Pictures at an Exhibition

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2/9/2010
  • Publisher: Vintage

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Set in a Paris darkened by World War II, Sara Houghteling's sweeping and sensuous debut novel tells the story of a son's quest to recover his family's lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during the occupation.

Born to an art dealer and his pianist wife, Max Berenzon is forbidden from entering the family business for reasons he cannot understand. He reluctantly attends medical school, reserving his true passion for his father's beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant, Rose Clément.

When Paris falls to the Nazis, the Berenzons survive in hiding. They return in 1944 to find that their priceless collection has vanished: gone are the Matisses, the Picassos, and a singular Manet of mysterious importance. Madly driven to recover his father's paintings, Max navigates a torn city of corrupt art dealers, black marketers, Résistants, and collaborators. His quest will reveal the tragic disappearance of his closest friend, the heroism of his lost love, and the truth behind a devastating family secret.

Written with tense drama and a historian's eye for detail, Houghteling's novel draws on the real-life stories of France's preeminent art-dealing familes and the forgotten biography of the only French woman to work as a double agent inside the Nazis' looted art stronghold.

Pictures at an Exhibition conjures the vanished collections, the lives of the artists and their dealers, the exquisite romance, and the shattering loss of a singular era. It is a work of astonishing ambition and beauty from an immensely gifted new novelist.

“Engrossing reading. Miss Houghteling has done her research well, and her descriptions of real paintings and places have depth and beauty.” -The Washington Times

“An impressive debut . . . Pictures at an Exhibition is both well-prepared and well-written, it grabs you and drags you along as it creeps through shady backalleys looking for black-market art dealers, and it stuns you just as it stuns Max Berenzon when some disturbing revelations are made.” -Sacramento Book Review

“Compelling and important.” -The Jerusalem Post

“Remarkable. . . . A refreshingly understated work that offers a subtle but powerful exploration of loss, and of the pain and havoc left in its wake.” -Haaretz

Author Biography

Sara Houghteling is a graduate of Harvard College and received her master’s in fine arts from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, first place in the Avery and Jules Hopwood Awards, and a John Steinbeck Fellowship. She lives in California, where she teaches high school English.


Chapter One
In the twilight of my life, I began to question if my childhood was a time of almost absurd languor, or if the violence that would strike us later had lurked there all along. I revisited certain of these memories, determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them: the sticky hand, the scattered nuts, the gap- toothed girl grasping a firecracker, a cap floating on the Seine, flayed legs swinging between a pair of crutches, the tailor and his mouthful of pins. Some of these were immediately ominous, while others only later revealed themselves as such. However, whether or not another boy living my life would agree, I cannot say.

Of the humble beginnings from which my father built his fame, I knew only a few details. My grandfather, Abraham Berenzon, born in 1865, had inherited an artists’ supply store. He sold tinctures, oil, canvases, palettes and palette knives, miniver brushes made from squirrel fur, purple- labeled bottles of turpentine, and easels, which my father described as stacked like a pile of bones. The shop was wedged between a cobbler’s and a dressmaker’s. Artists paid in paintings when they could not pay their bills. And as Renoir, Pissarro, and Courbet were far better with paint than with money, the family built up a collection.

When the value of a painting exceeded the price of its paint, Abraham sold it and invested the money with the Count Moïses de Camondo, a Jew from Istanbul with an Italian title and a counting-house that he named the Bank of Constantinople. Both men loved art, and they were fast friends. By 1900, Abraham could purchase an apartment on rue Lafitte, near Notre- Dame-de-Lorette, in a neighborhood known as the Florence of Paris. Soon afterward, Moïses de Camondo recommended that my grandfather invest in the railroads. Coffers opened by the beauty of paint were lined with the spoils of steel, steam, and iron, and my grandfather did not have to sell any more of his paintings.

As a teenager, I often passed by rue Lafitte and imagined the family home as it had once been, as my father had described it: each picture
on the grand salon’s walls opening like a window—onto a wintry landscape, a tilted table with rolling apples, a ballet studio blooming with turquoise tulle. The salon’s chandelier shone onto the street through windows which, as was the case across the Continent, were made from high- quality crystal. On sunny afternoons, Grandfather’s gallery was so ablaze with prismatic light that schoolchildren returning home for lunch thought they saw angels fluttering down rue Lafitte. They reported their sightings to the choirmaster at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. When he could no longer bear to tell any more youngsters that they had not seen angels but just rainbows, and from a Jew’s house no less, the choirmaster hinted to some older boys that perhaps they should break the windows, which they did.

At least that was how my father explained the attack on his childhood home in July of 1906. Then again, Dreyfus had just been exonerated,
and there were many such outbursts across Paris. Abraham had followed the trial closely, nearly sleepless until the Jewish captain’s verdict was announced. Two days later, hoping to spare a dog that ran into the road, he drove his open- roofed Delage into an arbor of pollarded trees on avenue de Breteuil. My sixteen- year- old father, Daniel, was pinned between the tree trunk and the crushed hood as
Abraham expired beside him. From then on, my father walked with a limp, which eight years later exempted him from service in the Great War. So whether he was lucky or unlucky, I could not exactly say.

In 1917, my father purchased the building at 21, rue de La Boétie, after my mother Eva agreed to marry him. For this young Polish beauty, whom he hardly knew, and who spoke comically stilted French, he bought a house in a neighborhood known for its t

Excerpted from Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling
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Customer Reviews

Superb, Well-Written Novel June 26, 2011
A magnificent work of art, this novel. Lovers of impressionistic and classic art will enjoy the references to the artist and painters whose work was prominent in the early part of the 1900's. The author tells the story of a son's quest to recover his father's lost art work-that has been looted during the war. The secrets come together in the end, to tie up a story well told. I recommend this textbook to those who love art as well as those who are fascinated by history.
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Pictures at an Exhibition: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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