaster casts of skulls and human bones. May’s skills improved; her eye for the human form awakened. (Lesson #4: Start at the beginning.)

In Elise Hooper’s novel, May meets a number of established women artists who show her the way. The first is Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a Paris-trained American artist who in 1868 was one of the first women (including Mary Cassatt) who had a painting accepted in the Paris salon. They meet at a Boston art gallery (Lesson #5: Go to art galleries) where Gardner holds court and tells shocking tales about her bohemian life in Paris: dressing like a man so she could have access to live models, dragging a sick lion into her studio in order to study animal anatomy. It might have been a bit of shock and awe, but it inspired May to go to France. (Lesson #6: Listen to the stories of those who’ve come before.)

Elizabeth Jane Gardner as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (her mentor, teacher and future husband) in 1879. I love how little this portrait reveals of her true spirit, except for that hint of a smile.

Inspired by Gardner’s stories, May and Louisa head off on a European adventure together in 1870. I’ve previously written on this blog about May’s first trip to France in a post titled Little Women in Dinan, France. I walked in their footsteps in the pretty historic village where May first stayed in Europe. May was frustrated that she couldn’t get to Paris for art lessons, but she spent the season exploring and sightseeing with a sketchbook in hand. (Lesson #7: Take your sketchbook.)

14 Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France, the location of Madame Coste’s pension where the Alcott sisters stayed from April to June, 1870. As Louisa May Alcott described it in a letter dated April 24, 1870: “We are living, en pension, with a nice old lady just on the walls of the town with Anne of Brittany’s round tower on the one hand, the Porte of St. Louis on the other, and a lovely promenade made in the old moat just before the door.”

May’s first trip to France was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but on their detour to Italy, May finally had the chance to see nude paintings and sculptures and to draw from a live nude model. In the book, May encounters the “sniggers and chuffs” of  from the men in the studio, but she ignores the sexual harassment and soldiers on, overcoming her own embarrassment in order to learn valuable skills. (Lesson #8: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.)

May’s studies would continue back in Boston with William Morris Hunt, advancing from live drawing to oil painting, and then in London, where she copied the masters in the National Gallery and discovered the wonders of J.M.W. Turner. (Lesson #9: Study the masters.) While sketching at the gallery, May met John Ruskin, the Trustee of the National Gallery’s Turner collection, who connected her to London art dealers interested in selling her Turner copies. May finally began to earn an income from her art. (Lesson #10: Make connections.) 

In 1874, May’s efforts to pursue her art in London would be interrupted by family caregiving demands. Her sister Louisa demanded that she come back to Boston to help take care of their ailing mother. But somehow May figured out a way to juggle her responsibilities at home with opportunities to study and teach art in Boston, all the while saving her money and dreaming about her chance to study in Paris. (Lesson #11: Become a skilled juggler.)

By 1877, May was making her way in the Paris art world. She got a painting accepted into the Paris salon, she met Mary Cassatt, and was seeking a way to earn a living by selling her own original paintings. In the lovely painting below, you can see how far May had come from her early days in Concord.

May Alcott Neiriker, La Nigresse, oil on canvas (1879). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail_May_Alcott_Nieriker

May’s final challenge would be to find a way to balance love and art, to make sure she continued to pursue her painting even after she fell in love and faced the responsibilities of keeping a home and starting a family. (Lesson #11: Find the nearest Planned Parenthood?)  

As you can see, Elise Hooper’s book is a lovely story about May Alcott Niericker’s struggle to overcome criticism, sexism, sibling rivalry and family caregiving demands in order to pursue her dream to become a professional artist. It’s chocked full of lessons in both humility and persistence, lessons we still need today. At least I do.

The Other Alcott: Highly recommended.

 

For further reading:

 

 

 

 

The Muse by Jessie Burton: An Artist’s View

Art makes for great stories. Because there’s always a story behind the making of art.

In The Muse by Jessie Burton (HarperCollins 2016), there isn’t just one, but two interwinding stories – set 30 years apart – about a mysterious painting. One story is set in a 1960s London art gallery, the other in a beautiful Spanish villa at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

the muse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spain, 1936. A Viennese art dealer and and his family have recently arrived at a dreamy villa on the warm southern coast of Spain. Their daughter Olive has just been admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but doesn’t know how to ask her father for permission to go. He wouldn’t approve. He doesn’t think women should paint.

So instead of confronting her parents, Olive sneaks upstairs to the attic in order to paint in secret. Her new canvases are infused with the passion and inspiration she feels for her new home – the heat, the sun, the landscape, the orchards, but especially, the dark, handsome villager named Isaac Robles who has stirred up something new and deep inside her. Isaac is an artist too, but mostly he’s a young revolutionary intent on organizing and agitating for his cause.

