Private collections gone public, Paris’ petits musées are hidden treasures for lovers of the decorative arts.
As he approached old age, Moïse de Camondo (1860–1935), a French banker, considered himself among the most fortunate of men. Wealth and good taste had gained him grudging acceptance in Parisian society, only decades after his family, Jews from the Ottoman Empire, had moved to the French capital from Istanbul. He amassed arguably the finest private collection of 18th-century French furniture and decorative arts of his day. And he housed it in a palatial residence built in 1914 on fashionable Rue Monceau. The mansion was inspired by the Petit Trianon, the small château constructed at Versailles for Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, the next-to-last French monarch, who was alleged to have predicted the deluge after his decadent reign.
At the close of the Belle Époque, Moïse de Camondo could hardly envision another deluge. Even with the coming of World War I, he had plans to install his beloved son, Nissim, an air force lieutenant, in the Monceau residence once peace returned. But Nissim’s plane was shot down in 1917. The distraught father turned the mansion and its formidable decorative arts collection into the Nissim de Camondo Museum, which opened to the public in 1936.
No matter how many times one has been to Paris, it’s hard to resist the temptations of the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou and Versailles Palace—grandly official in style, with visits that have the feel of wreath-laying ceremonies. The appeal of the smaller Paris museums—and there are more than 90 of them by my count—is just the opposite. They are more relaxed affairs, offering more time to focus on specific interests and artworks, with the added bonus of allowing enjoyment of the various neighborhoods in which they are located. Also, in many instances, they were former aristocratic residences, with collections that at least partly reflect the tastes of their owners and their eras.
Recently I visited three representative petits musées. Two of them—the Nissim de Camondo and the Cognacq-Jay Museum in Le Marais, which holds the former collection of a rags-to-riches department store king—were created by outsiders, who used their fortunes and art holdings to further their social status. The third museum—the Jacquemart-André on the once-stylish Boulevard Haussmann—was the grand home of a banking heir and politician during the Second Empire, whose collection is on display there.
“What makes the Nissim de Camondo Museum unique is that it shows exactly how the family lived, including the kitchen, bathrooms and servants’ quarters,” says Sylvie Legrand-Rossi, the chief curator, who points out some of the highlights in the museum. One of the furniture masterpieces found in the large drawing room—a luxurious reception area facing the garden—is the circa 1766 “Bonheur du jour” writing table, its top covered with Sèvres porcelain plaques. It is one of a dozen similar tables attributed to the master cabinetmaker Martin Carlin (1730–85) that are in other museum collections, including four examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Porcelain Room, next to the dining room, has 300 pieces of Sèvres porcelain – arguably the world’s premier collection of so-called Buffon services—decorated with birds inspired by illustrations from Buffon’s L’Histoire naturelle des oiseaux (1771–86). The service was used only three or four times a year, when Camondo invited other major collectors, museum curators and government culture officials to lunch. Camondo was particularly fond of desks. Perhaps his favorite piece of furniture is in the alcove of the large study—a mahogany roll-top desk made around 1780 by Claude-Charles Saunier. “It is a very elegant representative of Louis XVI furniture,” says Legrand-Rossi. “And Monsieur de Camondo may have used it often.”
The loss of a favored son was a terrible blow, though it was one suffered by millions of French families during World War I. But the Camondo family’s tragedies continued even after the father’s death in 1935. His only other child, Béatrice, her husband Léon Reinach and their two adult children, Fanny and Bertrand Reinach, were deported from Vichy France and killed in Nazi concentration camps in 1943. The end of the family line lends poignancy to Moïse de Camondo’s will, which specified that the museum be preserved as if it were still a private residence and that its collection never be loaned to other institutions.
Ernest Cognacq (1839–1928), roughly a contemporary of Moïse de Camondo, came from a far humbler background and put together his fine and decorative arts collection—on display at the Cognacq-Jay Museum—only in the last 20 years of his life. Born in the tiny port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré in southwestern France, he moved to Paris and there became a street vendor of dry goods. He set up his wares on the Pont Neuf, one of the bridges spanning the Seine, near the former site of a pump called La Samaritaine (the Samaritan) because of the sculpture that adorned it. Cognacq was such a successful peddler that he managed to open a shop on the river’s northern quay, which with the help of his wife, Marie-Louise Jay, daughter of peasants, eventually became the famed Samaritaine department store. Unlike Camondo, who led a life of travel and leisure, Cognacq and his wife, a childless couple, continued to work 15 hours a day, never taking vacations and living in a large but unprepossessing mansion.
It is unclear why they started their collection, but they went about it with the same obsessive energy they displayed at their department store. “Ernest Cognacq was a business genius, who only toward the end of his life found time to put together his collection, no doubt aided by curators and gallerists,” says José de los Llanos, director of the Cognacq-Jay Museum. The focus, as with other great collectors of the time on both sides of the Atlantic, was on French decorative arts of the 18th century, an era when furniture and furnishings reached a high level of excellence and were valued as much as the finest painting and sculpture.
