“Why don’t they talk about the wife?” Robin wondered as we toured the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris. “Have you noticed she’s never mentioned?”
Robin and I had walked the two blocks from our hotel, the Relais Monceau, to visit one of my favorite places in Paris, a house museum in the 8th arrondisement.
The house was built in the early 1900s by Moise de Camondo, a spectacularly wealthy banker who turned to collecting fine decorative objects. The Camondo family were Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain. They’d been firmly established as the leading bankers of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul by the time they emigrated to Italy and then on to France. Moise Camondo was particularly interested in 18th century furnishings, and he hired architect René Sergent to design the house in imitation of the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Each room is impeccably furnished; the audioguide that comes with the price of admission tells stories of the often years-long efforts Camondo made to locate just the right pieces for each spot. Many of the Savonnerie carpets were originally woven for the Louvre. There are paintings by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Guardi and a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Everywhere are antique handmade tables and chests crafted by some of the most well-known of French cabinetmakers: Oeben, Riesener and Jacob.
One room showcases part of Camondo’s exquisite collection of table settings, including the Orloff silver dinner service commissioned by Catherine II of Russia in 1770 and a Sevres porcelain service from the 1789s with a bird theme.
The house backs onto the Parc Monceau, a jewel of green lawn and small follies. I particularly like getting glimpses of the park through the tall windows. The visit covers three floors: the main level has formal reception and dining rooms; the first floor (second floor to Americans) has bedrooms and wonderfully modern (for the time) white-tiled bathrooms. On the lower floor are the huge kitchens.
But, interesting as the house and its furnishings are, what is even more intriguing is the story of the Camondo family. Moise Camondo built the mansion with the intention of leaving it to his son Nissim. Sadly, Nissim was killed in an air battle in 1917 during World War I. Moise Camondo continued to live in the house till his death in 1934, when the building and all its contents were bequeathed to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Further tragedy struck the family in World War II. Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, an accomplished horsewoman, lived with her husband Léon Reinach and their children, Fanny and Bertrand, in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. As the Nazi war machine threatened, she believed that her family’s wealth and position would protect them. All four were deported to the Drancy concentration camp and eventually murdered at Auschwitz. They were the last descendents of Moise de Camondo; the family no longer exists.
As we browsed through the exhibits of family portraits and photographs, Robin and I noticed that there was almost no mention of Moise’s wife, the mother of Nissim and Béatrice. Curious, we went back to our hotel and fired up the laptop, scouring the internet and translating French web sources into English.
The wife, we learned, was Irène Cahen d’Anvers, daughter of another fabulously wealthy Jewish family. She was a good bit younger than Moise, but she only stuck around five years or so before running off with the family stable manager, Italian count Charles Sampieri. She converted to Catholicism.
Irène is most well-known for the story of an Impressionist painting. She was painted by Renoir as a young girl. Apparently the whole family hated the picture (though today we would judge it to be quite beautiful). She brought it with her to the marriage with Moise; it was stuffed into a cabinet and forgotten. Later Béatrice found it and sent it back to her mother.
Irène survived the Nazi occupation of France, most likely because of her Italian surname and religion. But the Nazis confiscated the Renoir; it was owned briefly by Goering before being sold to Swiss armaments dealer Georg Bürhle. After the war, Irène recognized the painting in an exhibition and petitioned for its return. She later sold it through a dealer – to Georg Bürhle. It’s owned by the Swiss Foundation Bürhle to this day.
After the death of Béatrice and her children, the Camondo family’s wealth was inherited by Irène who, the story goes, squandered it all in the casinos in the south of France.
A recent book, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, tells the story of another wealthy Jewish family who were neighbors of the Camondo family; Irène’s mother figures prominently in part of the book. It’s a great read.