In the middle of this lush and provocative setting, Olive creates a painting that sounds just gorgeous: a loose, surrealistic view of the villa (they call it a “finca”) from the bottom of the orchards, with fields painted in “ochres and grasshopper greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns.” Olive even surprises herself:

She never knew she was capable of such work. She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked.

Olive hides The Orchard under her bed and works on sketches of her muse Isaac (Isaac Chopping Wood, Isaac with Coffee Cup) until she is inspired to try an even more complicated painting.

Isaac and his sister have told Olive about a old Spanish legend in which two sisters, Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, become Christian martyrs. (It’s a real story, but I’d never heard of it before so of course I had to Google it.) Two sisters are persecuted for their Christian beliefs during the Roman Empire. After breaking a pot with a pagan image of Venus, one sister is thrown down a well and the other is thrown to the lions.

Somehow, Olive figures out a way to paint it. She calls it Santa Justa in the Well.

The new piece was a surreal composition, colorful, disjointed to the gaze. It was a diptych; Santa Justa before her arrest and after, set against a dark indigo sky and a shining field. . . .

The left half of the painting was lush and glowing. Olive had used ordinary oils, but had also experimented with gold leaf, which glinted in the light as she held the painting up. . . .

In the middle of the healthy land on this left-hand side stood a woman, her hair the color of the crop. She was carrying a heavy pot with deer and rabbits painted on it, and its centre was the face of the goddess Venus. Both the faces of the woman and Venus looked proud, staring out at the viewer.

I tried to imagine what this painting might look like. I can definitely see The Orchard in my mind’s eye, but not this one. There’s sky and crops and the full figure of a woman and a pot so detailed you can see the little deer and rabbits and the face of Venus. And then the other side of the diptych it gets even more complicated.

On the right half of the painting, the crop was deadened and limp. The woman appeared again, except this time she was curled inside a circle, hovering over the crop. This circle was filled with an internal perspective to make it look as if it had depth, as if the woman was lying at the bottom of a well. Her hair was now severed and dull, her pot had smashed around her, a puzzle impossible for anyone to piece together. Around the rim of the well, full-sized deer and rabbits peered down, as if set free from the broken crockery. Venus had vanished.

My goodness, what a difficult project for Olive to take on as a beginning painter. As I say to myself sometimes when I’m struggling with a difficult painting: “maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew with this one.” Olive has had no formal training – not that’s the only route to artistic genius, but it sure helps. And how quickly did she paint it? This complicated a composition would take days, weeks, even months. And how did she keep her act of painting so secret? What about the strong smell of oil paint (which her father the art dealer would’ve recognized)? Apparently Olive’s parents were quite distracted during this part of the book.

The Muse relies heavily on the myth of original genius. It makes a good story. An untrained but inspired young woman creates a breathtaking piece of art without any training, instruction or advice. It sounds lovely, but I don’t happen to believe in it.

That’s not to say the subject would have been impossible to paint. Other famous Spanish artists have taken their turn with the legend of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, including Valasquez, de Goya and Murillo.

From Jessie Burton's Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya's "Santa Justa y Santa Rufina" (!817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain

From Jessie Burton’s Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya’s “Santa Justa y Santa Rufina” (1817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Old Master Paintings Sale Sotheby's, London - July, 4 , 2007 Velazquez (1599 - 1660) Saint Rufina Estimate: 6,000,000 - 8,000,000 Copyright in this image shall remain vested in Sotheby’s. Please note that this image may depict subject matter which is itself protected by separate copyright. Sotheby’s makes no representations as to whether the underlying subject matter is subject to its own copyright, or as to who might hold such copyright. It is the borrower's responsibility to obtain any relevant permissions from the holder(s) of any applicable copyright and Sotheby’s supplies this image expressly subject to this responsibility.

Diego Valasquez, Saint Rufina (circa 1630-1635), oil on canvas, Foundation Focus-Abengoa, Seville, Spain

 

Murillo, Santa Justa

Bartolomé Murillo, Santa Justa (c. 1665), oil on canvas, Meadows Museum, Dallas,  Texas. In fact, there is an interesting side story about this Murillo painting and its companion piece, Santa Rufino. When the Meadows Museum initiated provenance research in accordance with the recent effort to identify Nazi era looted art, it was discovered that these two paintings had indeed been stolen from the Rothschild family during World War II. The Monuments Men Foundation is currently researching whether or not the paintings had been  properly restituted  before they were donated to the Meadows Museum.

