Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris
Earlier this week, Clive and I visited Paris’s Musée Nissim de Camondo. In the days since then, we’ve often found ourselves returning to the story of the family whose sad, horrific history shaped our experience of spending time in what was once their home.
The first time I read about Musée Nissim de Camondo was in Edmund White’s ‘The Flâneur’ (2001). I know little about ‘decorative arts’ and tire quickly of stately homes brimming with historic furniture and all manner of objects — I’d rather explore the gardens and grounds outside. But White’s recounting of the de Camondos’ personal story grabbed me and I’ve had this museum on my Paris to-do list ever since.
Moïse de Camondo and His Family
Moïse de Camondo
Moïse, father of Nissim, for whom the museum is named, experienced great loss during his life and, sadly, his family experienced further tragedy after his death.
Moïse was born in 1860 to a Sephardic Jewish family in Constantinople, now Istanbul. His father and uncle became established, successful Ottoman Empire bankers, sometimes called the ‘Rothschilds of the East’. They and their families moved to Paris in 1869.
Moïse grew up in the family mansion at the edge of Parc Monceau, and developed a passionate interest in French decorative arts of the 18th century. At 31, he married Irène Cahen d’Anvers, 12 years his junior. Their son Nissim was born in 1892, daughter Béatrice in 1894.
When Nissim was five and Beatrice three, Moïse’s wife fell in love with the manager of the family stables and subsequently eloped. In the divorce settlement, Moïse was granted full custody of the children, who lived with him. Their mother converted to Catholicism and lived nearby. Moïse devoted his life to raising Nissim and Béatrice, and assembling his collection.
Love of Beauty and Decorative Arts
Inside Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris
In 1911-1912, Moïse commissioned a new mansion, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles and custom-designed to house his artistic works. The mansion’s rooms are sumptuously decorated and many overlook the Parc Monceau.
Nissim shared his father’s love and appreciation of 18th Century works and was destined to inherit the mansion and its contents. Béatrice’s enthusiasms lay elsewhere, including a lifelong devotion to horses and riding.
In August 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Nissim joined the French Air Force. He became a lieutenant, twice receiving the ‘Ordre de l’Armee’ for bravery in combat. Béatrice continued to live with her father in Paris.
A 1916 photo shows Béatrice and Nissim in a park-like setting. Nissim, in uniform, is smiling and appears relaxed and confident. Béatrice looks more serious, perhaps worried about him returning to the war. His arm is around her shoulders. They stand close, brother and sister together.
Béatrice and Nissim, 1916, the year before Nissim’s death in WW I
The photo breaks my heart, because the following year, Nissim was killed in aerial combat, fighting for France. Moïse and Béatrice led the mourning that followed his death. Nissim was buried at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. I can imagine something of what Béatrice must have felt — growing up with divorced parents in an era when divorce was rare, losing a brother and only sibling, living with one grieving parent and no doubt helping to comfort the other.
In 1918, Béatrice married Léon Reinach, also from a family of distinguished Jewish bankers and intellectuals. At the time, Moïse wrote, ‘The marriage of my daughter was a great satisfaction to me.’ From the museum’s audio recording, we learned ‘there was no question of Béatrice leaving her grieving father alone’, so Léon moved into their home, occupying several rooms that had previously been Nissim’s.
Béatrice and Léon had two children, daughter Fanny in 1920 and son Bertrand in 1923. Though nothing would ever bring Nissim back to his father and family, I like to think that for Moïse, living with his daughter, son-in-law, and then two young grandchildren, might have granted him a measure of comfort to ease his grief over time.
At some point in 1923, after the birth of Bertrand, Béatrice and Léon decided it was time to move to their own home in nearby Neuilly, not far from Moïse. With the exception of occasional dinners for his arts colleagues, Moïse gradually withdrew from society and devoted himself to his collection.
A Father’s Memorial
Nissim and Moïse
In 1924, Moïse wrote to his lawyer with explicit intentions regarding the establishment of the museum. The official museum brochure quotes Moise:
‘Desirous of perpetuating the memory of my father, Count Nissim de Camondo, and that of my unfortunate son, air force pilot Nissim de Camondo, fallen in aerial combat on the 5th of September 1917, I bequeath to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs my town-house as it stands at the moment of my death. My town-house will bear the name of Nissim de Camondo, my son to whom the house and its collections had been destined.
