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.
built by René Sergent
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.
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.