 

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Juan Barreto, Justa y Rufina (1989), oil on canvas, University of Seville, Spain

Fortunately, I was able to put aside my misgivings about how Olive’s paintings came to be, because the story soon becomes a fascinating mystery. The Spanish Civil War intervenes with its tales of danger, tragedy, loss and confusion, and we’re not quite sure what’s become of Olive’s secret paintings, much less Olive’s family and friends.

London, 1967.  Odelle, a young Caribbean immigrant with dreams of becoming a writer nabs a typing job at a fancy London art gallery. She stumbles upon a long-lost painting that her professional colleagues attribute to a Spanish artist named Isaac Robles, who is rumored to have died in the Spanish Civil War decades earlier. (Remember that hot young revolutionary, Olive’s muse? Yes, him.)

The gallery prepares for a show announcing its exciting new discovery and highlighting Isaac Robles’ short but apparently brilliant career. Odelle digs deeper into the painting’s provenance and makes an unlikely ally. As Odelle uncovers the truth behind the painting, she find the inner fuel to pick up her own neglected journals and return to her dreams of becoming a writer.

In the end, it turns out that Odelle has encountered a muse of her own. As Odelle says in the last wonderful line in the book, “in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being.”

 

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And that, friends, is how you write a terrific book. Art makes for great stories, doesn’t it?  Oh, and by the way, the author Jessie Burton has a fabulous Pinterest Board for The Muse. Check it out!

 

 

The Muse by Jessie Burton. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

I’m thrilled to tell you about a new book featuring The American Girls Art Club in Paris. It’s called The Light of Paris, authored by Eleanor Brown, who also wrote the fun and quirky The Weird Sisters a few years back.

light of paris

Whether you’re a longtime follower of this blog, or you’re interested the history of the Reid Hall in Paris, or maybe you’re just a fellow Francophile, then you’ll love reading about Margie, a young American débutante who defies her family’s traditional expectations to spend a Jazz-Age summer at the American Girls Club in Paris, writing in cafés, meeting avant-garde artists and working at The American Library in Paris.

My name is Margie too. How fun is that? It feels a little like reading one of those children’s books that you can have personalized with your child’s name.

I was like, “Go Margie Go!”

Margie’s story is told through the lens of her granddaughter Madeleine who finds Margie’s old diaries in a trunk in her mother’s house. The diaries reveal Margie’s secret life in Paris, inspiring Madeleine to rediscover her artistic talents and to pursue her own dreams.

The plot might be a bit predictable, but who doesn’t enjoy a story set in Paris? And especially, who wouldn’t love to visit the Left Bank scenes around the Rue de Chevreuse and The American Girls Art Club in Paris?

Here is a post I wrote during my own year abroad about the history of the American Girls Art Club in Paris, which includes some of my own photos to accompany the book. I’m posting a few more below. They may not be the best quality, but hey, I was there and it was cool. You get the idea.

 

 Courtyard Image 2011

Reid Center Courtyard  (The former American Girls Art Club in Paris)

 

Reid Center 1

 

Reid Center 3

 

 

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

 

 

There are more (and better quality) photos on the Reid Hall – Columbia Global Centers – Paris website. You can watch a video on their website too, which shows some fabulous historical photos and informs you about their current global initiative.

Isn’t it good to know that new generations of students and travelers get to have their own adventures in Paris, like those of Margie and other young women of the American Art Club?

 

Recommended Art History Novels

As readers of this blog know, I’m a little obsessed with art history books, both fiction and nonfiction, and there have been quite a few good ones lately. I just took a stack to my painting class and passed them around. Here’s your chance to find out my recent art history reading recs too.

last paintig of sara de vosThe Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April, 2016). Haven’t heard of it yet? You will. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, earning this fabulous review from the New York Times.

This novel is a mix of your favorite art history novels, but it’s still uniquely its own. It blends themes from The Goldfinch (with fast-paced suspense, a mysterious art theft and its grasp of what power a painting can have over its beholders), The Girl With a Pearl Earring (in its gorgeous, tender depiction of painters in 1600s Holland) and The Art Forger (fascinating passages about forgery techniques; insightful consideration of the psychological effects on an artist who uses her skills to commit artistic fraud).

To summarize, an art history grad agrees to “copy” a valuable but lesser known Dutch painting, At the Edge of a Wood by Sara de Vos (an imaginary painting by a real artist), knowing full well that it is probably going to be used as a forgery. The original is stolen and replaced with the copy. Decades pass. The art forger is now a respected curator and art historian specializing in female Dutch painters of the Golden Age, and when she mounts an exhibition, both the original and her forged copy of At the Edge of a Wood arrive on loan to the art museum. Which one is real? How can you tell? Will the curator’s shameful secret be revealed and her career destroyed? And what about the woman who painted it so many centuries ago?

