Art is long, life is short, judgement difficult, opportunity transient.
On the grandest of the Grand Boulevards, bearing the name of the famous Paris urbanist architect, there is a place I like to recommend as an ideal spot for a romantic rencontre. Sure, the whole of Paris is a romantic rendez-vous venue, but I enjoyed exploring this one.
To reach it, you have to stroll along Boulevard Haussmann, an architectural feast for the eyes. With its tree-lined trotoirres and regulated cornice height apartment blocks, the boulevard deserves more flattering epithets than “the solidest street in Paris” awarded by Ian Fleming. Enjoying the walk along the boulevard, your attention will be drawn away from the regular five storeys buildings towards a hotel particulier at number 158, set back from the line of facades; and you will be tempted to go in. The partially covered ramp slopes invitingly towards the entrance in a semi-circle, only to descend gently on the other side, thus creating a one-way traffic system for carriages.
A Remarkable Couple
Edouard André, heir to a rich Protestant family from the Gard, bought a plot of land on the newly constructed boulevard Hausseman and in 1869 commissioned Henri Parent to build him a mansion. The choice of Parent was a wise one: the architect has already completed a project for André in 1864, l’hotel de St Paul, a classic building designed to contain the banker’s art collection. Henri Parent came second – after Charles Garnier - in the competition to build the Opera de Paris, so he would have welcomed the opportunity to show the extent of his creativity with another prestigious building.
Soldier, politician and art collector, Édouard André started collecting paintings, furniture and objets d’art at the age of 30; but it is only later, after the fall of the Second Empire, when he became disappointed with politics and retired, that he decided to dedicate himself to art. At 158 Boulevard Haussmann, the impressive mansion he had built to house his collection was completed in 1875. He also purchased the Gazette de Beaux-Arts and became president of the Union Centrale des arts décoratifs.
In 1881 André added to his exquisite collection the painter Nélie Jacquemart, whom he had known for several years. Of provincial middle-bourgeoisie origins, Nélie rose through the rigid social ranks of 19th century Paris, mainly through her talent as a portrait painter.
By 19th century standards, theirs was an unconventional marriage, albeit one of convenience. Despite coming from different religious as well as social backgrounds – a rather important consideration at the time – and being “of a certain age” (Nélie was 40 years old when they married, Édouard 48) the marriage lasted and was a happy one, as far as we know. They didn’t have children and dedicated themselves to their shared project: their art collection. Nélie and Édouard would spend many evenings together in the library, perusing auction catalogues and deciding on their future purchases. Every year the couple travelled to Italy to buy works of art.
Over several shopping trips to Italy, Édouard and Nélie acquired a substantial number of Renaissance works; a section of the house was then dedicated to this collection. Unlike the main picture galleries, the Italian Museum was open only to a selected few visitors and friends. It’s a surprising treasure. In the Sculpture Room there is a small (26 x 24 cm) masterpiece by Donatello: a bronze bas-relief representing the Martyrdom of St Sebastien, this is a moving scene with an acute sense of tragedy and an exceptional technique for rendering perspective.
The Virgin with Child by Botticelli in the Florentine Gallery was initially thought to be by Verrocchio, his master; although the simplicity of composition, the tender leaning of the mother’s head towards the infant and the serenity of her expression strongly suggest the genius of Botticelli. Among the virgins with child in Jacqemart André, the most significant in the collection is the one by Perugino. Here, the composition is similar to that of Botticelli – not surprising since they went to the same school – but the details on the landscape and the jewellery are of strong Flemish influence, unfamiliar to the Florentine tradition.
The most important work of the collection is Paolo Uccello’s wood panel St George and the Dragon. A large cave in the centre of the painting divides the landscape, creating two separate vanishing points – a complex perspective typical of Uccello. On one side, a terrified princess, praying, on the other St George on his white horse, his lance through the mouth and the throat of the dragon. The symbolism is so much stronger as it is conveyed with vivid colour and the dynamism of the scene.
Edouard and Nélie were passionate about 18th century painting, for a long time considered frivolous by the upper classes, but enjoying a revival. Boucher, Canaletto, Chardin, Nattier are the famous painters whose work is displayed in the picture gallery. The intimate décor of the study, with its Tiepolo transposed fresco on the ceiling, is completed by paintings by Fragonard, Lagréné, Greuze.
With its pink and beige palette, the oval frame and the soft light, The New Model, purchased by Edouard before his marriage, is typical of Fragonard style. More than his contemporaries, his paintings bring humour and irony, illustrating the pleasures of his century – gallant and rustique fun, but also artistic and literary delights.
Room for entertaining
The interior was designed for social and intellectual entertainment. Guests would walk through the Picture Gallery where most of the collection was on display, towards the reception rooms: the Salon and the Music Room. For grander parties, the side partitions were removed and the semi-circular Salon, together with the Picture Gallery and the Music Room would form a single, vast space. Around one thousand guests were accommodated at the Jacquemart more extravagant receptions.
Only a king or a banker would surely dare to surround himself with such sumptuousness wrote the magazine L’illustration in 1876 about the mansion’s piece de resistence - the Winter Garden. The sumptuousness refers to the marble and mirrors that create the theatrical décor in which a range of potted plants, mainly exotic, are thriving. The fashion of such extravagance came from Britain and was very successful; it provided guests with a refreshing environment in which to relax. From the vestibule, a magnificent double helix staircase of marble, iron and bronze raises elegantly to a rounded cornice. The staircase feels light and airy, despite the heavy materials; at the top there is a fresco by Giambatista Tiepolo, brought by the Jacquemart André from a villa in Venice.
As stipulated in Nelie’s testament, the mansion became the property of the Institut de France. Nélie also stated very clearly her wish to have the collection open to the public, so as to educate large numbers of visitors, and not just a restricted circle of connoisseurs, as she did during her lifetime.