In bequeathing my town-house and the collections it contains to the State, my purpose is to preserve in its entirety the work to which I have devoted myself, the reconstitution of an artistic dwelling of the eighteenth century. This reconstitution is intended, in my mind, to preserve in France, gathered in particularly appropriate surroundings, the finest examples I have been able to assemble of this decorative art which was one of the glories of France, during the period that I have loved above all others.’
Moïse’s health steadily declined and Béatrice moved back to his home to care for him. He died on 14 November 1935. Like his son, he was buried at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Béatrice ‘scrupulously fulfilled’ all her father’s wishes. The mansion and its contents were transferred to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The Musée Nissim de Camondo was inaugurated 21 December 1936, with Béatrice performing the honours. A few days later, the museum was visited by Albert Lebrun, then President of France.
I’ve thought of Béatrice so much since visiting the museum and learning more about her history. At the time of the museum’s opening, she would have been 41 years old, Fanny 15 and Bertrand 12. She had now lost her father as well as her brother. I imagine her feeling a mix of sorrow and, perhaps, gratitude and pride — that she had fulfilled her father’s wishes and established a place that would remain sacred to the memory of both men, where she and her children and their children, too, could return in years to come.
World War II in Paris
In the years approaching the Nazi occupation of France (May 1940 – December 1944), Béatrice apparently was not too concerned about growing threats to Jews. During the occupation, she continued to ride horses daily in the Bois de Boulogne and participate in horse shows with German officers. In 1942, she separated from Léon and, like her mother, converted to Catholicism. Fanny lived with Béatrice and Bertrand with Léon.
Roundups of Jews in Paris increased but Béatrice continued to ride horses and overall felt protected by her status and ‘the shadow of her brother who died for France’. She also appears to have believed foreign Jews were targeted and she would be safe as a French citizen.
Despite Béatrice’s stance, she and Fanny were arrested, as were Léon and Bertrand. All were interned at Drancy deportation camp in France, ultimately unable to escape final deportation. In convoys of late 1943 and 1944, they were transported to their deaths at Auschwitz.
The bottom plaque at the museum entry reads: ‘Mrs Léon Reinach born Béatrice de Camondo her children Fanny and Bertrand Reinach the last descendants of the benefactor and Mr Léon Reinach were deported in 1943-1944 and died in Auschwitz’
We found it impossible not to be conscious of this family’s multiple tragedies as we walked through the museum this week. Their recent history is intertwined with that of two world wars and the desire of one man to create a permanent memorial to his son. Less than ten years after his own death, his only surviving child and grandchildren also perished.
Clive and I both felt drawn to the family’s story and to learning more about them. Today we visited Montmartre Cemetery, where Moïse and Nissim were buried. Their remains lie with others of the famille de Camondo in a humble vault. On this grey day we left a small yellow plant as a mark of remembrance to this family who gave so much to France.
famille de Camondo vault, Montmartre Cemetery, Paris
Visiting the Museum
The Musée Nissim de Camondo is located at 63 rue Monceau, 75008 Paris. From a practical standpoint, it is a pleasure to visit. The items in every room are clearly labelled and the audio guide is free and easy to follow.
I hope Moïse is looking down from above, knowing his museum lives on not only in memory of his beloved son but also as a living memorial to his entire family — here, in the heart of this great city, where their memory remains very much alive.
Despite the underlying sadness we felt there, the family’s story imbues the museum with layers of meaning and a deep impact. We will return.
Thank you, Moïse de Camondo and family, for your legacy of beauty and remembrance.
Peaceful snow-covered garden of Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris
Musée de Camondo Official Site
Wikipedia Moïse de Camondo
Wikipedia Béatrice (de Camondo) Reinach
Wikipedia French entry Béatrice de Camondo
Pierre Assouline ‘Le Dernier des Camondo’, oft-cited in Wikipedia articles
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