Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Musée Nissim de Camondo

Among the stately houses abutting the Parc Monceau is the most discreet of museums, the Musée Nissim de Camondo. The elegant portal doesn't call more than the necessary attention to itself from the street, and it would be easy to walk right past without a glance. Paris has more than its share of museums, what is another hôtel particulier with its collection of furniture from three centuries past?

What I learned when I entered is that it is more than a house and its contents, and more than a shrine to a rich collector's self-regard. It is a monument built by an immigrant to his country of adoption, and a memorial to his son who died for that country. It is a house that is inhabited in the most civilized manner by ghosts.

Moïse de Camondo was born to a Sephardic Jewish family who had built a banking empire in the Ottoman Empire. He moved with his father, Nissim, and his uncle to Paris as a child, and the family acquired two hôtels in the newly created and supremely elegant Haussman neighborhood, the plaine Monceau. When Moïse inherited his father's property, he razed it and rebuilt a new house that would be the setting for the jewel that was his collection of eighteenth century French furniture and art.

Unlike other house museums that I have visited (I've by no means visited many, but the Gardner Museum in Boston comes to mind), there is nothing eclectic about the Camondo collection. Each room is perfectly composed with just the right palette of colors and textures. Even the exceptional pieces do not stand out more than they are meant to; marquetry, porcelain, paintings and rugs are all placed just so. Camondo was clearly a perfectionist, of the kind whose mania is balanced with an uncommonly skilled eye. I would have loved to see him at work at an auction, or leafing through antique catalogs with the attention of a painter in front of a canvas.

I am about as ignorant a visitor as possible. My wanderings through French history thus far follow somewhat of a drunken path. I don't methodically learn, but rather stumble into subjects and periods, and I have so far only surveyed the eighteenth century from afar. I know even less about decorative arts than I do about history. So all I had was an instinctive sense that this collection just fit. It felt more alive to me than many rooms that I've seen in more typical historical settings, such as the palace of Versailles.

The eighteenth century that lives in these rooms is the eighteenth century of the Enlightenment, of human progress and the expansion of knowledge. Its porcelain plates decorated with precise paintings of Buffon's birds stand ordered in a windowed cabinet, witnesses to the advancement of science, while its Vigée Le Brun portaits look down on visitors with insouciant optimism. Nothing suggests the upheaval of the end of the century. Nothing, that is, except the very existence of the collection. How many of these beautiful objects would have drifted here were it not for the whirlwind current of the Revolution?

In the same way, the house is the picture of early twentieth century comfort and rationality. It is doted with a plush elevator, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and vast, tiled bathrooms with modern fixtures. At the opening of the last century, it must have epitomized a belief in progress and technology. Yet the house was finished on the eve of the First World War. Camondo hardly had the opportunity to open his new home to society before everything in Paris was placed in suspension.

The house never lived the life it was meant to. When Moïse's only son Nissim was killed in combat, he retreated into reclusive grief. He left the house and all of its contents to France, to be preserved as a museum after his death in 1935. The museum would be named for his son.

The shadow of this ghost haunts the last floor. In the immaculate study the only thing that does not belong to the eighteenth century is a framed black and white photograph that sits on a desk of a handsome young man in an airman's uniform. But the shadows fall deeper still. Moïse's daughter Béatrice outlived her brother and her father, and married and had two children. Their portraits are the last leaves of the Camondo family tree, which is displayed in a sober corner of the hallway. They all perished at Auschwitz.

Most of the monumental windows of the house overlook the Parc Monceau, and beyond the hedge delimiting the garden I could see joggers hurrying past, glimpses of the twenty-first century Paris I know. The spring sunlight would briefly illuminate a patch of carpet or reflect in a gilt mirror before darkening again in a March squall.

The question I didn't dare ask was answered by the audio guide. Why hadn't Béatrice and her family left France before the Holocaust? The answer left a lump in my throat. She felt French. Her brother died in the Great War, and four generations of her family had made France their home. She thought that her French identity would protect her.

I understood why Moïse de Camondo constructed with such care his slice of the eighteenth century. We are both immigrants. I'm certainly less remarkable than he, and I hope that I will live out my life in less extraordinary and uncertain times. But he must have wanted, as I do, to hold in his heart all his new country had created of beauty and exception. What is more exceptional than the France of the Enlightenment, when it was as never before or since a beacon to the world?

Shadows crept in despite his intentions, and now melancholy inhabits the house alongside the beauty. It makes the ideal that he sought shine more brightly, perhaps. As I left, I carried a little of both.


Isabelle said...

What a beautiful and sad story. I've never been to this museum, didn't even hear about it.
At least the possessions of this family were not lost or stolen during the 2nd world war, therefore it is a good testimony for our generation and the generations to come.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

It really was fascinating and sad to me, a slice of Parisian history that I wasn't familiar with at all. As an American, one of the more poignant things I've discovered in France is how very real WWI and WWII history is here. It is one thing to participate in a war overseas as my country did, but quite another to be confronted with its scars on your own soil.

Mom in France said...

Wow. Of course I've never heard of this museum before, but the description of your experience makes it come alive.

I, too, find the experience of WWII history very real here. For my parents-in-law it is part of their childhood and is a part of how they grew up, and how they raised their own children (Clean Your Plates!) For me, it's part of my grandparent's history and a distant one at that; neither of my grandfathers served. It's something that happend Over There.