I especially appreciated the author’s enlightened approach to the psychological evolution of the female characters. (Is it relevant that the author is a man? Does that make it more of a writerly/moral accomplishment — or is that lowering the bar for men? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Too often in historical fiction, whether the author is male or female, women become powerless pawns in service of plot, or victims of gender-based restrictions. While it might be true to the period, it can make for dull, uninspired reading. And yet, to give a historical female character too much agency can feel false and anachronistic.

In The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith manages to capture the truth of the historical era without sacrificing the depth of female character development. Seriously, I almost stood up and cheered at the end when I learned the full story of the last painting of Sara De Vos. So bravo to the author for pulling that off.

In addition, the author has a wonderful website you really need to visit to check out such things as: How to Forge a 17th Century Dutch Painting and “Forgeries and Figments.”

Very highly recommended.

 

improbability of love

I just burned through The Improbability of   Love by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf, November 2015). I just love the U.S. cover — very clever turning  palette into a heart, don’t you think? I’m pleased to recommend it as another suspenseful art history novel.

Once again we have an imaginary painting (“The Improbability of Love“) by a real artist, this time a French Rococo painter from the 1700s, Antoine Watteau. Check out the author’s website where she answers the question, Why Watteau? A young chef named Annie McDee stumbles upon the painting in a second-hand shop where no one knows its true value. Annie buys is for a song, and then curious, begins to research its provenance.

The fun part of this book — a really clever move, if you ask me — comes when the painting speaks for itself. He has a distinctive voice, funny and full of insult and injury about the state of his neglect. As the painting says in his first turn to speak:

I knew I’d be rescued but never thought it would take fifty years. There should have been search parties, battalions and legions. Why? Because I am priceless and I am also the masterpiece that launched a whole artistic genre. And if that isn’t enough, I am considered to be the greatest, the most moving, and the most thrilling representation of love.

. . .

Imagine being stuffed away in a bric-a-brac shop in the company of a lot of rattan furniture, cheap china and reproduction pictures. I would not call myself a snob but there are limits.

In addition to the droll little quips from the painting, you have Russian oligarchs, greedy art dealers, clueless art experts and a Nazi art hoarder who has tried to cover up his past. Not all of these elements work, and some of the characters just clutter up the less-than-perfect plot. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the passages about the cleaning and restoration of the painting as well as the research into its provenance. The plot is suspenseful, and you’re never sure whether Annie will be able to keep the painting safe from the many interested parties who would do anything, pay anything, to lay claim to it.

Recommended.

 

georgia

Another art history novel I’m really excited about is Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe by Dawn Tripp. I am hoping my Chicago book club will read it this summer, paired with a visit to O’Keefe’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago.

We all know Georgia O’Keefe from her later years as a painter of the Southwest. Maybe you’ve even been to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. I knew that O’Keefe was born in Wisconsin and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, but then what? Hmmm, wasn’t there something about an affair with a New York photographer?

Dawn Tripp’s novel begins in New York City in 1916, the year Georgia O’Keefe meets Alfred Stieglitz, “the father of modern photography.” Stieglitz and O’Keefe form a passionate partnership as lovers and fellow artists. Tripp was lucky enough to have access to the recently released letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz  as she wrote the book (they’d been kept under seal for 25 years after O’Keefe’s death in 1986). All of those powerful, tumultuous scenes between her characters are the real deal. As Tripp has said herself, “their love affair was a loaded one: Ambition. Desire. Sex. Love. Fame. Betrayal. A search for artistic freedom.”

This story is about a woman’s fight to create and retain her own artistic identity. Stieglitz wants to control her but she’ll have none of it, even after their marriage. O’Keefe fiercely guards her independence and insists having “a room of her own.” (The key to any artist’s happiness, right?) In the end, O’Keefe’s “room of her own” was her home and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she spent over 50 years of her life. In charge of her own life and art.

The author’s website is worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about Georgia O’Keefe, including a fabulous Book Club Kit I plan to use myself.

Very highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Rivals of Versailles: Sally Christie Interview

The Rivals of Versailles

 

 

I just finished The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie (as well as the first book in the Versailles series, The Sisters of Versailles) and I’ve just got to share them with you. My book club is going to love them. Who can resist historical fiction from the “other woman’s” point of view? I literally burned through both books and still feel like I’m sneaking through the secret halls and corridors of Versailles.

