Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

A Wartime Art Story in Paris and Roussillion 

Susan Vreeland‘s historical fiction will always appeal to me, ever since an artist friend first handed me a dog-eared copy of Girl In Hyacinth Blue way back in 1999. Since then Vreeland has written quite a few art history novels, including Luncheon of the Boating Party (read about my literary day trip here), Clara and Mr. Tiffany, The Forest Lover, Life Studies and The Passion of Artemesia. I’m such a Vreeland fan, the only one I haven’t read is Life Studies. Better get on that. . . .

lisett'es listAnyway, Vreeland’s latest is called Lisette’s List (available August 26, 2014 in the US) and is everything what we have come to expect from her. It is yet another lovely art history novel, this time set in Paris and Roussillion, a quaint hilltop village in the Luberon area of France.

Much of the book takes place during and after World War II, when Lisette’s husband decides to hide his family’s valuable paintings rather than let them fall into the hands of the occupying Germans forces. The catch is, Lisette’s husband doesn’t tell her where he hid them, worried that she would be coerced into giving them up while he is off at war.

Lisette Roux’s story begins at a Catholic convent in Paris, La Maison des Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul on rue de Bac, where Sister Marie Pierre teaches Lisette enough to instill a lifetime passion for art. Lisette dreams of the day when she could work in an art gallery in Paris, the center of the art world. In the meantime, Lisette works in Maison Gérard Mulot, a rue de Seine patisserie near the convent (it’s still there – you should go there if you can!)

Lisette meets her future husband André, a talented young frame maker, on the corner of rue de Seine and boulevard Saint-Germain. They enjoy a sophisticated 1930s Montparnasse lifestyle in all of the famous cafés, including The Rotunde, La Couple, the Dingo and Closerie des Lilas.





In 1937, Lisette and André must give up their Paris dreams to go help with Andre’s elderly grandfather who lives in a small village in southern France. Lisette misses Paris, but learns to appreciate the small quiet pleasures of provincial life. She bonds with her grandfather-in-law Pascal as he shares the story of his life, from his work in the ochre mines near Roussillon to his job as a pigment salesman and frame maker for such artists as Pissaro and Cézanne.

The not-yet-famous painters sometimes paid Pascal with a painting in lieu of money. As a result, Pascal happens to own a few incredible paintings. In some of the best passages of the book, Pascal explains how he came to own each painting and what they meant to him. Vreeland explains in her author’s note that she invented two of the paintings in the book, but the rest are real, including one of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire:

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valey (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York. In the book, Lisette said this was her husband’s favorite painting because it captured the region of Provence so well: “cultivated fields dotted with ochre farmhouses, a string of distant buff-colored arches of a Roman bridge, a narrow country road, tall pine trees on the left, their trunks bare, with foliage only at their tops, and the grand Montagne Saint-Victoire in the distance, a pale lavender moonlit, triangular and imposing.”

Pissaro’s Red Roofs of Pontoise:

Pissaro, Red Roofs,Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Cotes St-Denis a Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musé d'Orsay, Paris

Camille Pissaro, Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Côtes St-Denis à Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  In the book, the elderly character Pascal uses this painting to teach Lisette the history and significance of the ochre mines near Roussillon. He says: “And the history of Roussillon is in . . .  the tile roofs of l’Hermitage in Pontoise. Those roofs are stained red-orange from Roussillon pigments. And the red ground and the row of bushes aflame–that’s Roussillon red-ochre. That may not mean anything to you now, but if you had lived here all your life and had seen those miners come home filthy and exhausted, it would.”

As well as Pissaro’s Factory Near Pontoise:

Camille Pissaro, Pissarro, Facotry near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA

Camille Pissaro, Factory near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA.  In the book, Pascal tells the story about how Pissaro give him this painting. Pascal visited Pissaro at his home in Pointoise, just north of Paris, delivering a frame Pascal had just carved. Pissaro said, “I haven’t a sou, but you can choose a painting from this row for yourself.” Pascal pulled a canvas from the back of the stack and saw a small painting of a factory. Pascal recognized it as the same Arneuil paint factory in Pointoise where he had sold ochre pigments from Roussillon. As Pascal told Lisette, “Inside that building, at long lines of tables, dozens of workers turned raw pigments into paint and filled the tubes Tanguy sold to Pissaro, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, and others – the hues we made in the furnaces of the Usine Mathieu, our factory right here in Roussillon, . . . ” Lisette then realized why Pascal had chosen that painting: “Despite its ordinariness, it spoke to him of his purpose, his participation in the world of art, the link in the chain from mine to majesty, . . .” (I love that phrase, don’t you? — “From mine to majesty?)

