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In the Mansion of the Camondos

An object lesson about the rewards and limitations of Jewish assimilation in France

Liel Leibovitz
June 04, 2024
Sculptures at the Musée Nissim de Camondo


Sculptures at the Musée Nissim de Camondo


This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

The count Moise de Camondo loved his library best.

It was located on the third floor of his mansion, jutting on the Parc Monceau in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, a floor reserved almost exclusively for the count himself. There, in the rotunda-shaped room located smack in the middle of the house, he’d sit and read his books, bound in red Morocco leather. They were mostly 18th-century editions of Greek and Roman classics. Once he’d had his share of Ovid, he’d admire the large tea table in the center of the room, a bold neoclassical work in mahogany, gilt bronze, and marble which was made in 1788 by Bernard Molitor, the renowned Luxembourgian cabinetmaker who got his start when Marie Antoinette charged him with making the wood paneling for her boudoir in Fontainebleau. But Molitor was a nimble fellow, and he managed to adapt to the changing political and business climes of the post-revolutionary period; today his name is synonymous with the Empire style that flourished under Napoleon.

You can still visit the library today, now that the count’s home is one of Paris’ most beloved little museums, the sort of attraction savvy tourists like to speak about by saying something like, “sure, we’ve all been to the Louvre, but have you see the Camondo museum? It’s to die for.”

Walk into the library, and you’ll find things pretty much exactly as the count had left them. That is by design: A brilliant man with a great grasp on history, the count’s terms, when he died in 1935 and left his home to the Decorative Arts Society, were simple and stark: No collections were to be added to the house, none were to be sold or loaned away, and every object had to remain in the same room it inhabited when the count was still alive.

This means you can walk right up to the count’s tea table and still see it stacked with volumes of his favorite magazine, the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, edited by his dear friend, Charles Ephrussi. Like Camondo, Ephrussi, too, was the son of a wealthy Jewish family, and like him he was a gentleman of refined sensibilities who believed that destiny was acquirable, one masterpiece at a time. It’s Ephrussi you see in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Le Dejeuner de Canotiers”—he’s the gentleman in the top hat standing right behind the merry boating party, staring into the distance—and him, too, who inspired Marcel Proust to imagine the character of the headstrong lover, Charles Swann.

When he was done reading the Gazette, the count would spend long hours writing very detailed letters to the antique dealers whose shops he frequented, advising them precisely which pieces he wished to acquire next. Then, he’d retire to his bedroom. Next to the bed stands a refined armchair, a silver and robin’s nest blue fauteuil à la reine made by Georges Jacob, France’s greatest maker of chairs. Like Molitor, who made the tea table, George Jacob switched gears during the revolutionary period. After having initially furnished the great houses of France’s nobility with elaborate and charming confections, Jacob, following the revolution, went on to supply the new government—the no-nonsense Directory—with austere chairs based on designs from classical antiquity that reflected the severe and mirthless spirit of the age. In due time, Jacob’s son would be commissioned to make a throne for Napoleon; that throne, a distant evolutionary relation of the Camondo fauteuil, bears little relation to the chair in the count’s bedroom: It’s heavy, massive, and overwhelming.

There are Georges Jacobs aplenty on the second floor, too, in the Great Drawing Room, an unchecked explosion of whites and golds. The count purchased the entire set from Sir Richard Wallace, better known as Monsieur Richard, the famous British royal and art collector who, when the Prussians laid siege to the City of Lights in 1870, paid for two ambulances to relieve the destitute Parisians. Keeping the Jacobs company is a bonheur du jour writing desk made by Martin Carlin, who is famed for making refined and luxurious pieces of furniture embellished with French porcelain or outrageously expensive Japanese lacquer panels. Camondo’s Carlin in this room is a beauty with tulip wood-veneered oak inlaid with 17 plaques of Sèvres porcelain (you can see several examples by Carlin at the Met in New York, too, where a small army of them are lined up on display, their cheery green and bleu-celeste Sèvres mounts as vivid as the day they were made. Marie Antoinette’s sewing table, made by Jean-Henri Riesener and delivered to her private apartments at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud in 1788, is here too, as is a folding screen Louis XVI ordered from Jean-Baptiste Boulard for the royal game room.