 

 

The Rivals of Versailles is about King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. When I lived in France, I heard a lot about her but never knew her story. I was surprised how much the French knew about her (so American of me — shocked at the lack of French shame about affairs and mistresses).

I enjoyed the book so much I reached out to Sally Christie and she was generous enough to answer my questions.

Margie:  How much time did you spend researching in Versailles, and how did it inform your writing?

Sally: I’ve made two research trips to Versailles and both times spent about a week there, staying in the town of Versailles (the palace is literally in the town). The town is almost as interesting as the palace itself, and dates from the 17th century as well. Many of the high nobles that had apartments in the palace (a sign of great prestige) also had houses in town, for their overflow of servants, clothes and horses.

Those research trips were absolutely critical for capturing the sensory details and imagining how the sisters lived.  Seeing the reality of their lives, standing at the same windows and looking out over the same gardens, walking through the stables and kennels and gardens made imagining the scenes of their lives so much easier.


Margie: If you were a tour guide at Versailles and in charge of an exciting new tour called “The Mistresses of Versailles Tour,” (sign me up!) where would you take us? Can we see any of the back staircases, hallways and little attic apartments in the book?

Sally: That tour already exists! I was fortunate on my first trip to be able to take a backstage tour that took us to the apartments of the Marquise de Pompadour (which were previously Marie Anne de Nesle’s apartment) and then also to the apartment of the Comtesse du Barry (Louis XV’s final mistress and the subject of my third book, The Enemies of Versailles).

Wow – it was simply amazing. The tour is very expensive and before doing it, I was skeptical that it would be worth it, but after I did it – no doubt. It was so fascinating to get out of the magnificent state rooms (which quite frankly I find rather boring and overwhelming) and leave the crowds behind. Take back staircases, walk along narrow corridors, experience the smaller, more intimate apartments and see some of the servants’ cubby holes that give a real sense of the “rats nest” that the majority of the palace was away from the public rooms.

The tour was arranged by the wonderful Deborah Anthony at http://www.frenchtravelboutique.com/

Now what I wish there was is a “Versailles Carte Blanche” tour which would allow you access to EVERYWHERE in the palace. Only such a small portion is open to visitors, and every time I go there I find myself looking longingly at the windows of all the other apartments that are off limits to the public, wondering what’s behind the scenes….

Margie: Where can we see artifacts from the Marquise’s era with Louis XV? I seem to recall seeing some Louis XV antiques with fish decorations on them, and now I wish I had known more at the time. Does the Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre have some?

Sally: Versailles is quite empty of furniture and is only furnished with pieces that can be authentically traced to the palace. The palace administration spends enormous amounts of money to acquire authentic pieces – think millions for a sofa! The Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre has several items of Madame de Pompadour’s, and of course many, many contemporary items from her era – she was hugely influential in the decorative arts and was a keen supporter.

I think it’s really interesting how timeless Pompadour’s 18th century interior design esthetic is. We would feel perfectly at home in it, and it is still a desirable “look” for a house: really the epitome of class, sophistication and elegance. The Musee Cognacq Jay and the Musee Jacquemart Andre are two excellent museums with lots of 18th century furniture and art.  A day trip to the factory at Sevres is fascinating, and it has a great collection of pieces developed under Pompadour’s patronage.  The Biblioteque Nationale has her engraved gem collection – it’s quite impressive and well worth a visit. If you’ve read The Rivals of Versailles, you’ll know the significance of the gem engraving for her and Louis!

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Thank you so much, Sally for the interview! If you’d like to read more and see photos of the places and scenes in the book, be sure to visit Sally’s website, which is a treasure trove of information. Check out her fabulous photos here.

Thank you also to Emma of France Book Tours for arranging this blog tour. Such a treat to read the Rivals of Versailles before it was released. Lucky me!

Sisters of Versailles - Sally Christie

Sally Christie, author of Sisters of Versailles

 

 

Hitler’s Art Thief

Do you remember hhitler's art thiefearing about the 2012 raid on the small Munich apartment that uncovered over 1,200 works of Nazi-era looted art? In this book, Hitler’s Art ThiefSusan Ronald tells the whole unbelievable story of the men behind the stash: Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-something owner of the apartment, and his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era German dealer of modern art.

This book is perfect for fans of the Monuments Men who wish for a deeper understanding of exactly how Nazi looting took place and why restitution remains so difficult. In particular, this book tries to explain what happened to the “Degenerate Art” which Hitler didn’t want, but was happy to profit from. It is a disturbing story with Hildebrand Gurlitt in the deep dark center, playing off both sides at once.