Pascal delights in telling Lisette the story of his visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence,  another lovely town about 25 miles from Roussillon. As Pascal describes Cézanne’s home: “It was a grim, cluttered old house. The studio had high ceilings and tall windows. I seem to remember a potbellied stove. Along a shelf there were white compotiers like my mother’s, straw-wrapped wine bottles, a candlestick, gray jugs, pitchers, and the green glazed toupin [olive jar] that’s in my painting.”

You can still visit Cézanne’s house and studio today. It is known as Atelier Cézanne and is located on a hill at 9 rue de Cézanne. There is also a Paul Cézanne Tour sponsored by the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office, where you get to see the Bibémus quarries that are an important part of the story in Lisette’s List. You can even download this “Cézanne’s Footsteps Map” for your own self-guided tour through Aix.

The doorway to Cézanne's studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.

The doorway to Cézanne’s studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.


The foyer at Atelier Cézanne

The foyer at Atelier Cézanne


The interior of Cézanne's studio

The interior of Cézanne’s studio


A nice touch - Cézanne's coats and art smock hang in the corner of his studio.

A nice touch – Cézanne’s coats, hats and smudge-up art smock still hang in the corner of his studio.


The courtyard garden outside Cézanne's studio

The courtyard garden outside Cézanne’s studio


Lisette has her own brush with a famous artist as well, based on the true story of Marc Chagall’s escape to the French countryside and finally to New York during the early years of the German occupation. Chagall was Jewish, and was saved by a secret American rescue operation that smuggled artists and intellectuals out of Marseille with forged visas.

Vreeland imagines that the Chagalls might have hidden out in the hills of Provence. Lisette’s bus driver friend (who happens to work for the French Resistance) introduces her to the Chagalls, who are hiding out in an abandoned school for girls on the outskirts of Gordes, another hilltop village in the Luberon region. Vreeland imagined that Lisette would have had friendly chats with Bella and Marc about Chagall’s new style of painting. When Lisette returns for another neighborly visit, she learns that the Chagals had escaped to America but had left a painting behind for Lisette as a gift for her friendship.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette imagines that the woman in the window might be her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette wonders whether the woman in the window is her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve. Lisette ponders: “Was the woman Bella or me? Was the man Marc or André? A crescent moon, or maybe it was a slim fish, hung in the rosy sky. I was tantalized by the ambiguity. The image blurred as I recognized Marc and Bella’s love for me.”

In Lisette’s List, Vreeland delivers a fascinating dose of art history and art appreciation, just like we have come to expect from her. I loved the way she traced the pigments all the way from the Roussillon ochre mines to the paintbrushes of Pissaro and Cézanne. I also enjoyed watching Lisette’s character transition from a Parisienne to a Provençale, adapting beautifully to the southern, rural way of life without losing her love for Paris. As Lisette herself said, “J’ai deux amours.”

If I have any reservations about the novel, it is probably that Lisette’s search for the hidden paintings seemed unduly prolonged and the plot device of “Lisette’s List” seemed a bit underwhelming. I would have enjoyed more heightened danger in the plot, and wished that the German threat had been put to use in a more sinister way. But in the end, Lisette’s story wrapped up well in post-war Paris and I was left satisfied overall.

The real treat of the novel is to read about the setting of Roussillon. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon there, walking down its narrow red streets and shopping in its art galleries. I even had the time to take a hike down a dusty red path to see its beautiful red ochre cliffs up close. It is now a spectacular little artsy town, just as the villagers had hoped in the novel. By all means, if you’re heading to Provence, add this town to your itinerary and leave a little time to hike on the paths out to the red ochre cliffs. It’s sublime.

You might want to poke your head into Francoise Valenti’s art gallery and say hello for me. You can assure her that her round painting of the view of Paris from the breakfast table  is now quite happy at my home in Chicago.

The town of Roussillon

The town of Roussillon


The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon


The view of the Luberon from Roussillon

The view of the Luberon from Roussillon


An artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon: Francoise Valenti.

A lovely oil painting of Rousillon by Francoise Valenti, an artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon.



Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland: Highly Recommended

Be sure to visit Susan Vreeland’s website where you can find more photos and information about the inspiration for the book.


Wine and War in France


Wine and history pair up well together, especially in France. More than anywhere else, the story of French winemaking is a lesson in history and tradition. Some French families have been making wine for dozens of generations. Don & Petie Kladstrup’s book Wine & War tells the story of how some of these families survived the two great wars of the 20th century. It makes for fascinating reading whether your interest is in history or more toward the wine. And if like me, you like both, it’s a must read. It makes a perfect companion for a wine tour in France.

