Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Private Place: the Musée Nissim de Camondo

Entrance court to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris

The Musée Nissim de Camondo is one of France's most magnificent museums, yet one of its least known. Situated in the 8th arrondissement, near the Parc Monceau, it was home to Comte Moïse de Camondo, a well-known Parisian banker and passionate collector of 18th-century French furniture and art.

The banker-collector, 1904, by French caricaturist Sem.

In 1911, Camondo demolished the family house at 63, rue de Monceau and hired architect René Sergent to build a new mansion worthy of his growing family and collection. The new design, completed in 1914, was meant to look like an 18th-century palace and Sergent's plan was heavily influenced by the Petit Trianon at Versailles (below).

Though modeled on an historic structure, the house lacked not a single 20th-century convenience and hidden behind the wood-paneled apartments were the necessities of modern life: kitchens, offices and bathrooms.

The Comte Moïse de Camondo's study, or grand bureau, was lavishly appointed with six Aubusson tapestries based on paintings by Jean Baptiste Oudry.

Camondo lined a second study, the petit bureau, with red-striped silk and numerous portrait medallions and paintings, including works by Francesco Guardi and Richard Parkes Bonington. The room's intimate scale and eclectic mix of art and objects reminds visitors that this was once a very private home.

The museum maintains the property essentially as Camondo left it when he died in 1935. The house and contents were formally given to Les Arts Décoratifs in 1936, an arrangement he had decided in 1917, upon news of the death of his only son, Nissim, in arial combat. Nissim gave his life to the country; Camondo gave his life's work. His marriage had ended in 1902 and his only other child, Béatrice, had married and begun a family of her own, though they continued to live at the family home. Not much is known of her immediately following her father's death, though she and her husband, and their two children, died at Auschwitz only a few years later. Camondo's brother Isaac, also an avid collector, had no children. It was the end of the family line and Isaac's collection, in turn, was left to the Louvre.

The Salon Bleu, on the third floor, was part of the family's private apartments and frequently used by Camondo and his daughter, Béatrice, who lived at the house with her husband, Léon Reinach, and their children.

The museum provides a unique study of early 20th-century collecting and aristocratic life in Paris. Camondo's quest for the most important and relevant 18th-century works, especially those with an interesting provenance, is rivaled only by that of the Rothschilds. The result is a museum as much a testament to the pre-war grandeur of the belle époque, as it is to the lavishness of pre-revolutionary France.

The Salon des Huets is named for the set of country scenes painted by Jean Baptiste Huet in 1776. The bucolic images recall Louis XVI's courtiers who adored playing the simple life, a notion perhaps taken farthest by Marie Antoinette who played milkmaid at her petit hameau, surrounded by perfumed sheep and goats.

Camondo wrote in the bequest, "It is my intention... that the work to which I have applied myself, that of reconstituting an artistic home of the eighteenth century, shall be preserved in its entirety. The purpose of the reconstitution should be to preserve in France, in a setting peculiarly appropriate to them, the finest objects that I have been able to find of that decorative art which was one of the glories of France during the period that I have loved above all others."

The overwhelming beauty of the house and collection is nearly swallowed up in the irony of such luxury set against such devastation. The verve with which he collected and the crowded rooms that resulted stand in sharp contrast to the emptiness in which Camondo lived after the loss of his son, whose framed photographs can still be found throughout the house.

But of all the spectacularly-appointed rooms in the house, the Salon Doré, above, is perhaps the most opulent. Lined with late-1770s boiseries originally from a house in the rue Royale, its glass-panelled doors open onto the greenery of the rear garden and the Parc Monceau. Lacquered commodes by Adam Weisweiler flank the fireplace and above them hang portraits of the children of the Marquis de Serrent by François-Hubert Drouais. The gilt-bronze gueridon in the center of the room once belonged to Madam de Pompadour.

Suite of seating furniture and a fire screen, Georges Jacob, 1780-1785
The suite, upholstered with Aubusson tapestries, once belonged to English collector and philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace, and was passed to his heirs, Sir John Murray-Scott and Lady Sackville-West, before being acquired by Comte Moïse de Camondo.

Six-panel screen, Savonnerie carpet factory, 1735-1740
The pattern of birds, flowers and cornucopias of fruit was based on designs by painter Alexandre-François Desportes. The screen was originally in the collection of the Duvivier family, who operated the factory during the 18th century.

Behind the screen (partially visible in the above picture of the room) is a portrait of Madame Le Couteulx de Molay by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1788. The portrait was painted at Malmaison, the family home of the Couteulx de Molay, prior to its 1799 purchase and subsequent fame as the residence of Napoléon and Joséphine Bonaparte.

A commode by Jean-Henri Riesener, 1775-1780, rests beneath the Vigée-Lebrun portait. On it is one of the collection's greatest treasures, a terra-cotta group of Bacchic revelers by Clodion.

A pair of petrified-wood vases with gilt-bronze mounts, 1780, that once belonged to Marie-Antoinette.

Bust of Summer, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785, from the collection of the Count de Vibraye at the château de Freschines in the Loire.

Carpet, Savonnerie carpet factory, 1678.
Designed for a gallery at the Louvre, the wind-themed carpet features trumpeters, stag horns, butterflies, flowers and ribbons. It was originally 30-feet long, but later cut down. Camondo purchased the carpet from the estate of Russian-born art collector Charles Ephrussi.


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