A photograph of some the Gurlitt Collection supplied by the German prosecutor's office to help identify potential claimants

A photograph of some the Gurlitt Collection supplied by the German prosecutor’s office to help identify potential claimants. For more information go to http://www.lostart.de.

 

But let’s fast forward to the present for an update to the latest news about the Gurlitt stash. You might have heard that when Cornelius Gurlitt passed away in May, 2014, his will donated the entire “Gurlitt Collection” to the Kunst Museum of Bern, Switzerland. Interesting that Gurlitt did not choose a German museum, isn’t it? Before his death, Gurlitt had lawyered up and was fighting the German government, objecting to their warrantless search and seizure and demands for restitution. The Kunst Museum of Bern played hot potato, denying any prior relation with Gurlitt and hiring lawyers of its own. It took several months before the museum finally agreed to accept only those paintings that had not been looted. The looted art would remain in Germany pending a lost art claims procedure.

Kunst Museum, Bern Switzerland

Kunst Museum, Bern Switzerland

Since then, a further wrinkle has developed. Although Cornelius Gurlitt never married and had no children, there are two surviving cousins – Uta Werner and her brother Dietrich  Gurlitt – who have filed a legal challenge to the will. The Kunst Museum has said the donation is on hold pending the outcome of the matter in German probate court. As of October, 2015, the appellate court is considering a report by an independent psychologist regarding Gurlitt’s mental capacity to execute the will.

Either way the court decides, it appears that looted art in the Gurlitt collection will be available for restitution. Both the heirs and the museum have agreed to cooperate with efforts to locate the proper owners of the looted art.

The problem is, how do you know what’s looted if there aren’t good records? If the records are themselves fraudulent, missing or destroyed? And most tragically, when the original owners were murdered and the heirs don’t know or can’t prove what paintings are rightfully theirs?

In many cases, Hildebrant Gurlitt bartered and traded “degenerate art” for traditional art designated for Hitler’s Fühermuseum in Linz, Austria, but sometimes he just sold it on his own account for his own personal profit, making it all more difficult to track. Sometimes Gurlitt just held onto it and hung it on his own walls.

After the war, Gurlitt tried to sell some of the art for personal profit, but found it more and more difficult to explain their provenance or to find a way to launder them. So when Hildebrandt died in 1958, his son inherited the stash. Apparently, Cornelius couldn’t figure out how to sell it off either. And so it sat until 2012.

Out of the 1,407 pieces of artwork discovered in the Munich apartment, and another 60-plus in two different homes that Cornelius Gurlitt owned in Salzburg, Austria, there are about 970 artworks under provenance investigation. According to the Lost Art Internet Database, the Task Force has categorized about 380 of them as “degenerate art,” which were for the most part confiscated from public collections and museums. The Task Force is investigating another 590 works for evidence of Nazi-era looting.

Although this Task Force was formed in 2013, only four pieces of art in the Gurlitt Collection have been identified as looted and only two have been returned to their lawful owners. One of these is Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach (1901).

Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), sold by the heirs of David Friedmann in June, 2015 for approximately $2.8 million at a Sotheby's auction in London.

Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), part of the “Gurlitt Art Trove.” The Gurlitt Estate Task Force  returned this painting to the heirs of its original owner, a Jewish art collector in Germany. The heirs sold it in in June, 2015 for approximately $2.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London.

When the news broke about the Gurlitt treasure trove, a 90 year-old New York attorney named David Toren recognized Two Riders on a Beach from his childhood. He could recall seeing it at his uncle’s estate in Germany just before the war. Although most of Toren’s relatives died in the holocaust, Toren survived because he had been sent on a Kindetransport to Sweden in 1939. Torn submitted a claim the Gurlitt Task Force but encountered so many delays that he filed suit in 2014.

In May, 2015, the Task Force finally agreed to grant Toren’s demand for restitution. They confirmed that the Nazis had forced the sale of Toren’s uncle’s German estate (along with Two Riders on a Beach which hung inside) to a Nazi General who planned to use the lodge as his retreat during the upcoming invasion of Poland. The painting would have been considered “degenerate art” and thus ended up in the hands of the modern art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt was supposed to find a buyer and to sell it on behalf of the Third Reich, but ended up keeping it for the rest of his life.

To learn even more behind the true story of this and the hundreds of Gurlitt’s other stolen works of art, you’ll have to read the book in its entirety. It’s a fascinating book, but sadly, the story is not nearly over. It is likely there is even more of Gurlitt’s looted art collection stashed away in secret places.

