My Grandfather’s Gallery
Anne Sinclair occupies a unique place among French celebrities. From 1984 until 1997, the blue- eyed television presenter mesmerised audiences with her tough questions on the weekly political show 7 sur 7. She was so popular that her image was chosen to embody Marianne, the symbol of France who appears on postage stamps and sculptures in every town hall.
In the English-speaking world, Sinclair is remembered only as Madame Dominique Strauss-Kahn. When the former IMF director was accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid in 2011, Sinclair stood by him, posting $6 million in bail, renting a $50,000 per month Manhattan apartment, and arriving with her arm through his at court hearings. Once Strauss-Kahn reached an out-of-court settlement with the maid, Sinclair quietly divorced him and started a new life with the historian Pierre Nora, a new career as director of the Huffington Post website in France, and, this autumn, at the age of 66, as a radio interviewer.
Sinclair’s life as an art heiress was less well known until she published My Grandfather’s Gallery. The book recounts the birth of modern art and the mass theft of art treasures by the Nazis. At the same time, it paints a fascinating portrait of Sinclair’s maternal grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, one of the most prominent art dealers of the first half of the 20th century and midwife to masterpieces by Braque, Matisse, Leger and Picasso.
The book is also a family history, revealing the affair between Sinclair’s grandmother and the art dealer Georges Wildenstein. It alludes only twice to Strauss-Kahn. When Sinclair reveals her grandmother’s affair, she states: “I loathe absolute transparency, finding it voyeuristic at best and a bit totalitarian at worst.” Sinclair also contrasts her life in New York during Strauss-Kahn’s debacle with the happy years she spent there as a child. Without naming Strauss-Kahn, she ends the book with a tease: “If I were a journalist, I might one day write a book about it.”
Sinclair’s Jewish family fled Paris in June 1940, six days after the Germans marched in. The US was turning away European Jews, but the director of the Museum of Modern Art obtained visas for them. They were lucky. Some 75,000 French Jews perished.
Paul Rosenberg had impeccable taste and bought only the best. The 162 paintings that he hid in a vault in southwest France, and which were stolen by the Nazis, included canvases by Bonnard, Cézanne, Corot, Degas, Gauguin, Ingres, Matisse, Manet, Picasso and Renoir. The fortune he amassed “kept two families very comfortable for more than 50 years,” Sinclair writes.
The most powerful passages in the book are excerpted from Rosenberg’s letters, like the searing 10 pages which he hid in a locked drawer to be found after his death, recounting his chagrin at his wife’s affair with Wildenstein.
Rosenberg’s description of accompanying Renoir from his studio to his southern French villa at sunset, days before the painter’s death in December 1919, is as beautiful as a Renoir painting: “The path was lined with olive trees, women picked the ripe olives, children played, dogs rested in the last rays of sunlight and the women paused to say, ‘Good evening, Monsieur Renoir’; the children stopped playing and the dogs came to greet their master. And he, like a grand priest, lowered his head and, smiling, replied, ‘Good evening, good evening’.”
The Nazis stole 400 of Paul Rosenberg’s paintings while the family sought refuge in New York. After the war he searched for them doggedly, eventually recovering all but 60. His concierge had filched artworks and the contents of the Rosenberg’s wine cellar. When confronted with evidence that their paintings had been stolen, Swiss art dealers tried to haggle, offering to return 80 per cent of the paintings if they could keep the rest.
Sinclair’s uncle, Alexandre, served with the Second Armored Division that liberated Paris. His unit stopped the last Germany convoy of looted art, which included paintings Alexandre had last seen in his father’s gallery in 1939.
Sinclair recognises that Rosenberg’s battle to reconstitute his art collection “might have been perceived as unseemly by families whose relatives’ ashes are forever buried beneath the crematoriums at Auschwitz or even to those who survived the camps.” Still, the story of his life and the painters he befriended, and the venality of Nazi plunder, deserves telling. Sinclair has done so with elegance.
Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times.