It’s all too much, of course. It had to be. Poke at any great collector and you’ll find a child, desperate to assert mastery over a strange and impermanent world. If only I can assemble that entire set of trading cards, the child thinks, or come into possession of a few colorful glass bottles to display on her windowsill, or find the rare toy my classmates all crave—I’ll be a person in full, respected and accepted. In command. Secure. Give the child enough money, enough time, and enough impermanence, and a great collector is born.

And everything in life prepared the count to be a great collector, perhaps the greatest of his age.

His ancestors, the Camondos, were ejected from Spain after the Alhambra Decree of 1492. They did well in Venice for a few hundred years, distinguishing themselves as both excellent scholars and shrewd merchants, but the Austrian takeover of 1798 drove them into exile once again, this time to Istanbul, to the cusp of the Golden Horn, on the very outskirts of Europe. The city had little love to offer non-Muslims, but the Camondos by now had centuries of experience navigating life in inclement political climes and buying and selling needful, pretty things. After a few good years of trade, in 1802, they opened a midsize bank, Isaac Camondo & Cie.

Thirty years later, with Isaac gone and the business now run by his brother Abraham, the Camondos became the chief bankers of the Ottoman Empire. When Mahmud II and his son, the Sultan Abdulmejid I, looked to France, saw the Napoleonic Code, and wanted to remake their empire in similar ways, dimming the light of religion and replacing it with reverence for all things cosmopolitan, bureaucratic, and enlightened, it was the Camondos they called upon to finance their Tanzimat reformation. The industrious Jews were repaid with a special dispensation to buy real estate in Istanbul, which they used in part to build a Jewish school and several other communal institutions.

Which didn’t stop Abraham, who believed firmly in the benefits of marrying money with power, from investing heavily in helping the region of Venetia to liberate itself from the Austrians. When Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed sovereign of the newly founded Kingdom of Italy in 1861, he immediately made the Camondos citizens. It was just the first step, however, in the family’s European adventure: As one scholar noted, you could trace the Camondos’ aspirations, appetites, and allegiances simply by looking at the ledgers of their real estate transactions: Up until 1858, they were written exclusively in Hebrew, then, for a decade, in Italian, and finally, by 1866, all in French.

It’s not hard to understand why. By then, France was at the height of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the long Nineteenth Century,” a period which began with the burning of the Bastille and ended in the trenches of Verdun. The far-reaching reforms of both the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, touching on everything from the courts to the schools, seeded the blooming of a new meritocracy, further accelerated by colonial expansions and rapid industrialization. They also seemed to make the Jews a different kind of offer: not mere tolerance in return for transactional excellence, but a real shot at assimilation, at being like the rest.

When Napoleon, shortly after becoming emperor, summoned some of the most celebrated and pious Jews under his rule and resurrected the Sanhedrin, the questions he posed to the newly elevated rabbis were telling: What is Judaism’s stance toward France? And how do Jews regard their fellow Frenchmen and women? The rabbis took a few days to discuss, and presented their answers not only to Bonaparte but also to their fellow Jews, introducing them as binding edicts. Every French Jew, they decreed, is religiously bound to look at his non-Jewish neighbor as a brother or a sister, and every French Jew is religiously bound to consider France as the motherland, loving it mightily and defending it readily. Napoleon then passed a series of decrees intended to force the Jews into total assimilation, including a short-lived one that basically forbade them from engaging in finance—but there was little doubt that, come the mid-19th century, French Jews were living in the freest, most welcoming, most exhilarating nation they’d known in centuries.

