Painting and Passion

A Review of Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love

/ by Jacqueline Raoul Duval

Rothschild’s first novel, The Improbability of Love, remains an international best-seller.
Documentary filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, born in 1962, began her writing career with a biography of her jazz-patron great-aunt, titled The Baroness: The Search for Nica the Rebellious Rothschild Jazz Baroness, published in London (Virago) in 2012.
The Honorable Hannah Mary Rothschild became, in 2009, a trustee of the National Gallery in London, and in 2013 she became the liaison trustee for the Tate Gallery. Since 2015, she is the first woman to chair the National Gallery's board, in London. 
In Rothschild’s novel, we find many irresistible ingredients: The exciting city of London, a stolen then lost painting of the great French painter, Watteau (1684-1721), the art world elite’s eager search for this masterpiece, a murder, a broken heart, a love story, two Russian oligarchs, an ex-Nazi, a rich old woman, some extremely famous art galleries and, of course, billions of dollars at stake. 
Annie McDee, the protagonist, cooks extravagant, historically accurate, unbelievable and sophisticated dinners, inspired by the French 18th century. One day, she buys, in a very sad and dusty little shop, this lost masterpiece, for seventy pounds. She does not know that, in purchasing this work, she is about to raise the curtain on a Shakespearian drama.
Painting and Passion. The best duo. 
I read this novel, this wild satire on the art trade, with great pleasure, even if I did not like the chapters in which this famous painting, The Improbability of Love, speaks. Yes, it does speak, and it tells us where, when and what moved Watteau to paint it(self): His unrequited passion for actress Charlotte Desmares, the unique and unhappy love of his short life. According to the painting’s title, among other aspects of its startling beauty is its incredible history: The painting belonged to the Tsar, to the Queen of England, to King Louis XIV, to Voltaire and, just before the war, in Berlin, to a very modest Jew, who bought this painting for a few marks, for his beloved wife. And of course, in Berlin at that time, where there was a Jewish family, there was a Nazi close by.  
This painting, The Improbability of Love, had a strange, a wonderful power: The love that Watteau felt for Charlotte (he had painted her several times) was so passionate that everyone who looked at this painting felt this emotion, from the very first glance, and was deeply moved.
When I finished reading this book, I had only one desire: To learn more about Jean-Antoine Watteau, his century, his works, his life and his place in art history. So Hannah Rothschild, an expert in her subject, has achieved her goal: As a result of her highly-entertaining book, we love Watteau, we know him better and we want to know much more--why he occupied such a significant place in the 18th century, why Fragonard, Boucher, Greuze are not as important as Watteau; why Charles Baudelaire, the Goncourt brothers, Rainer-Maria Rilke, Paul Claudel, Julien Gracq, Thomas Mann, Philippe Sollers, and art historian Michael Levey have had a passion for this French painter. We also come to appreciate why Watteau’s The Pierrot (first named Gilles), which belongs to The Louvre, is one of the most famous, enigmatic and moving paintings in the world.
According to Michael Levey, Antoine Watteau unwittingly created the concept of the individualistic artist loyal to himself, and himself alone.
Hannah Rothschild most likely found the inspiration for her book in one of the most poetic stories of Watteau’s paintings. Indeed, The Surprise, painted in 1718, disappeared for 160 years, before being amazingly discovered in 2008 in the home of an English family. Later that year, this painting sold for 15 million euros.  
I would like to let Elie Faure have the last word, in French, about this unique painter: “Dans l’œuvre de Watteau, les fêtes sont sans lendemain, et l’angoisse est sous le masque!” (“In the works of Watteau, parties have no tomorrow, and cares are beneath the mask.”)

Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney.

Jacqueline Raoul Duval
born Lily Khayat in Tunisia, was first professor of history and geography. Literary director for years in Paris, she wrote as a ghost-writer for others until the day she decided to write for herself. "Kafka, l’éternel fiancé"(Flammarion) has been translated in eleven countries. Her last one « La nuit de Noces »( L’Age d’Homme) is quite autobiographical.