The saddest museum in Paris

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Musée Nissim de Camondo – le salon des Huet

About a year ago, I read Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and it captured my imagination in a way very few works of nonfiction ever have. I’m sure it helped somewhat that a significant chunk of the book explored a milieu I already know well from my own work – the world of an aesthete in Third Republic Paris – but one of the things that especially struck me was how eloquent De Waal was on the subject of how people lived with their art collections, and I longed to experience it first-hand.

The Ephrussi collection is long since dispersed and their Paris house not open to the public, but their neighbour Moïse de Camondo left his formidable collection to the French state. And so last week I found myself for the first time in the courtyard of the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

The story of the Camondo family is, if anything, even more tragic than that of the Ephrussis. Moïse, the voracious but incredibly discerning collector of all things Rococo, first lost his wife to another man… then his beloved son Nissim to the First World War. Broken, he shut himself away in the middle of Paris with his collection, leaving it to the French state as a museum of the decorative arts on his death in 1935. Worse was yet to come – his daughter Béatrice, her husband and children, believing themselves protected by their French citizenship and the fact that their father had done so much for his country, were handed over to the Nazis by that same state (something the museum is bracingly frank about) and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. In one fell swoop, the Camondos had ceased to exist. All that remains of them is this museum and the impressive collection of paintings in the Musée d’Orsay amassed by Moïse’s cousin Isaac, who loved the art of his own time with the same fervour that his cousin loved that of the previous century.

And yet… the Musée Nissim de Camondo is not, in itself, a sorrowful place. That’s probably down to the inherent lightness and grace of the Rococo (although, since I come at it from the perspective of the nineteenth century, I always find an inherent melancholy in it too – but a light and graceful melancholy). There’s also the house’s great quirk of wedding flawless eighteenth-century interiors to a late-nineteenth-century structure, with all the modern conveniences, with typically late-nineteenth-century insouciance about the contradiction. And I think this may explain why it feels lived in still, in a way many house-museums fail to achieve. If you close your eyes in the Salon des Huet you can almost hear the clink of cups and saucers and the hum of conversation.

So – perhaps not the saddest museum in Paris after all. But certainly the most poignant.

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