Already in the 17th century under Louis XIV, great workshops had been established for tapestry, porcelain and furniture. But French decorative arts reached their apex in the 1700s. In Paris, furniture artisans from Germany, Italy and the Netherlands as well as France gathered in the Faubourg St. Antoine neighborhood east of the Bastille. Their clients were the provincial nobles who kept sumptuous urban residences known as hôtels particuliers, while visiting one of the two royal courts—Versailles or the Palais Royal.
Since 1988, the Cognacq-Jay Museum has been housed in one of these former hôtels particuliers in the heart of the Marais, mainly because Cognacq and Jay’s own residence was too inadequate and their collection, opened to the public in 1929, was previously displayed in a nondescript building adjoining their department store. The Cognacq-Jay Museum’s current premises date back to about 1575. The building has narrow spaces and low ceilings, and although its main staircase is elegantly beautiful, it is not ideal for older visitors. Also, the numerous small rooms present security problems. But for de los Llanos, these drawbacks are more than offset by the advantages. “As a former residence, it immediately evokes an intimate ambiance,” he says. “The proportions are more human than in any large museum, and make the furniture, paintings and sculptures look their best.”
Among the most eye-catching furniture is a circa 1760 oak-framed mechanical table with polychrome wood marquetry, attributed to the famed craftsman Jean-François Oeben (1721–63), a Madame de Pompadour protégé. It is designed so that the table moves forward, revealing a tilting stand for reading or writing. Another furniture masterpiece is a canopy bed of gilt wood and blue damask fabric, attributed to Georges Jacob (1739–1814) and owned by a daughter of Louis XV.
Cognacq accumulated a large collection of miniature boxes and cases made of porcelain and precious stones. Among the museum’s highlights in this genre are a small box from the 1750s in the shape of a masked woman’s head, made of porcelain, lapis lazuli, gems and gold; a circa 1775 rectangular snuff box of Sèvres porcelain mounted in gold, with portraits of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and other members of the doomed royal family; and perhaps most striking of all, a circa 1760 rectangular gold box topped by a watch.
The museum also has a sizeable collection of sculptures, half of them busts of famous 18th-century aristocrats and military officers. One of the best, a 1747 terracotta bust of Le Maréchal de Saxe by the famous portraitist Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1704–78), captures the alert, somewhat apprehensive gaze of the military leader rather than paying more conventional homage to his status.
The Jacquemart-André Museum was previously a grandiose residence built in 1876 in the style of a hôtel particulier for its owner, Edouard André, heir to an immense banking fortune. The architect he hired, Henri Parent, was famed for his restorations of urban mansions of the 1700s. André served in the National Assembly and was a fixture in the glittering Tuileries court of the Emperor Napoleon III. But after the Second Empire ended with France’s defeat in the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, André retired from public life and devoted himself to collecting. “He always intended to use the residence as a future museum,” says Nicolas Sainte-Fare Garnot, chief curator of the Jacquemart-André Museum. “That’s why each room creates an ensemble of paintings, sculptures, fabrics, furniture and other decorative objects in the same style.”
Initially, André wanted a collection that reflected 18th-century French taste. But he gave his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, a former painter, permission and money to amass an Italian Renaissance collection, which, along with British Victorian-era touches, explains the eclectic nature of the museum’s holdings. The Grand Salon, a large semi-circular shaped reception room, clearly evokes an 18th-century French ambience, with its preference for curves over right angles, its series of neo-classical half columns placed on the walls circling the vast room, its ceiling painted with an allegorical scene of marriage, and its busts of notable nobles of the 1700s.
By contrast, the Winter Garden reflects British influence of the Victorian era, especially strong after Queen Victoria’s visit to France in 1855, when relations between France and Great Britain were close. It is roofed with glass and filled with potted palms and other exotic plants to enable guests during the summer to retreat briefly into a cooler atmosphere. The Winter Garden leads upward into “the most incredible part of the museum,” says Sainte-Fare. At the top landing of a curving marble staircase is a stunning Giambattista Tiepolo fresco, dated circa 1745, Henri III Being Welcomed to the Contarini Villa, depicting the 1574 visit to Venice by the French monarch. With perfect logic, visitors cross over to the other side of this mezzanine and into the Italian Museum, with three large rooms—the Venetian Gallery, the Florentine Gallery and the Sculpture Gallery—filled with Italian Renaissance art, including works by Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Sandro Botticelli.
In the Tapestry Room, Jacquemart’s Italian biases cede again to her husband’s 18th-century preferences. The room’s highlights are the three Russian Games tapestries, designed by Jean-Baptiste Leprince (1734–81) and woven at the Beauvais royal tapestry factory for Catherine the Great of Russia. “What is remarkable is that the tapestries determined the dimensions of the room,” says Sainte-Fare. “The architect carefully measured the tapestries before designing the room. So, it is a case of decorative arts shaping architecture, rather than the reverse, which of course is more usual.”
But then again, this was the case of a collector who was brought up to appreciate and afford the best of worldly goods and to surround himself with connoisseurs. “Edouard André played all the right cards,” says Sainte-Fare.
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “From Mansions to Museums.”
By Jonathan Kandell