The 18th century brought the light to Europe: science, commerce, the arts enjoyed significant progress. Economics, politics and religion were marked by turbulent years – a couple of revolutions, no least the Industrial revolution changed society and the world forever. Rulers were known as “Great” (Peter, Catherine) or “The Sun” King (Louis XIV); philosophers, musicians, poets and novelists established the new rules of ethics and aesthetics.

Against this energetic, sometimes violent background, the style preferred was the ornamental and florid Rococo – gentle, pastel colours, languid curves, highly decorative patterns of flowers and seashells. The subjects were as far as possible remote from the real world: pastoral scenes of happy peasants, mythological characters engaged in intimate encounters, scenes of leisure and pleasure. This style was later rejected by the orderly and simple lines of neo-classicism but enjoyed a revival in the mid-19th century.

From France and England, collectors, their agents and advisors attended auctions and private sales to enrich the collections of furniture, objets d’art and paintings by 18th century artists. Many of Marie Antoinette prized possessions, for example, ended up in the salons of wealthy English and American collectors. Some were bequeathed to the people, in the form of museums that offer a window onto the luminous world of the Enlightenment.

The Collection

One such is the Musée Cognacq Jay, now housed in a handsome hotel particulier in the Marais. The museum describes its collection as a taste of 18th century from the 20th century perspective.

The distinctive charm of the Cognacqs’ collection lies in its open and proud bourgeois taste for small, decorative objects and pretty paintings. Statuettes, small oil paintings, cigar boxes, perfume bottles, medallions, watches – is what the couple liked to collect. In the first room of the museum, a triple display cabinet can hold the attention of the visitor for the rest of the afternoon, with a multitude of colourful and shiny mini-wonders. I was particularly charmed by the round box designed by Johan Christian Neuber decorated with 120 semi-precious stones, each numbered and catalogued.

The small but intricate porcelain pieces – Sevres, Meissen, Dresden – convey a rich narrative: there are women and children, exotic animals, mythological and theatrical scenes, reflecting the preoccupations of 18th century artists and their later admirers.

Portraits dominate the paintings collection. The Red Gallery is dedicated to portraits and miniatures featuring women – beautiful, bejewelled, beautifully dressed and coiffed – although hardly a progressive perspective, as women are displayed in their glorious roles of mother and wife.

The Enlightenment brought a new perspective on the previously neglected concept of childhood – and with it the role of education in creating a future successful adult. The tenderness and innocence of children is captured in some charming portraits by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Fragonard, and the anonymous painter of the small boy holding a Punchinello.

Francois Boucher, the official painter of the king, favourite of Madame de Pompadour, creator of canvases, as well as decorator, dominated the 18th century visual arts. No collection would be complete without paintings by Boucher, and the Musée Cognacq-Jay displays some fine examples, including Diane’s Return from the Hunt, the Music Lesson and some exquisite portraits of young men.

Views of Venice by Canaletto, scenes of outdoor leisure by Watteau, portraits by Huet, Fragonard, Vigé-Le Brun and, rather surprisingly, an early Rembrandt (The Ass of the Prophet Balaam) present us with a rich and eclectic collection.

Hotel de Donon

When the Cognacq-Jays bequeathed the collection to the City of Paris, they envisaged it being like a home - in which paintings, furniture and objets d’art accumulated naturally alongside their occupants, and were displayed as it pleased them, without the constraints of a museum. Ernest Cognacq imagined this home to be 25 Boulevard des Capucines, at La Samaritaine de Luxe, where he started organising exhibitions of works from his private collection. In 1928 the City of Paris inherited the collection and the museum was opened a year later.

Since 1990 the collection has resided in Hotel Donon, a 16th century townhouse in the Marais. Built in 1575 for Médéric de Donon, controller of King’s buildings, a friend of Catherine de Médicis and son in law of Girolamo della Robbia, the house remained a family home until the early 20th century. Like other distinguished buildings in the area, it then changed owners a few times, was at some stage converted into unattractive commercial premises, and finally in 1974 was acquired by the City of Paris who set about restoring it to a state suited to house the collection.

The building offers an elegant, symmetrical structure. The main house has a courtyard in front and a garden at the back, with two wings extending towards the street. Like many hotels particuliers built at that time, the house has two below- and two above-stairs floors, of equal size. The rectangular courtyard façade features two large bays, nearly Palladian, under a triangular fronton. The arrangement of the windows, alternating between full and half-opening, creates an elegant, pleasant visual rhythm.

A True Story of Rags to Reaches

Following his father’s death, 12 years old Ernest Cognacq left home to earn a living and landed a job as a travelling salesman. Reaching Paris, he sought employment in clothing and department stores (grand magasins) eventually finding a job in La Nouvelle Eloise. Here, he also found Marie-Louise Jay, a salesgirl of humble peasant origins. They were both ambitious. When Marie-Louise moved to the department store Le Bon Marché, she became the first female salesperson in the clothing department. Meanwhile, Ernest was trying to set up on his own. His first shop failed, he then set up a stall selling fabrics and dishcloths, and later took up a lease on a shop. Business was good in 1870; Cognacq hired Marie-Louise, then married her. Both worked hard and saved and eventually bought the shop and called it La Samaritaine - from the location of the Samaritaine hydraulic pump, where Ernest’s placed his stall. The rest is history. La Samaritaine became a very large, very successful business and the Cognacq-Jays became rich.

Entrepreneurs, philanthropists, collectors – the lives of the Cognacq-Jays are a romantic novel. During 54 years of life as a couple they built France’s most important department store. Their passion for art was only matched by their passion for philanthropy. Their legacy as pioneers of modern retail is significant, but it fades in the light of their love of art, their generosity and their contribution to the preservation of 18th century art and craft.