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Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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Praise for Chasing Portraits
“A page-turning personal history of [Elizabeth] Rynecki’s search for her great-grandfather’s legacy… A wonderful story beautifully told. Rynecki’s years-long search, successes, frustrations, and failures are a study in perseverance.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“Chasing Portraits is a miraculous story of heartbreaking loss and spine-tingling discovery. In her search for her great-grandfather’s paintings, Elizabeth Rynecki becomes a genealogist, an art historian, a detective, a crusader for justice, and a time traveler, peering through windows and into paintings to unearth her family’s past. Her memoir will break your heart, but it will have you cheering wildly too because every new discovery is a triumph of art and love over hatred and loss.”—Amy Stewart, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Drunken Botanist
“A heartfelt, vivid account of a hunt for lost masterpieces painted by a great-grandfather that prove to be unforgettable relics of a rich world swept away by war, taking readers on a lusciously detailed international journey that reminds us that the search for missing paintings is, at heart, a search for missing history.”—Anne-Marie O’Connor, National Bestselling Author of The Lady in Gold
“Elizabeth Rynecki’s Chasing Portraits is part of a gathering wave of stories by the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and Holocaust victims—stories that accept the burden of carrying this legacy forward, with all the anguish, the unanswered questions, and the unexpected joy of recognition this entails. With devotion and determination, Rynecki movingly demonstrates that, even after such unimaginable loss, even seventy years later, fragments of individual lives—and so the untold stories of individuals—can still be recovered . . . if only you keep searching.”—Glenn Kurtz, Author of Three Minutes in Poland
“In recent years, there has been an increase in the awareness of the problem of looted and stolen art, and Chasing Portraits makes an important contribution to the field. But it’s much more than just a tale of detective work. Elizabeth Rynecki’s story is transcendent, presenting the reader with an elevated level of passion and duty. For this reason, it sets itself apart from the rest of the field.”—Anthony M. Amore, Author of Stealing Rembrandts and The Art of the Con
About the Author
Elizabeth Rynecki is the great-granddaughter of the Polish-Jewish artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943). She grew up with his paintings prominently displayed on the walls of her family home and understood from an early age that the art connected her to a legacy from “the old country”: Poland. In 1999, Elizabeth designed the original Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art website. Today, she continually updates it to keep it current regarding academic research, educational resources, and tracking lost Rynecki paintings. Elizabeth has a BA in Rhetoric from Bates College and a master’s degree in Rhetoric and Speech Communications from UC Davis.
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Top customer reviews
Elizabeth’s great-grandfather Moshe was a Warsaw-based painter during the Interwar years, and focused on documenting Jewish religious life and Jewish culture. Before the war Moshe divided canvases and papers among friends for safe-keeping. After the war, only a fraction of the artwork was recovered. Where is the rest? Elizabeth has devoted years to that question, and, remarkably, has tracked down paintings across the globe.
The search for the lost artwork was fascinating. But, I found her personal journey equally engaging. I appreciated the way she honestly — and sometimes with remarkable vulnerability — brought the reader along on her journey of coming to terms with her personal expectations for the art, meeting the current owners of the artwork, and learning the place in history of her great-grandfather’s paintings.
This book is different than other Holocaust literature in that it addresses not only what — and who — was lost, but the complex responsibilities of the generations that follow.
In Chasing Portraits, the author, Elizabeth Rynecki, describes her detective work to locate paintings done by her great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki. He was prolific in his desire and ability to document the daily lives of the Jewish people as Hitler tried to wipe them out, but only a small percentage of them are available. Rynecki herself is sometimes unable to even view his art work; people are sometimes worried she will try to claim them as hers. She struggles with this, because she does feel they should be in her family (or at least available for them to see). But slowly she begins to feel that art museums at least offer care at a level she would not be able to give,
The curiosity that the author brings to this long-term project is fascinating to read about. Heartbreaking and even wonderfully fulfilling at times, her step-by-step approach into a partially unknown historical era is offered in a consistently engaging way. She brings herself into this process honestly. She thinks about how awful it was for her to be visiting Majdanek (a Nazi concentration camp) caught in the rain and cold for hours, She immediately considers what her relatives had to endure: “It was hard to imagine surviving a single day here, much less months or years”. (p. 287)
Rynecki's book has the pace of a mystery story: “When you start collecting bits and pieces of data, it isn't always clear how it will all coalesce to create a coherent whole...I've repeatedly learned first hand how disparate pieces of the seemingly insignificant research can suddenly become monumentally important when combined.” (p. 350, Chasing Portraits)
As Trump's administration moves ahead on shutting down art grants, positing legalized violence against protestors and immigrants, how do we move ahead? Will our artists, like Moshe Rynecki, have to hide their art in basements or with trusted friends who may not be in as clear danger?? How can we survive culturally and physically, in a time when our leadership rejects free speech and dissident expression?
These are not simple questions, nor does this book directly provide the answers. But Rynecki's ability to share her great-grandfather with the world has helped me to feel hope, even in these dark times.
Btw, this book can be read as an historical quest without the current politics overriding the story; but I finished reading it today, 1/20/17.
Over the years, the intertwined mystery of the great-grandfather and the missing paintings gnawed at Rynecki, so in 1999 she set up a website showing the paintings in her family’s possession. Extensive research to find and catalog what she expected would be hundreds of paintings picked up steam in 2010 when a Polish museum asked to borrow one of the great-grandfather’s paintings for an exhibit.
In “Chasing Portraits,” Rynecki sets the context of family, Holocaust, and eventual safe landing in the U.S. in Nov. 1949 for her father, his parents, and two grandparents. She then takes us along on her search to discover paintings she had never seen but knew must exist.
And what a journey it is! At times thrilling, at times despairing, the search moves ahead. Rynecki writes much of this in the first person, effectively turning a nonfiction work into what reads like a novel. As you read, you’ll hear her voice and her colloquialisms. You’ll not only learn about the paintings (27 are shown in full, rich color on the plates following page 214) and the daily life they pictured, but you’ll get to know the author and her family along the way. You won’t be disappointed.