And a delightful one, at that: The Belle Epoque was dawning, rewarding the rich with beautiful objects and pleasant pastimes. Still stuck in a dusty corner of the Levant, the Camondos wanted to be at the heart of it all. Abraham died in Paris in 1873, and requested that his body be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Istanbul. His grandsons Abraham Behor and Nissim remained in France and took pains to become as French as could be. They changed their last name from the plain old Camondo to the more Francophile de Camondo, and built themselves sprawling mansions in the finest neighborhoods in Paris. When Émile Zola published his novel La Curée, in 1872, he based at least some of properties of his protagonist, Aristide Rougon—the son of a peasant who, being a clever investor, made a huge fortune—after Nissim, describing Nissim’s home as a stand-in for Aristide’s.

Nissim’s and Abraham Behor’s sons, the cousins Isaac and Moise, cared little for the family business and a lot for art, music, and the good life. Isaac shut down the family’s Istanbul bank in 1894, reasoning that the family should now focus on doing business in Europe, or, better yet, simply enjoy the fruits of previous generations’ labors. He began collecting art—his passion was impressionism—and having affairs with actresses and opera singers. He had two sons with Lucy Berthet, a soprano, but did not recognize them because their mother was Catholic. He was also an amateur composer. In 1908, three years before his passing, he left his considerable collection to the Louvre. It was so vast that the museum had to inaugurate two new galleries to contain it.

But while Isaac donated his personal belongings to a museum, Moise built a museum for his personal belongings. He had his home on the Parc Monceau almost entirely demolished, and engaged René Sergent—a favorite of everyone from the Vanderbilts to the Rolls-Royce company, which hired him to design its headquarters—to reimagine a manse worthy of his means and his musings. The façade was made to resemble the Petit Trianon, the neoclassical palace in Versailles to which, once upon a time, entry was only permitted to those expressly invited by Marie Antoinette. The rooms were designed with the express purpose of best highlighting the collection, with Moise carefully deciding which objects required what kind of setting.

Attention, naturally, was also paid to the requirements of the humans occupying the house, including a kosher kitchen with separate areas for milk and meat—the delicacies it delivered were then enjoyed using Catherine the Great’s silverware—and a gorgeous, shell-shaped, hand-washing station carved out of green marble with a lovely spigot shaped like a dolphin. But, other than that, it’s hard to imagine the stately house as a home, maybe because it never really was one.

In 1891, Moise married Irène Cahen d’Anvers, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, Louis Cahen d’Anvers. You needn’t speculate about her beauty: Her father commissioned her portrait from Renoir, though he found the finished painting so vulgar he hung it in the servants’ quarter and delayed payment to the artist. In 1892, Moise and Irène welcomed their first son, named Nissim after his now-late grandfather; Béatrice joined the family two years later.

Neither husband nor children, though, held Irène’s attention for long: She plunged into an affair with Count Charles Sampieri, the man who ran the sumptuous stables dotting Moise’s front courtyard, and by 1902 she was divorced and gone, leaving her little family behind in the large house on the Parc Monceau.

Count Moise comforted himself by expanding his collection. It doesn’t take an art historian to understand his particular preference for the 18th century. One king, Louis XV, reigned for 59 years, the second-longest stretch in France’s history. He commissioned the Petit Trianon, the Pantheon, and the Place de la Concorde. Mozart came to court, composing and playing pieces for the king’s daughter. The king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, used the court’s might and fortune to champion artists like Francois Boucher and Jean-Baptiste Oudry. And though they were often at odds with the court, the century also introduced the world to Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, ushering in the Enlightenment. Outside his home, the 20th century was fast, loud, and out of control. Inside, the 18th lived forever, promising stability and discovery and an endless stream of truth and beauty.

Moise also doted on his children, particularly Nissim, who he’d hoped would make great strides in further thrusting the Camondos into the highest echelons of French society. When World War I broke out, the boy, then 22, wasted no time making good on the promise of giving France his all: He joined the French army, trained as a pilot, and displayed great courage and dedication. He was shot down over Lorraine on Sept. 5, 1917.

