From Riches to Rags
Anne Gardom
in Paris and a bygone era

Fifteen minutes’ walk from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo. It is among Paris’ later acquisitions, having been given to the City in 1936 and has an interesting and rather sad history.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the family of Camondo, prominent Sephardic Jews, living in Istanbul, owned one of the largest banks in the Ottoman Empire. They were exceedingly successful, and in the reign of Napoleon the Third two brothers Abraham-Béhor and Nissim came to Paris on business and settled there. They bought two adjacent plots of land overlooking the fashionable Parc Monceau and each built a mansion. There were similar grand homes in the area.

In 1910 Comte Moïse de Camondo inherited his father’s house. He was already known as a serious and discriminating collector, specializing in late eighteenth-century French furniture and paintings. He pulled down the old house to make way for one in which he could house and display his increasingly magnificent collection. He commissioned the French architect René Sergent to build him a house reminiscent of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, but with all the conveniences and luxuries available at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a stately and austere building with a large cobbled courtyard in front and protected by high walls and tall gates. Now it is the only mansion left in the Rue de Monceau and is overlooked by elegant blocks of expensive flats.

As you enter the ground floor of this small palace, for so it seems, you are struck by the spacious entrance hall, marble flagged with an elaborate plaster ceiling and a broad staircase leading up to the suite of reception rooms on the floor above. There are no paintings, frescoes or carpets to break the pale elegance of the huge spaces. The furnishings and contents have been left largely as Moïse de Camondo arranged them and reflect his taste and eye for drama. In his entrance hall he has placed three magnificent pieces of furniture whose gilded wood and elaborate veneers gleam in this austere setting. As you go up the stairs, you pass two other lacquered Japanese cabinets, set at angles on the shallow landings.

On the first floor Moïse de Camondo housed and displayed the cream of his collection. Though the contents and decor are almost entirely mid- to late-eighteenth century, the rooms themselves are laid out as befits the needs of sumptuous nineteenth-century entertaining, and all open out on to one another.

In the first Room, the Great Study, the panelled and gilded walls are hung with six beautiful tapestries illustrating the fables of La Fontaine. The furniture includes a magnificent roll-top desk made by Saunier in 1780. The elegant simplicity of its shape and its slender tapering legs are almost overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the gilt decoration – an astonishing tour de force. Also in this room is a painting by one of France’s most successful women painters Vigée le Brun, who was a court painter at Versailles. The Bacchante painted in a 1785 was a sensation when it went on show and was much copied. She was however much better known as a painter of lively and sparkling portraits, one of which hangs in the Great Drawing Room.

Here, in the Great Drawing room, which overlooks the garden, the white and gilded oak panelling comes from another great house in the Rue Royale. The magnificent Savonnerie carpet, depicting a theme of Air was one of over ninety commissioned for the Grande Gallerie at the Louvre. This room also has a set of elaborate gilded chairs constructed so that the seats, backs and armrests can be unscrewed, to enable the colours to be changed with the season or the fashion.

The Rotunda at the centre of the house is decorated with exquisite pastoral scenes by Huet, where a shepherd and shepherdess send each other messages by a dog and a dove, before being happily united in the final painting.

The large Dining Room, with its magnificently equipped Butler’s Pantry alongside, was designed for entertaining on a large scale. It contains some impressive silverware from the service given by Catherine the Great to one of her favourites – seven enormous pieces. However, when he dined alone Moïse de Camondo used the enchanting Porcelain Room, with showcases of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain. The pieces are decorated with beautiful and lifelike paintings taken from Buffon’s History of Birds, which began to be published in 1770. They are exquisite: robins, goldfinches, wrens and woodpeckers painted on the finest porcelain decorated with backgrounds of greens and pinks.

The other small room on this floor is the charming and intimate Small Study where he hung many of his smaller paintings and furnished it with delicate and fragile pieces of furniture. Two wonderful paintings of Venice by Guardi hang in here, and a little work table made for Marie Antoinette, whose ‘work’ could only have been the most delicate and lightweight of embroideries.

On the first floor are the private family rooms where the furnishings are more practical, and there is a sense of someone having lived there. The two bathrooms here are interesting in their stylish modernity. Walls and floor are tiled in an elegant basketwork design, and the ceilings are vaulted to reduce the effect of condensation. These rooms were used by Moïse de Camondo and by his son and daughter. His beloved son, a fighter pilot, was killed in the First World War, and portraits and photographs of his serious moustached face are in all the rooms.

The final part of the tour takes in some of the kitchen and servants’ quarters. The very large kitchen on the ground floor was constructed in a self-contained concrete caisson to prevent noise, heat or smells from escaping. It is tiled in white up to the ceiling, and opens on to the Servants’ Courtyard. It has huge central cooking ranges and a roasting range along one wall. In the Servants’ Hall the dining table usually seated between fifteen and twenty servants, the normal complement, with a small wall of numbered lockers behind the table for their napkins and individual possessions.

The Chef’s Office was quite separate with his own telephone line, desk and filing cabinets. The dumb-waiter connected the office below with the butler’s pantry above.

The history of the Camondos is sad despite the magnificent house with its luxurious and beautiful contents. Moïse de Camondo was devastated by the premature death of his only son, who had been the focus of so many of his hopes and plans. His home and its contents was left to the nation on his death. His daughter was a dedicated and fine horsewoman but did not share her father’s interests. When the Germans invaded France in the Second World War, she felt herself safe in her French nationality and her family’s history of service to the nation. She was wrong – she, her husband and her two children were sent to Auschwitz, where they all died.

The Musée Nissim de Camondo was named by Moïse after his father and his son; it remains a memorial to a remarkable family and a now-vanished way of life.

Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent for New Directions

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