Wine & War focuses on four French winemaking families: The Drouhins in Burgundy, the Hugels in Alsace, the owners of Lauren-Perrier in Champagne, and the Miaihles in Bordeaux. These are still some of the most prominent wine producers in France today. Their stories are triumphant and gripping, often involving deceit, risk and resistance in their battles to save their family legacies from theft and ruin by the Germans. In many cases, the winemakers even had to fight for their lives.

On my recent travels through Burgundy and Alsace, I brought along my copy of Wine & War and was able to make quite a few connections with the book. Here is a Google Map to save you the trouble of writing down the addresses and directions yourself. Our wine guide Tracy from Burgundy by Request (highly recommended) had read and enjoyed the book, so we were able to discuss some of these sites as we drove from town to town.

Maison Robert Drouhin, Beaune, Burgundy:

Burgundy: Maison Joseph Drouhin has been in the hands of the Drouhin family for the last 130 years. Today, the fourth generation of Drouhins (the great-grandchildren of Maurice Drouhin) maintains the caves at the same location as Maurice did during World War II, at 7 rue d’Enfer in the heart of Beaune. Wine tastings are available and highly recommended!

Burgundy: In one of the most dramatic passages of the book, the Nazis knock at the door to arrest Maurice Drouhin. Maurice has been prepared for this moment, and evades arrest by escaping through his tunnel of wine caves. He comes out of a secret doorway onto rue Paradis, and runs to the Hospice de Beaune just two more blocks away, where he hides out for 10 months.

“Even with a candle and his knowledge of the vast cellars, the darkness made it difficult for [Maurice] to find his way. On one of the four levels of passageways that made up his cellar, he finally found what he was looking for. Maurice brushed away the cobwebs and eased himself behind the wine racks; then he gripped the handle of the door and pulled. It opened easily. Stooping slightly as he went through, Maurice quickly made his way up several steps that led to the street outside,the rue de Paradis, or Street of Paradise.”

Burgundy: Hospice de Beaune. A hospital that owns some of the best vineyards in Burgundy. It has its own labyrinth of caves underground, and that is where Maurice Drouhin was able to hide from the Germans, no doubt with the help and confidence of his friends and fellow winemakers.

Comblanchien, A Village in Burgundy with a Tragic History

Wine & War includes the story of Comblanchien, a small winegrowing village in the heart of Burgundy. It was the center of much of the local Resistance activity. The locals Resistance fighters often sabotaged or blew up the German trains as they passed through on the main line from Paris to Lyon. In 1944, the Germans were on the run, but not before they retaliated against the village that had caused them so much trouble.

On August 21, 1944, the Germans attacked the village of Comblanchien, burning people out of their homes and their church. Eight people were killed, fifty-two houses were burned to the ground, and the church was reduced to a pile of ash. Some were able to survive by hiding in their wine caves while their houses burned above them. Twenty-three villagers were arrested and taken to Dijon for execution. Eleven of them were eventually freed, but the rest were deported to work camps in Germany.

Burgundy: The memorial in Comblanchien for the eight villagers who were killed in the German attack on August 21, 1944. The ranged in age from 72 to 18 years old.

Burgundy: The war memorial in Comblanchien, France.

Burgundy: The “new” church in Comblanchien, built to replace the church the Germans burned to the ground in 1944.

Alsace: The Hugel Family of Riquewihr

The story of the Hugel family’s experience in World War II is particularly interesting because of their unique position in Alsace, which was annexed back into Germany in 1939. It had been French ever since the end of World War I, but the Germans returned and changed everything as soon as they could, from the language to the road signs and the even the names of the wine houses. Hugel et Fils became Hugel und Sohne. “If you even said bonjour, you could go to a concentration camp.” The Hugel sons were drafted into the German army, and the Hugels were forced to close their 300 year-old family business because Jean Hugel refused to join the Nazi party. In fact, Jean escaped to a hotel in nearby Colmar where he had pretended to be a member of their staff.

Alsace: Riquewihr, France on the Alsace Route du Vin between Colmar and Strasbourg. An absolutely beautiful town for a day visit.

Alsace: Hugel et Fils in Riquewihr, France

Here I am geeking out a little bit over the fact that I really did find the Hugel winetasting room. They even had a French copy of the book in their shop.

Wine & War by Don and Petie Kaldstrup: Highly recommended.

Burgundy by Request: Highly recommended.

Note: I received no consideration for this post. I bought my own copy of the book and we paid full price for Tracy Thurling’s full-day Grand Cru wine tour, which we loved.