For further reading on the subject of Nazi looted art:

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: The Lady in Gold in Vienna

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: The Hare with Amber Eyes in Vienna

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: Art, Books, Paris, The Hare with Amber Eyes

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War and Memory in Paris

Little Woman in Blue: The Story of May Alcott Nieriker

I just finished Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins, the fictionalized life story of Louisa May Alcott’s sister May Alcott Nieriker. Fans of Little Women will remember the artistic little sister Amy from Little Women, but in this book the real May gets her own voice and tells her own true and timeless story.

little woman in blue

In Little Women, Amy gives up art in favor of a marriage to the wealthy neighbor Laurie, spending the rest of her life as a genteel society woman and devoted mother.

In Little Woman in Blue, Atkins reveals that the real May did no such thing; in fact, May was ahead of her time in her desire to “have it all.” But she met criticism from both sides. Her parents said they “didn’t raise our daughters to earn a living” and believed that “motherhood is woman’s highest calling.”

But it was the criticism and advice from her own sister that May struggled with the most. Louisa May, who attained literary success but never married, didn’t seem to take May seriously. Louisa May often discouraged May’s pursuits, criticizing May’s artwork quite publicly. On the other hand, Louisa May did pay for May’s art studies in Paris. Oh my goodness, what a complicated relationship those sisters had.

Even Mary Cassatt, who May befriends during her years in Paris, says “. . . women must choose. We can be artists or mothers.” Cassatt was known to be highly critical of amateur women artists who didn’t do serious work. “It’s best to be thankful to miss the danger of childbirth, then the diapers, the scuffles, and the noise,” she warns.

The scenes with May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were some of my favorite passages of the book. In what must have been the spring of 1878, they go on a stroll to watch deliverymen carrying paintings into the jury for the Paris Salon (the same jury that would accept May’s still life but reject two of Cassatt’s). Later, May visits Mary Cassatt’s studio to find her finishing up “a sulky girl in a lacy dress sprawled on a big blue chair,” no doubt referring to one of my favorite Cassatts: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Finally, Cassatt invites May to view the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition of 1879 in which Cassatt made her impressionist debut.

May refuses to be discouraged by Cassatt’s professional advice, and instead takes her inspiration from Berthe Morisot, who by that time had married Eugène Manet, given birth to their daughter Julie, and still kept painting. As Mary Cassatt said to May: “She has a strong will and a bonne to help with the child.” (Ah yes, the key to every working woman’s success.)

If you don’t know the rest of May’s story I won’t spoil it here. It’s a timeless story about persistence, hope, imagination and regret. I highly recommend that you read the whole book for yourself. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the interview I had with the author Jeannine Atkins, in which we discuss women, art and the story of May Alcott Nieriker.

Q: In your book, Louisa May Alcott was a difficult woman. Although you softened her a bit, Mary Cassatt was known to be quite difficult as well. So it made me wonder, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were these women successful because they were tough and uncompromising, or were they difficult because of the unusual challenges they faced as ambitious, talented women of that era? Is “difficult” a gendered judgment in a world where mothers say “we didn’t bring up our girls to earn a living”?

A: What great questions. I’m sorry the only honest answer is that I don’t know, but perhaps that’s where complicated questions lead. And I’m happy to speculate, which novelists get to do! Journals and memoirs suggest that Louisa was often carefree in her youth, despite the family’s hardships. Louisa notes a change in herself after the Civil War, when she was given calomel to treat the typhoid fever she caught as a nurse, and which we now know gave her mercury poisoning. Some of what we might call “difficulty” certainly came from physical pain.

I think May saw a bit of her sister in Mary Cassatt, in that uncompromising drive toward art, and the way she chose a life without the comforts and compromises of a sustained romance or partnership. Mary Cassatt seemed to show a softer side in her relationship to her sister and women friends, and her paintings celebrate such tenderness, but was also driven as both an artist and businesswoman, promoting both her own work and that of other Impressionists. Both Louisa Alcott and Mary Cassatt became wealthy due to their own efforts, and I hope they felt some quiet satisfaction in that.

Re your last question, I think that even today we tend to be harsher on uncompromising women than we are on men. I can think of some pretty harsh language that is reserved for women who persevere at work.

Q: I was shocked at the unflattering preface that Louisa wrote in May’s Concord Sketches book and I assume it’s true. I’ve seen some of May’s artwork and I would agree that her talent at times appears undeveloped. To call her a student was probably fair, unless of course, you’re family and you should know it’s better to be kind than right. Why you think Louisa wrote it the way she did? Of course, I don’t have a sister, so maybe that understanding will evade me. 

A: I was floored when I opened Concord Sketches and saw the work within described in the preface as valuable for its subject matter, though not its execution. It’s one thing to critique verbally, and another to put it in print. Also, I can’t fathom what the publisher was thinking: how could this possibly help sell a book?

