Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Musee Nissim de Camando

Nothing in the guidebook’s description prepared me for the utter sadness of the Musee Nissim de Camando. A short walk from the Musee Jacquemart-Andre on the border of the Parc Monceau, the elegant mansion built to resemble the Petit Trianon at Versailles is known for its beautiful and extensive collection of 18th-century French decorative arts and furnishings. Yet it is the story of the fabulously rich and doomed family de Camando, once described as the “Rothschilds of the East” which makes this museum one of my favourites in all of Paris.

I think it was Voltaire who recommended that one always “begin with the conclusions” and so it is in the Musee Nissim de Camando. Passing through the doors of the entrance to this magnificent house one finds a plaque on the wall which states simply and brutally, “Mme. Leon Reinach, born Beatrice de Camondo, her children, Fanny and Bertrand, the last descendents of the founder, and M. Leon Reinach, deported by the Germans in 1943-44, died at Auschwitz.”

So who was this family? What was the story behind the house and its collection? How was such fabulous wealth amassed? Why did such fabulous wealth not save them?

The story begins with Moise de Camondo, a member of family of Sephardic Jews who built a banking empire in Constantinople which in 1870 opened a branch in Paris. Over the years, Moise became an important collector of 18th century French art and antiques. After marrying a beautiful and rich young woman who bore him two children, she runs off with the horse trainer and leaves Moise to continue filling his house with treasures and dining with the likes of Marcel Proust. During the First World War, Moise’s only son, Nissim, dies in combat. (There is a touching letter of condolence from Proust in Moise’s changing room.) In 1935, Moise dies and leaves his mansion and the collection to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in memory of his son. His daughter Beatrice, having married the artist Leon Reinach, devotes herself to horses and riding and perishes in Auschwitz.

In addition to this haunting story, the museum scores accolades on two other accounts. First, the collection of 18th century French decorative arts is amazing. The pieces are displayed precisely as Moise de Camondo placed them with such care during his lifetime. If you want to avoid the crowds at Versaille but still capture the sense of life as a French aristocrat before the revolution, go to the Musee Nissim de Camando.

In addition to capturing the interiors of the 18th century French aristocracy, the house also succeeds in demonstrating the life of wealthy high society at the turn of the 20th century. One can easily imagine lunching with Proust in the elegant dining room overlooking the Parc Monceau. The kitchen downstairs gives a fascinating insight into the infrastructure required to produce those lunches.

But finally, it is the de Camondo’s glittering rise and terrible fall which defines ones visit to this museum. Like the family in the “Garden of the Finzi-Contini”, the de Camandos had every reason to believe that they were secure in this fabulous world they had created. In the end, neither their immense wealth, their exquisite taste nor their powerful friends could save them.

Musee Nissim de Camondo
63, rue de Monceau
75008 Paris
Tel: 01 53 89 06 05
http://www.ucad.fr/fr/04museecamondo/index.html ( in French)
Metro: Villiers, Monceau

Open : Wednesday – Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
10:00 -5:30 pm

Tarif: EUR 6


  1. Because of illness and business, after some 20years of travel to France for a month each Fall, of course I miss it terribly but less so than if I still thought it possible to buy s small studio environs rue Chevert or almost any place in the 7ieme; however, the piece on the Musee Nissam de Camondo is so completely accurate, including the translation of the words of the placque in the porte chochere(adjouter s'il vous plait les chifres diacritical), indicating "sadness" and the "doom" of the family that I must congratulate the writer. I had forgotten the name of Mme Reinach for which recall thanks. I do believe that the family Camondo came to Paris in 1866 but this may not be so. It is said, in French, that the gardens of the Musee "prolong the gardens of the Parc Monceau." So true. The Musee Jacquemart-Andre reopened some years ago with a charming tea-room. Thank you again for such memories. ruechevert@att.net

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  6. It is interesting that the plaque blames only the Germans for deporting the Camondo heirs, when in fact it was the French police who initiated the process in most cases, and the French railroads that transported the victims to their death. The active participation in the Holocaust by the Vichy government was largely ignored and hidden until fairly recently.