Beauty and terror Duncan Fallowell in Newstatesman. Published 12 June 2008
The Camondo Legacy: the Passions of a Paris Collector Edited by Marie-Noël de Gary; photographs by Jean-Marie del Moral Thames & Hudson.
The terror of the Louvre can be endlessly deferred by Paris's treasury of small museums and, for me, the Musée Nissim de Camondo is the most magical. Now the subject of a lavish book edited by its curator and translated from the French, it has an appeal that lies not only in the fabulous things on view but also in the story of the Camondos, which is glamorous and melancholy.
They were exemplars of 19th-century multi-culturalism: Austrian Jews who were raised to the rank of Italian counts on the unification of Italy, but whose business centre was Constantinople. As bankers to the Ottoman empire, they found they could operate just as well and with a lot more pleasure from Paris, and the two leading brothers moved there in 1869, bringing 40 million francs with them - for starters.
They purchased adjoining properties backing on to the Parc Monceau, the Kensington Gardens of Paris, which was being developed as a sumptuous, high-bourgeois enclave. The benefactor here celebrated is Moïse, son of the younger immigrant brother. He was born, more interested in finery than finance, in 1860, and was trained by Charles Ephrussi, the collector and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (who was the model for Proust's character Swann).
Moïse's marriage failed, he sold off the bank, and his only son, Nissim, an airman and French patriot, was killed in action in the First World War. So the collection, which had begun with love, ended up as compensation, not only for loneliness, but also for the eye that Moïse had lost in his youth. It comprises French art and furniture of the 18th century, especially the latter half (that is to say, the neoclassical period, which succeeded rococo), and was assembled with the help of the greatest dealers of the age, the Seligmanns and the Duveens. The building that houses it is not the original family home. That was demolished in 1911 and the present mansion put up on the same site to marry the objects to their setting in an idealised whole. Count Moïse de Camondo, on his death in 1935, bequeathed the lot to the French nation in memory of his dead son.
It isn't a collection of staggering, stand-alone paintings and sculptures. The masterpieces are mostly items of furniture or ornament, such as Marie-Antoinette's vases of petrified wood bound by golden serpents. But every item contributes a superb, harmonious note. The photographs are intoxicating and plentiful - hardly a doorknob is missed - and their captions lengthy and informative. Of the accompanying essays, the best is by François Loyer, on the architecture of the building, often cited as an 18th-century re-creation. I always find it weirder than that, like some mansion in an Orson Welles film. The entrance front and the garden front, both dynamic, are entirely dissimilar; where they interact, within, is bound to produce strange effects. Loyer agrees: "The fluidity of the spaces belongs to a modern vision of architecture . . . spaces interlock or dilate in the most unexpected ways." He compares it to the work of Lutyens, Hoffmann and Loos.
So we are taken back not to the age of late-Louis and la douceur de vivre, but strongly to the beginning of the 20th century, underpinned by the finely preserved kitchen and garage quarters. The experience is nonetheless dreamy, partly because this is a quiet, untouristy part of town. Also it is due to the light, which is moderated by the cream stone of the interior and cooled by the pastel pinks, blues, greens and greys of the decor. Such gold as there is is discreet and often silvery. But the unexpected reason for the captivating, poignant mood is that although designated a museum, the place is as much an installation for a 20th-century tragedy.
This is played down in the book because luxury and butchery don't sit well between hard covers. However, from the storyteller's (as opposed to the collector's) point of view, the most important item in the museum is inside the entrance gateway. Among the hundreds of photos in this book, it is not to be found. It is a plaque which tells how Moïse's daughter, Béatrice, her husband and their son and daughter, the last of the family, were deported to Auschwitz in 1943-44, never to be seen again.
Pierre Assouline, in his book on the family, says they were arrested by the police in 1942 and then handed over to the Gestapo. "German police? French police? Both? What does it matter, since they were accomplices," writes Assouline. I think it does matter, especially for a family that gave everything to France. I have heard it said that the original arresting police were French. The fog around this issue is unfinished business. The present volume does, of course, mention the tragedy, telling us that the four were imprisoned first at Drancy, "the French waiting room for the death camps". But it is all done in one, overhasty paragraph, which ends with the unsettling sentence: "Their deaths were the ultimate justification for the Musée Nissim de Camondo."
On the same page is an extraordinary photograph - tiny, tucked into a corner, and so modern that it could have been snapped yesterday. It is of Bertrand Reinach, Moïse's grandson, in a T-shirt and cuddling a little dog in his arms. It was taken in 1938. He was 15 years old. The Camondo Museum remains incomplete; it requires a small additional room, very quietly done.
