A Haunted Museum in Paris

September 9, 2021 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

To Edmund de Waal, world-renowned ceramic artist and award-winning author, art objects are never just objects. They carry history, memories, and an uncanny power to stir emotion and action. As recounted in de Waal’s international bestseller, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, an inheritance of Japanese figurines – netsuke – launched de Waal on a journey to uncover the history of his prominent European Jewish family, the Ephrussis.

De Waal’s latest book, Letters to Camondo, a lovely, small art object itself, concerns the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, a house museum of 18th century French decorative art. The book comprises a series of intimate letters from de Waal to the long-deceased owner of the house. Count Moïse de Camondo was a pillar of early 20th century French Jewish society who socialized with some of de Waal’s Ephrussi relatives. De Waal’s letters reflect on Jewish migration, identity, and belonging, and relate the tragic history of the Camondo family. French patriots betrayed by the nation they loved, the Camondos continue to haunt this exquisite museum.

The Camondos in France

Born in 1860 in Constantinople to a wealthy Sephardic banking family, Moïse de Camondo moved to Paris as a child. His family gratefully embraced the egalitarian ideals of France, the first modern European country to grant full civil rights to Jews. In time, Moïse married into another prominent Jewish banking family; his bride, Irène Cahen d’Anvers, was the subject of Renoir’s famous portrait, La Petite Irène.

Moïse and Irène had two children, Nissim and Béatrice, before their marriage ended in scandal. Irène left Moïse for her riding instructor, an Italian count. Humiliated, Moïse retained custody of the children. In 1911, he inherited his parents’ Paris home, and turned to the task of rebuilding it for his family.

The elegant new mansion – the future Musée de Camondo – was modeled after the Petit Trianon, a château on the grounds of Versailles. Moïse intended this home to pass to his son, Nissim. Tragically, World War I intervened, and Nissim, a French pilot, died in aerial combat.

Devastated, Moïse resolved to memorialize his beloved son by bequeathing his home and its furnishings to France. In 1936, after Moïse’s death, French officials presided over a gracious ceremony inaugurating the house as a museum.

Yet just a few years later, French authorities arrested Moïse’s daughter, Béatrice, her ex-husband, and their two children. Deported to Auschwitz with other French Jews, the four died horribly.

The Art of Collecting

Moïse devoted himself to collecting late 18th century furnishings and art, which he called “one of the glories of France.” He particularly relished the hunt for royal artworks scattered by the French Revolution.

Influential anti-Semitic French writers mocked Moïse and other Jewish collectors. They derided wealthy French Jews as social climbers, vulgarians, and mimics who were not truly French. Jews who purchased pieces of French cultural patrimony were essentially thieves, they maintained, incapable of appreciating or preserving French heritage.

De Waal muses about the impact of this bitter anti-Semitic invective on Moïse. Certainly, Moïse’s gift to France of his brilliantly curated home was a fine rebuke to those scornful of Jewish taste and patriotism. But other factors, de Waal believes, also shaped Moïse as a collector – the pleasure of arranging and re-arranging curios into perfect harmony, especially in the aftermath of a chaotic divorce; the satisfaction of reuniting companion artworks for an immigrant familiar with separation; and the need to create a tranquil retreat to display photographs of his lost son and feel his presence. All these are movingly pondered in Letters to Camondo.