Louisa was enormously critical of her own work. She enjoyed writing Gothic or lurid tales, but those who’ve read Little Women know she felt embarrassed by her interest in such, which Jo March’s beau chastised. Louisa had nothing good to say about Little Women, which would become almost instantly a bestseller and has never gone out of print. So being critical was her way of being, and she saw it as part of her role as a sister who was eight years older than May. Louisa left home to work at sixteen, when May was still a child. Some sisters can find it hard to see their grown siblings as they are, and Louisa came down hard on May, until it was rather too late.

Q: How much fact vs. fiction is involved in your story about May’s Boston art lessons with William Rimmer? I loved the tough advice you had him give to May, and it seems clear that she would have benefitted from additional instruction at that level. Was Rimmer known to have been inappropriate with women students, or was that a creative inspiration? I loved the way you had May blame and punish herself for the incident in the hall.

A: There are records of some of William Rimmer’s lessons and even guidebooks to the teaching artists of the time that would be considered libelous in ours. He had a bit of a reputation. I did make up the incident in his class but it seemed plausible to me. In classes today, there’s certainly still abuse of sexual power from instructors, and I know of young women who stopped taking classes or even making art in reaction to remarks made by professors. I hardly think such is new, or the self-blaming that often happens, and wanted to show that as one of the things that impeded May and other women from getting the sort of instruction they needed and deserved.

Q: How did you do the research for the Paris chapters in the book? Did you get to go to Paris, or did you have to rely on research and imagination? What sites in Paris would be on your dream literary tour for your book?

A: I did go to Paris, but also loved combing through old guidebooks (it’s great to live near university libraries!). Enough Americans were in Paris then that I also found details in the letters of Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and others, including May Alcott’s charming small book that she wrote with a primarily female audience in mind: How to Study Abroad and Do it Cheaply. She scolded Paris teachers for charging women often three times what they charged men and encouraged women to resist. (She also mentioned the best shops not only for paints but for hats and stockings: buy your shoes in England, but gloves in Paris).

 This book is now available as a reprint online. I was also delighted to visit Dinan on your blog. My dream tour would be to visit May’s home in Meudon, where Rodin also had a studio.

Q: Where can we find images of May’s artwork online or in person? I’ve seen some of her work but I’d love to see more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen images of her two pieces that were accepted into the Paris Salon.

A: As you inferred earlier, May’s art showed talent, but didn’t reach the heights where we’d expect it to be in museums. It’s the sort of art that a proud family might put on walls, which the Alcotts did, and because of her sister’s fame, it was saved rather than possibly being stored in attics or forgotten. At Orchard House in Concord, MA, which is open to the public, you can see some of May’s work. Drawings of gods and goddesses are on her bedroom walls, as well as her portrait of an owl and a flower panel in Louisa’s bedroom. Around the house are her watercolors of landscapes, copies of Turner, and a copy of La Negresse and the still life with a stuffed owl displayed in the Paris Salon.

Q: I think you’re on to something here. Any chance you’re thinking about writing about another woman artist? I’d love to read a novel about Berthe Morisot, Celia Beaux, Rosa Bonheur, Mary MacMonnies or the Emmets. I hear there’s a novel about Georgia O’Keefe coming out soon. Any other women artists on your dream list? 

A: So many dreams, so little time. I’m not so drawn to write about someone like Georgia O’Keefe who left quite a bit of biographical information (and fabulous letters). I start in the margins. It was the brief allusions to May Alcott in biographies that pulled me in to use imagination to flesh out what wasn’t known. And I wrote Stone Mirrors: A Life in Verse of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis which is coming out from Atheneum/Simon and Schuster in spring 2017. We have some amazing facts about how Edmonia Lewis became the first person of color to gain an international reputation as a sculptor, but there were also lots of intriguing missing pieces. And a new woman with a role in the arts is taking shape at my computer, but she must stay secret until more fully formed.

Thanks so much for the excellent questions!

Links:

Orchard House http://www.louisamayalcott.org/

https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/tag/may-alcott-nieriker/

 

 

For Further Reading:

 

Little Women in Dinan, France: American Girls Art Club in Paris, a photography tour of Dinan, France in the steps of Louisa May Alcott and her sister May

Berthe Morisot’s Interior: American Girls Art Club in Paris, photos and discussion of Berthe Morisot’s Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris, American Girls Art Club in Paris, a book review and tour of the sights where an American artist studied in Paris in the same era as May Alcott Nieriker.

A list of Alcott sources from Jeannine Atkins: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/Alcott_sources.htm