Friday, July 31, 2015

French Friday: Lisette's List

Lisette's List
by Susan Vreeland
published by Random House
copyright 2014

This is the final post of Paris in July, 2015, and I think the following quote from this fabulous novel is quite fitting:
In Paris, one's home is in cafes, in squares, on bridges, don't you think? They allow us to lay claim to the city.     (page 317) 
Ah.... c'est magnifique.

Let me start off by saying, I adore Susan Vreeland. 

Luncheon of the Boating Party (reviewed here) perfectly captures the life of several French Impressionists - or at least as I envision they must have lived. And Life Studies (reviewed here) is the first collection of short stories I have read from start to finish.

So it is no surprise that this novel completely captivated me.

The time period is a bit later than Impressionist Paris, although several of those painters, particularly the artwork of Cezanne and Pissarro, feature prominently in the story. 

The novel spans about a decade, from 1937 to 1948, focusing on World War II and Germany's desire to steal and/or destroy the art masterpieces of Europe.

Brief Overview:
Lisette first leaves her beloved Paris to venture south to care for her husband's invalid grandfather, Pascal. While she desires to help in any way she can, she finds the Provincial town to be old-fashioned and dull. She can hardly wait to return to Paris.

She discovers, however, that in his youth, Pascal sold pigment paint from the nearby ochre mines to the artist shops in Paris, as well as made frames for the canvases. He often bartered with the artists: his paint or talent in exchange for one of their paintings. In the end, he acquired seven masterpieces.

One of my favorite quotes from this first section of novel:
Pascal didn't complain when he felt nausea or pain. He simply said, "Bring me the third Pissarro" or "I want to see the still life," and I knew he wished to lose himself in a painting. I suspected that his absorbed study, his searching for something in each painting he had not noticed before, allowed him to rise about discomfort. 
... When I held up Pissarro's red roofs, the largest painting, Pascal murmured, "Such a pretty  orchard. You know, those blogs of paint protruding from the canvas, they catch light on their upper edges and create small shadows beneath them. That's not an accident, Lisette. That's genius." 
Even in this he was teaching me to notice details. But beyond that, he was saying good-bye to each of his paintings.     (pages 76-77)
This is why I adore Ms. Vreeland. She not only tells a compelling story - She not only writes in beautiful prose - But she teaches valuable art appreciation lessons that I failed to learn in school. After reading this passage, I want to visit our local museum and practice this skill of looking in detail at the painting. I want to love paintings as much as Pascal.

Other Lessons:
I am ashamed to admit that I had little previous knowledge about the Nazi's total disregard for and destruction of European masterpieces. Ms. Vreeland does not spend too much time on this subject, but she opened my eyes and expanded my desire to learn more. 
Oh, Lisette, the stream of trucks arriving at the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume to deliver paintings from across France to be sorted, sold or destroyed, other trucks leaving with paintings to be loaded into freight cars headed for Germany. My sister and I stood helpless and horrified, watching paintings by Klee, Ernst, Picasso, Leger, so many, go up in flames in the garden of the Jeu de Paume. Without its art, Paris, all of France, would never be the same.
One of the passages that left a lasting impression involved my favorite sculpture, Winged Victory:
I insisted that we climb the long Daru staircase in the Louvre, pausing at each step to appreciate the full marble glory of Nike of Samothrace, winged and victorious. Her commanding presence, well over three meters high and set on a tall pedestal, demanded that we look up in adoration. I was certain I felt the wind ruffling her gown. 
"What a victory it was to remove that for hiding. ... September third, the same day de Gaulle declared war. We volunteers gathered to watch, holding our breaths as she was lowered down the steps on runners and held upright by ropes. More than twenty centuries old, she is. It does me good to see her back in her rightful place, undamaged."     (pages 332-333)
As I read this passage I was immediately transported back to my visit to the Louvre in 2011. Didn't she perfectly capture the elements of this sculpture? Can you imagine the skill it took to safely lower her into hiding? I agree with Maxim, it is indeed good to see her back in her rightful place, undamaged.

There are so many other quotes I could share with you... or Lisette's List of 17 Hungers and Vows (essentially, the bucket list she creates to honors those she loves), but then I fear I would rob you of the opportunity to read this lovely historical novel for yourself.

Please do. You will not be disappointed.

* This post is a part of the Paris-in-July meme, hosted by Tamara of Thyme-for-Tea. Please visit her website for links to more French-inspired posts.


  1. I have not read Vreeland yet but she sure seems to know and describe her art. Similarly Emile Zola wrote some great novels about the art / impressionist world which I read in college. You might like the movie Woman in Gold about the Nazi looting of art during WWII. Really seemed to bring it home. Nice review.

  2. I actually have several Zola novels reserved on my Kindle... I need to make a point of reading them; they do give another perspective of this time period.

    I am going to check out Woman in Gold now... thank you so much for the recommendation :)


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