Heartbroken, Moise shut down. He shut down most of his remaining businesses, and shut down his home, too, rarely leaving or hosting others except for a sumptuous monthly meal served to a circle of notable gourmands. The house, he decided, was to become what, in some sense, it had always been—a museum. He bequeathed it to the Decorative Arts Society, to be renamed in his son’s honor: Le Musée Nissim de Camondo. He only insisted that the house and the collection will remain exactly as they had been when little Nissim ran around the garden, enjoyed his meals in the dining room with the large French windows, or ran up and down the ornate staircase, so that maybe, even if you could no longer meet Nissim, you could enjoy the same chinoiserie he, too, had once loved. By 1935, Moise, too, was gone.

Which left only Béatrice, the last of the Camondos.

A year after her brother’s death, the heiress, then 24, married a man who, on paper, was a perfect match, the composer Leon Reinach. Leon’s father, Théodore, was chair of ancient numismatics at the Collège de France. Like Moise, he, too, was a great believer in French Jewish liberalism, and advocated for Jews to immerse themselves fully and primarily in French culture. Like Moise, he, too, was an avid collector. And, like Moise, he, too, built himself a home to house his treasures, the Villa Kerylos on the French Riviera. Leon himself was an avid collector as well. In 1920, the couple welcomed their first child, Fanny, and three years later a boy they named Bertrand.

Fabulously wealthy, well-connected, deeply educated, and in possession of some of Europe’s rarest cultural gems, the couple were proof that their fathers’ sweetest dreams had come true. They were finally, fully, and unperturbedly, at home in France.

They acted like it, too: As a wedding gift, Béatrice’s grandmother gave them Renoir’s portrait of Irène, and in 1933 they lent it to an exhibition held at the Orangerie Museum. It’s not hard to understand why Béatrice, seeing her mother’s likeness as captured by one of France’s greatest painters hanging in one of France’s greatest museums, would feel the need to shed the one vestigial remain that separated her from her fellow countrymen and women: In 1940, she decided to convert to Catholicism. She wasn’t too worried when the Nazis stormed into town later that year. She was a rich Catholic with friends in high places. Everything was going to be fine.

By the summer of 1941, the Renoir was gone, seized by the Germans. Gone, too, was the love that once bound Béatrice and her husband.

In his astonishing book about Jewish art collectors in France in the 1940s, The House of Fragile Things, James McAuley, drawing extensively on various archives, attempted to piece together the reasons that led to the marriage falling apart. Court papers show that it was Béatrice who filed for divorce, citing Leon’s infidelity as a reason. But another, more somber explanation, hovers beneath the surface.

When he was stripped of his Renoir, McAuley reports, Leon wrote a furious letter to Jacques Jaujard, the director of France’s National Museums, protesting the way the Jews were now treated by the Vichy government. His father, Leon wrote, had bequeathed his villa and everything in it to the French people, as had his stepfather. The Musee Nissim de Camondo, he added, “is a real reconstruction of an eighteenth century artistic residence filled in particular with the most beautiful specimens of decorative art which was one of the glories of France.” These contributions, he argued, constituted an “exceptional service” to the Republic, and merited him and his wife an exemption from the Nazi strictures.

Béatrice, however, sang a very different tune. When the Vichy government froze her bank accounts, she appealed to the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives to let her keep enough to pay her employees. The commissariat replied with a demand that she report which of her employees were non-Aryan. Béatrice happily complied. Her request was granted. In September of 1942, McAuley wrote, the heiress sent a letter to a friend revealing her state of mind.

“I am certain that I am miraculously protected,” she wrote. “I’ve sensed it for years but only in this last year have I understood from where all this good fortune has come to me. Will I have the years necessary to thank God and the Virgin enough for their protection? I am so little and so low, so unworthy.”

In his book, McAuley recounted Béatrice’s and Leon’s last days. Leon tried to escape. Béatrice prayed to the Virgin. Both were arrested. Drancy. Auschwitz. Fin.

But that’s not what we remember the Camondos for today. We remember them for the museum, such a charming place to spend a sticky summer afternoon in Moise’s salon bleu, look at Johan Jongkind’s watercolors of the city, and imagine what they must have meant to a Jewish immigrant done good, sitting in his stately home, staring at his stuff, thinking of a time before ideologies drove people to the streets, and thinking that maybe this serenity, like his furniture, could last forever.

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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