The Capacity for passion is both cruel and divine.
April in Paris! The scintillating Seine, the white and pink tree blossoms, the accordion players: how can it get any more romantic? Maybe by immersing oneself in the 18th century Romantic era, courtesy of the collection at the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Situated in an area of the city less visited by tourists, in the 8th arrondissement, the museum is housed in a property originally purchased by the Camondo family from an industrial entrepreneur. The Plaine Monceau, as the stylish neighbourhood was known, was made famous by Emile Zola’s novel La Curée (The Kill) about the duplicity and lack of scruples of the nouveaux riches.
Like the Rothchilds, the Ephrussis and the Pereires, the de Camondos were an old, wealthy, internationally connected family. Originally from Constantinople, where they owned one of the largest banks in the Ottoman Empire, the family moved to France in the 1860s, when Moïse – the creator of the collection – was a child.
Moïse de Camondo lived life to the full and enjoyed the simple pleasures his wealth afforded him: he liked to hunt and race automobiles, yachting, riding, and shooting; he was a member of the gastronomical association, he travelled extensively, he was interested in technical progress. Above all, he had a passion for art, and in particular admired the elegance of 18th century furniture and objets d’art.
The Mansion at Number 63
When the brothers de Camondo moved to Paris in 1869, they purchased two land parcels next to each other, adjoining the fashionable Parc Monceau. At number 61 rue de Monceau, the Count Abraham-Behor de Camondo commissioned an hotel particulier designed by the architect Denis-Louis Destors, a student of Garnier (of Opera fame). From the street it looks rather uninspiring, but the kind waiters at the restaurant next door advised me to look at the façade from the parc, and that was more rewarding. The eclectic style listed building (Monument Historique) is now, quite fittingly, a bank.
The museum is at number 63, the mansion built for the Comte Moïse de Camondo by the architect René Sergeant. Like Moïse, Sergeant was also a specialist in 18th century French architecture and design, as well as their British contemporaries such as Robert Adam. He worked for many rich and famous in Paris, and was invited to design buildings in Rome and London, New York and Buenos Aires. Sergeant had a reputation for ability to integrate modern comfort into buildings of classical proportions and style. This, and the fact that Moïse wanted a building suited to housing his art collection, made Sergeant the ideal choice. The existing mansion was demolished and in 1914 this beautiful aristocratic residence, inspired by the Petit Trianon, was successfully completed.
Admiring the elegant staircase, we are reminded how beauty and efficiency were combined in this building: there is a compressed air elevator guests could use instead of taking the stairs. The outhouse where the horse drawn carriages used to be kept were converted into garages and guests arriving by car used a special covered passageway leading to the house.
The mansion is built on three levels: the lower ground floor, where the action was, the engine that fuelled the household – kitchen, scullery, servants’ dining room, chef’s office. A famous gourmand, Moïse paid special attention to the fitting of the kitchen. It includes a large rôtisserie, with a central spit roaster, an oven and a salamander. Always interest in the application of technology in convenience, Moïse converted the oven to electricity in 1931 and had a motor fitted to turn the spits. A dumbwaiter, plate warmer and water steriliser ensured the smooth running of the kitchen and the safe transport of dishes to the pantry on the upper ground floor.
The private apartments on the top floor, enjoying beautiful panoramic views of the Parc Monceau, combine elegant furniture and paintings with 20th century comfort – the fully tiled, heated bathrooms are similar to those found in luxury hotels.
All the reception rooms are on the upper ground floor, the garden level, and are accessed from an L shaped gallery. The grandest of them, the Great Drawing Room, opens onto the landscaped garden. In this luminous white and gilt wood panelled room, are displayed some of the most precious objects of Moïse’s collection.
Count Moïse de Camondo never tired of his love for 18th century art: he started collecting in the late 1890’s, when he was thirty years old and later had the mansion built especially in order to house the cabinets and commodes, the tapestries, paintings and porcelain. Although quite knowledgeable of the period, he took advice from the curators of the Louvre and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and from the antique dealers he frequented. He regularly perused art magazines and auction catalogues. Patient and determined, on one occasion he searched and waited thirty years to reunite a separated pair of furniture pieces.
The collection is too rich and varied to be summarised in a few sentences; instead, I selected a few of the more notable pieces.
If you happen to arrive by car, through the covered passageway and the iron gate into the hall, the first thing to see would have been the red marble fountain, in the shape of a shell, topped with a gilt lead dolphin.
On the oak panelled walls of the Great Study, six tapestries from the Aubusson factory (ca 1775-80) depict fables of La Fontaine. In the same room are a pair of “voyeuse” chairs by Jean-Baptiste Claude Sené (1769). Voyeuse chairs were placed near a card table, where people who did not play would kneel on them to watch the game. This pair, featuring green Etruscan style saber legs, were commissioned for the Turkish drawing room of Château de Montreuil at Versailles, the residence of King Louis XVI’s sister.
Above a magnificent chest of drawers with shutters by Jean-Henri Riesener (oak veneered with amaranth, sycamore, burl, maple and satinwood, decorated with chased gilt bronze, ca 1775) there is a painting of a Bacchante – nude study - by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le-Brun, the official portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
Seven pastoral scenes painted by Jean-Baptiste Huet depicting the progress of a love affair between a shepherd and a shepherdess, with the complicity of a dog and a dove, decorate this room designed specifically to display the painting (the Salon des Huet).
In the dining room, a bust of a black woman (after Jean-Antoine Houdon), evokes the abolition of slavery in 1794.
An Extinct Family
The Count of Camondo did not have a happy life. He lived at 63 rue de Monceau with his two children, Nissim and Béatrice, having separated from his wife in 1897. Nissim was killed in action in the first WW, in 1917. The mansion, with its fragile objects and precious furniture, became more a museum than a home. Visitors were less frequent, mainly close friends and scholars interested in the collection. Moïse decided to preserve his son’s memory by creating this place where time stood still and bequeathing it to the nation.
On my way out, I notice on the wall of the porte cochère a plaque commemorating Nissim de Camondo, who died fighting for France and to whom his father dedicated the museum. Another plaque, smaller, is dedicated to Béatrice de Camondo, the founder’s daughter, her husband and their two children, who were deported and murdered in 1944 – just eight years after the museum opened.