by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
We had a ritual, the three of us. We’d swing open the glass doors and inhale the humidified, clean scent of art. I would take the girls’ hands as we climbed the stone steps to the third floor. Then my younger daughter would break away and run through the galleries, snaking between sculptures and unnerving the guards, until she stopped before the object of her adoration. She knew not to stand too close to the painting she loved, Rembrandt’s Lucretia, as she waited for her sister and I to catch up. Her painting was one of the few that had an electronic alarm that detected close movement, a point of pride for her.
We’d gaze at the painting, a little resentful if anyone else loitered nearby, and she would tell its tale. From an early age, my youngest knew that the historical Lucretia had stabbed herself. Something bad had happened and it pained her to live. Lucretia gazed to the side as she pulled a rope to call a servant and allowed the blood to darken her nightgown. We would stand close together out of respect for this stricken woman. My younger daughter’s story would echo in the gallery before silence settled.
Then would come my older daughter’s turn. Her painting was on the same floor of the museum but far away, beyond a picture of a grimacing monkey burning a cat’s paw and Paul Revere’s silver set and the olive trees by van Gogh. Too old to run, she would speed-walk into her gallery and establish herself in her spot to the left of the painting. She would turn to face us as we entered. It would never fail to startle us to see the close resemblance between my older daughter and the dark-haired girl in On the Thames, A Heron by James Jacques-Joseph Tossot. My older daughter would hang her arms at her side, looking at us, basking in the peculiarity of her likeness to a figure on an old canvas. She shared with the painted girl a deadpan seriousness that could erupt into hilarity at any moment. I would read aloud the museum’s interpretation of the painting posted on the wall, which had something to do with the heron in flight representing a loss of innocence, but this story would make the girls snort with laughter.
My painting was close by, and I’d sometimes head for it while the girls still lingered around Tossot’s picture. It hung in a gallery devoted to expressionist art. Fernand Leger’s Smoke Over Rooftops is a crowded cityscape seen from above, a scene filled with chimneys, windows, and walls. The colors of the rooftops draw me in: I have never seen reds and blues, especially blues, jump out so in any other painting. Though no human figures appear, the picture conveys the complexity and privacy of people’s lives. The buildings hide what’s happening inside, only releasing inscrutable curls of smoke as clues. The girls would come to my side, soberly impressed. We believed Smoke Over Rooftops concealed secrets that would remain shrouded forever.
One day several years ago, we arrived in the expressionist gallery and found the Leger gone. In its place hung another painting, something not memorable. It was as if Sirius had decamped from the night sky, replaced by a smudge. I couldn’t believe the loss of my painting. Pictures typically disappear from museum walls for a variety of reasons — when they undergo restoration, are loaned to other institutions, or go into storage to permit the exhibition of another work, for instance — but I learned that none of these situations caused the removal of Smoke Over Rooftops. A crime had made it happen.
In 1940, this painting had been the property of a French collector named Alphonse Kann, who had inspired the character Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When the Germans occupied Paris, they stole the painting, along with 1,201 additional artworks that Kann owned as well as tens of thousands of paintings and sculptures from the homes of other Jews. Kann escaped France and died soon after the war. Trapped in a new black market of stolen art, the painting passed through many hands. A businessman unaware of its provenance bought Smoke Over Rooftops in New York City during the 1950s and donated it to our museum. Fifty years after Kann’s death, his descendants tracked it down to our institution’s collection. It took ten years for the Kann heirs and the museum to untangle the threads of theft and ownership, but finally, with no advance notice to the public, the painting returned to the Kann family.
One family’s property had been restored, but where did that leave my family’s ritual? I explained to the girls about the theft of art during the Holocaust and the complicated disputes over rightful ownership, but I could not answer all of their questions: Should we feel bad to have enjoyed a stolen painting? Why couldn’t the Kann family share the painting with the museum and allow people like us to keep seeing it? Was it wrong for us to have acted as though we owned the painting? After the painting’s removal, our visits to the museum seemed incomplete when our thoughts, if not our footsteps, led us to a gallery whose most captivating work was missing.
Our pilgrimages to the museum have continued. My younger daughter no longer takes off, a little blonde streak, when we near Lucretia — we all arrive together at Rembrandt’s gallery. The group arrival is appropriately protective, because my daughter has learned that Lucretia’s woes grow out of her rape by the son of a Roman king. My older daughter refuses to pose next to On the Thames, especially with other people standing nearby, and her maturing face looks less like that of the girl in the frame. My daughters have grown.
I’m the one who has failed to adjust to the new circumstances in the galleries. I haven’t found a new favorite, despite the efforts of the girls to sell me on a spectacular 19th century painting of an Egyptian rug merchant by Jean-Léon Gérome. I like it, but I’m afraid to draw it into our family ritual. It too could prove to be stolen goods. It too could disappear.
Itzkoff, Dave. “Painting Stolen by Nazis Returned to Heirs.” The New York Times Artsbeat Blog, October 30, 2008.
Müller, Melissa and Monika Tatzkow. Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice. Vendome Press, 2010.