21 June 2016

Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris

In a course on the Belle Epoque, I asked the students to consider why talented artists flocked to Paris from across France and from abroad, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. We were interested in composers, painters, actors, dancers, choreographers, costume and set designers, novelists, playwrights, cultural salonieres and architects eg Georges Bizet, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, Charles Ephrussi, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Sergei Diaghilev, Leon Bakst, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Jacques Offenbach, Vaslav Nijinsky, Erik Satie and many more. Further, we wanted to know why so many excellent Jewish artists left Alsace, Lorraine and points east after 1871, to join the excitement of Belle Epoque culture in Paris.

Moïse de Camondo (1860–1935) was born in Istanbul to a Sephardi Jewish family that moved to France when he was a child. His father had owned one of the largest banks in the Ottoman Empire, so it made sense that the family would re-establish their bank in France as soon as possible (in 1869). Their story was very similar to the Russian Jewish Ephrussis family, originally from Odessa; the German Jewish family, the Rothschilds, who’d moved to Paris in 1850; and the Sephardi bankers Émile and his brother Isaac Péreire whose grandparents had come from Portugal.

Unlike impoverished migrants, the Camondo family bought a house in a rather elegant neighbourhood in western Paris - La Plaine Monceau, in the 8th arrondissement. It was Moïse’s father, Nissim de Camondo, who purchased the property at 63 rue de Monceau from an industrial entrepreneur. [Only later did I realise that this was the house that had been made famous in Emile Zola’s 1872 novel, La Curée. Novels like Zola’s caused Plaine Monceau to be seen as a VERY stylish Belle Époque neighbourhood].

In 1891, Moïse de Camondo married Irène Cahen d'Anvers, the daughter of another famous banking family. And a famous art-collecting family!! Her mother Louise Cahen d’Anvers (1845-1926) was Renoir’s best patron and Charles Ephrussi’s lover.

Clearly C18th taste had become very fashionable in the late C19th. This passion for the C18th style can be traced back to an aristocratic art and antiques collector who sought out and acquired C18th paintings, tapestries, furniture, sculptures, porcelain and silver dinner services. Soon writers were drumming up excitement for the C18th style, declaring it to be the “natural décor” of the high society.

Petit Trianon palace at Versailles
built for Louis XV 
in 1769

Camondo Museum, Paris
built by René Sergent
in 1911-14.

Moïse collected C18th pieces. By the time he inherited the family home, he had accumulated such an immense collection that a perfect setting for all of his C18th masterpieces was needed. In the 3 years building this "perfect setting", Moïse continued to frequent fine antique dealers and estate sales, seeking out great furniture.

He was aware that buying royal collectibles only fuelled anti-Semitism among many French Catholic royalists who distrusted wealthy and internationally-connected Jews. But collectors are often driven solely by their artistic passions, and may ignore the risks.

Moïse had the old home pulled down and totally re-built in 1911 by architect René Sergent, fan of the Ancien Régime. The architect modelled the new Camondo home on Versailles’ Petit Trianon palace, built by Louis XV in 1769. This was Moïse de Camondo’s way of showing more than just allegiance and gratitude to France and the Enlighten­ment ideals that lead to equality and acculturation for countless Jewish families following Emancipation. In immersing himself in the C18th ambiance, he became more French than the French, more noble than he was.

Now called the Musée Nissim de Camondo, the elegant house museum is filled with high quality French decorative arts. The Museum recommends seeing the needlepoint chairs and work by artisans of the Royal Furniture Repository. The floors are furnished with Savonnerie carpets woven in 1678 for the Grande Galerie in the Louvre, and walls display the tapestries. And see portraits by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, landscapes by Guardi and Hubert Robert, and hunting scenes by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

Although C18th French arts are normally far too rococo and neo-classical for my taste, the table settings won my heart. Visitors should particularly note the Orloff silver dinner service commissioned by Catherine II of Russia from silversmith Jacques-Nicolas Roettiers in 1770. And note the 1780s Buffon porcelain services made at Sèvres. Gilt bronze clocks, wall clocks, barometers, chandeliers and mounted vases adorn the cabinets.

Camondo Museum
Library (top)
Loungeroom (bottom)

When Moïse passed away in 1935, he bequeathed the Camondo home at 63 rue de Monceau, and its entire collection, to the state via Les Arts Décoratifs. Moïse chose the museum’s name in homage to his son Nissim de Camondo (1892-1917) who had died in WW1 as a pilot in the French army. The museum opened in 1935.