Pierre Assouline, “Le dernier des Camondo” April 8, 2011 by carolwallace
Visitors to the wonderful Parisian house museum, Musée Nissim de Camondo, tend to get hung up by the photographs. There you are, gazing your fill at the stupendous decorative arts ensemble — paneling, tapestries, porcelain, mind-blowing 18th century furniture. And then sitting on the marble top of a marquetry table, you see a framed picture of a mournful-looking young man, or of a girl on horseback, or of a portly fellow in natty tailoring. Shortly you understand: they are no more. The family that assembled this museum, and the money that created it, has vanished. The last of them died at Auschwitz. But what Pierre Assouline wants us to understand in Le dernier des Camondo is the context of this disappearance. The last of the Camondos is actually Moïse, father of Nissim for whom the museum is named. He outlived his only son by 18 years, aware that his family line would end with him. The museum thus becomes their monument, and the terms of its gift to the Paris Musée des Arts Decoratifs insists that everything in the museum remain as it was at his death. No loans, no acquisitions, no moving so much as a snuff box.
The Camondo family were Sephardic Jews who settled in Istanbul and in more recent history had become Italian citizens and bore Italian titles. They did not come to Paris until 1869 when they joined other high-flying Jewish financiers in the Parc Monceau area. Moïse’s cousin was the collector Isaac de Camondo whose death in 1911 added a splendid collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings to the collection of the Louvre (rather before the Louvre was ready for them, but that’s another story). Eventually Moïse lived at 63, rue de Monceau, just down the street from the Ephrussi family. Assouline has done a great deal of research on the earlier history of the Camondo family and conscientiously links the various generations to the social movements and personalities of their eras. Proust appears here, of course, as do the Rothschilds, and notably Charles Ephrussi. But for all his research Assouline doesn’t manage to bring his characters to life the way Edmund de Waal does his Ephrussi ancestors in The Hare with Amber Eyes. Le dernier des Camondo is a fairly conventional social history.
That being said, there are fascinating questions here and Assouline is more than willing to explore them. How much, for instance, can or should a Jewish family assimilate into its host society? The Camondos left Istanbul because they were Westernized, liberal, cosmopolitan. But once in Catholic France, they stayed true to their religion. The children studied Hebrew, the family supported Jewish causes generously, they married within the faith. Assouline does an especially good job tracing the fitful rise of anti-Semitism in France, and the always ambiguous social position of families like the Ephrussis, the Camondos, and even the Rothschilds. The last survivor of the family, Beatrice Reinach, assumed that she would be safe from the Germans because as an excellent equestrian she had many German friends in the world of the horse. Wrong guess. She, her husband, and her children died in Auschwitz.
But somehow the saddest part of the tale is the death of young Nissim, the gifted, courageous son who was a much-decorated flyer in World War I. He was killed after an air battle on the German front and the Germans so admired his bravery that they paid him the honor of burying him in one of their cemeteries. After the war Moïse had to move heaven and earth to bring Nissim’s body home. He is buried in the family tomb in Montmartre and the golden stone palace, modeled after the Petit Trianon, is his memorial.
The Musée Nissim de Camondo is a non-profit house museum located in the Hôtel Camondo, 63, rue de Monceau, at the edge of the Parc Monceau, VIIIe arrondissement, Paris, France.
The mansion was built in 1911 by the Comte Moïse de Camondo, a banker, with architect René Sergent, to set off his collection of eighteenth-century French furniture and art objects. Its design was patterned upon the Petit Trianon at Versailles, though with modern conveniences. Both house and collections were bequeathed to Les Arts Décoratifs in honor of his son, Nissim de Camondo, killed in World War I, and opened as a museum in 1935. More tragedy followed when a few years later Moise’s daughter and her family were deported to Auschwitz where they died.
Today the house is maintained as if it were still a private home preserved in its original condition. Three floors are open to visitors: the lower ground floor (kitchens), upper ground floor (formal rooms), and first floor (private apartments).
The house's furnishings include needlepoint chairs and work by artisans of the Garde Meuble Royal (Royal Furniture Repository) such as Jean-François Oeben, Jean Henri Riesener, and Georges Jacob. Floors are furnished with Savonnerie carpets woven in 1678 for the Grande Galerie in the Louvre, and walls accented with tapestries (many Beauvais or Aubusson), and paintings including portraits by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, landscapes by Guardi and Hubert Robert and hunting scenes by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Table setting are of particular interest, especially the Orloff silver dinner service commissioned by Catherine II of Russia from silversmith Jacques-Nicolas Roettiers in 1770, and the Buffon porcelain services made at Sèvres in the 1780s with a bird theme. Other notable objects include a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon, bas-reliefs, Chinese vases, and crystal chandeliers.