A handsome art curator who hates the Nazis…and loves art perhaps a little too much. A beautiful art thief with a crush on the curator. A Nazi with a talent for forgery. All three are determined to save the world’s most famous painting from Adolf Hitler. Part mystery, part romance, part fiction and part historical truth, Hiding Mona Lisa raises once again the question of whether the Mona Lisa in the modern day Louvre is the real La Jaconde.
The last thing that Alain Darnay wanted to see was Nazis parading down the Champs Elysees. I know this because he said it often enough in the months leading up to Hitler’s march into Paris. Alain loved the city of lights with every fiber of his being. Loved the beautiful architecture, the flowing Seine, the history. The one thing in Paris that he loved more than any other was the Louvre. He was well acquainted with every work of art, every painting, every sculpture, every canvas, every piece of carved marble, every trinket on display.
I often wondered, as I watched him day after day, if perhaps he loved art too much. Loved it too much to allow himself to fall in love with a person who wasn’t painted on canvas. I watched him and wondered what happened when he went home at night, after the museum guards moved through each floor at closing, employing what is known as ‘the sweep’. How he spent the hours from when the last patron was swept out of the galleries and the doors were locked and the next day’s opening. Where did he go, what did he do in the evenings before the doors were unlocked the next morning?
Of course, loving art as he did, being a curator at the world’s greatest art museum was the only profession in which he would have been employed. The man fit in well with the art treasures that surrounded him as he worked; he was beautiful to look at with his dark hair, smoldering blue eyes and face and form that looked as if he could have been sculpted from marble with Michelangelo’s hand. He was quick to smile and unfailingly polite, even as he moved the tourists back from the works when they got too close. Never once did I observe anyone within the Louvre’s corridors become upset or agitated with him. I watched him day to day, with much interest. He moved with an athletic grace, seemed so at ease in his surroundings. For work he was always impeccably dressed, a crisp unwrinkled shirt, a silk tie, a dark well cut suit. On the occasions when he was required to stay for black tie events after hours, he wore his tuxedo with an ease that stood out around men who seemed uncomfortable to have found themselves in black tie. I never believed him to have been born to wealth; rather, he seemed to be a man who had acquired his social skills on his own.
He was possessed with an uncanny ability to read people. Some curators worked purely behind the scenes but not Alain. The director of the Musees Nationaux, the man who oversaw the Louvre during World War II, Jacques Jaujard, knew that having Alain out of the back offices and roaming the corridors with the patrons was a good thing. The two had much in common. Both were handsome, art savvy, had quick wit and were worldly enough to understand what was happening and what was about to come.
If Jaujard had any doubts about Alain, he kept them to himself. The most interesting conversations they had, at least on the floor, were about the patrons, the crowds that found themselves in the most famous museum on earth.
“What do you make of her?” Jaujard would say, acknowledging a beautiful young woman who was a frequent visitor.
“Not an artist herself,” Alain replied. “She never brings a sketchbook. She studies the artwork with great interest and appreciation and when she speaks it is with an English accent. She also peers at the map with much interest as well. An art thief.”
Jaujard laughed. “But a very beautiful one.”
Jaujard pointed out another man, who also was frequently there. “And him?”
“Obviously German, by his coloring and bearing. Copies something into his sketchbook every time he comes. I haven’t quite figured him out yet.”
“And that couple there?”
“Nothing terribly interesting. Just American tourists.”
Jaujard would laugh and go back to his office while Alain wandered among the visitors and paused, every day and on several occasions, to gaze at a few of his own favorites among the Louvre’s vast collection. The man had an almost reverence about him whenever he studied the most famous of all the paintings, the one the French call La Jaconde and the rest of the world calls Mona Lisa. I often wondered if he felt the same about the painting as Napoleon Bonaparte had. The rumor was that the former emperor had loved it so much that he had hung it on his bedroom wall. Clearly, something about the mysterious smile drew Alain in, made him want to cast his eyes upon it with regularity. Some who gaze on the painting react as Alain and Napoleon had; they revere it, adore it, and love it. Others come by and scarcely give it a second glance. Never the less, it is considered to be the jewel of the Louvre and that much was true in those last days of the 1930s when Hitler was an imminent threat.
For those who believe that the entire world was caught off guard by Hitler’s rise to power, it should be pointed out that almost as soon as the man was elected the staff at the Louvre and other French museums began taking precautions against the possibility of war. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate the fact that the Fuhrer would plunder his way across Europe, taking the best of both museums and private collections, but the fear of bombs falling on the country’s treasures was on their minds. In spite of those fears and the preparations that were going on behind the scenes, the Louvre staff continued to go on with business as usual. Each day Alain Darnay walked the halls and admired the collections and assisted the patrons and after working hours, found himself engaged in activities that would endanger both his own life and the artwork that he so loved.
On the eve of World War II, Fritz Gerhard, Nazi art forger, faked his own death and threw himself into the Seine. He resurfaces two years later, having joined the French resistance and professes his love for Everley Pembroke. He has no idea that he is not yet finished with the Nazis. Everley is at Chambord, watching over the evacuated treasures of the Louvre. She allows herself to fall in love with Fritz, only to have him disappear again. Alain Darnay, reformed art thief and Louvre curator, has never gotten over the wife and son he lost. When he learns that his best friend has been captured and believed to have been sent to a concentration camp, nothing will stop him from finding Fritz Gerhard.
Three years after the end of WWII, Louvre curator Alain Darnay is still trying to find the owners of the artwork he saved for Jewish collectors during the war. As Jacques Jaujard’s tenure with the Louvre is coming to an end, Alain is sent a photograph of a Rembrandt painting that has been missing for almost fifty years. Ironically, the painting is the same one that Alain’s closest friend, Fritz Gerhard, did his dissertation on. A series of random clues follows the initial contact and Alain cannot resist trying to determine who has the painting and how to acquire it. As he puts the puzzle together, he falls in love with the Louvre’s newest curator, the beautiful Justine Charbonneau. Justine wouldn’t mind a relationship with Alain, if it weren’t for all the questions he won’t answer and the past he won’t talk about.
I have a degree in Journalism, Art and English from Mercer University and am a certified teacher with endorsements in Art and English. I have written for several freelance publications and am a two time recipient of The Margot Stern Strom Teaching Award from Facing History and Ourselves.
I am married and have two sons and live in Peachtree City, GA. In addition to writing I enjoy running, cycling photography, hiking, canoeing and reading a good book.
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