During WW2, Moïse’s sole remaining child Beatrice, son-in-law and their children were deported to Auschwitz in 1943 and exterminated. The Camondo family had disappeared from French history. So the Museum is one of the only two living memorials to the family. École Camondo is a Parisian academy of design and interior architecture which was recognised by the Ministry of Education in 1989. Located in the 14th arrondissement near the Montparnasse Cemetery, this academy is also named after the Camondo family.

For my students, the Musée Nissim de Camondo was yet another confirmation of the great contributions by Paris’ Jewish community that made the Belle Epoque so belle. If bloggers haven’t read Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, now might be a good time to do so. And I would also recommend The Last of the Camondo Family, by Pierre Assouline.


I saw the gorgeous seaside mansion/palace of the Camondo family that was built in Istanbul in the 1860s by a Turkish architect. It is perfectly located on the northern shore of the Golden Horn, to the west of Galata. Plus the exotic Camondo Steps in Galata, commissioned by Abraham Salomon Camondo a decade later. But because I was in Istanbul years before I visited Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, it didn't occur to me to create a link between the two generations of the one family.


Joseph said...

Roettiers' silver pieces were works of art!!! How strange that he was French, saw his work commissioned by Russian royalty, then saw his best works go back to Paris.

Deb said...


Everyone should visit. Our guide was terrific on 18th century furniture, silver and Sèvres porcelain. But for a two hour tour, I wanted to know more about the home, the family and glamorous Paris living.

Andrew said...

Camondo's remaining daughter and son in law were no doubt people of means. Why did they not seek refuge in another country? Money could not buy you refuge?

mem said...

I loved Hare with the Amber Eyes . I thoroughly agree with your recommendations . We have some wonderful furniture here in the national gallery of Victoria commissioned by wealthy Jewish patrons in Vienna and the shipped to Australia as they escaped the horrors to come

Hels said...


The Louvre says it was a complex story. Catherine II of Russia was fascinated by French arts and wanted to commission a silver service. It was the sculptor Falconet who suggested that Frenchmen Jacques and Jacques-Nicolas Röettiers should produce the set. As silversmiths to the king, the two were famous; they had made services for Louis XV, a definite seal of approval. The Neo-classical works of the Parisian silversmiths were revered throughout Europe - the royal courts of Great Britain and Sweden all acquired silver services.

Negotiations with the Röettiers went on for quite a long time, but the three-thousand piece service for sixty people began to be delivered in 1770. The service was one of many gifts showered on Count Grigori Orloff (1743-83) by Catherine II. On Orloff's death, ownership of the service was transferred to the Russian royal house. In the interwar years, silver art was sold by the Soviet government to Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Gulbenkian Collection in Lisbon and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. AND back to France via the Louvre and Musée Nissim de Camondo!

Hels said...


that is so true. It wouldn't matter how beautiful Moïse de Camondo's fine and decorative arts were, or how scholarly his approach to collection and display was, Camondo had to be in the right place (Paris) at the right time (Belle Epoque). So I would want to know who Camondo's art colleagues were, which publishers he worked with, which theatres/concerts/operas he attended and whether he was a participant in any particular Cultural Salon or not.

Hels said...


The Camondo family had only been in France for three generations by 1939. So I assume they wanted to prove their undying loyalty to France, and gratitude to France. Never in a million years did they think half of France would be taken over by the Germans, and the other half would cooperate with the Germans.

I used to ask my father in law all the time: why on earth didn't you and your family leave Czechoslovakia by 1939? He said a] he would never have left his parents, b] they had a decent home and good employment, and c] above all they all loved Czechoslovakia. By 1945, his parents, brother, sister-in-law and six of the seven nieces and nephews had been exterminated. Bad decision to remain :(

Hels said...


do you mean the Gallia family treasures? I loved Vienna anyhow but I was in heaven when the Vienna Art & Design exhibition came to Melbourne. Before WW1 Moriz Gallia commissioned one of my favourite architects, Josef Hoffmann, to design rooms for the family's new home. What a stroke of great fortune that the furniture, carpets, glass and silverwork survived by being taken to Australia.

Unknown said...

Beatrice considered herself protected: she had French nationality, her brother fought and died for France, her father donated a fortune (the house and its rich contents) to the nation. She didn't think it necessary to leave France. Many people, all over Europe, thought like her and perished.

Hels said...


that was sadly true, all over Europe, and particularly so in elegant and cultivated cities like Paris.

But when the Germans attacked France and defeated the French army, the French government left Paris in June 1940! Beatrice's family avoided catastrophe until 1943 and by then they couldn't survive any longer.