CAMONDO

LEFT IS THE SIDE
OF THE HEART

A general view of the Library.

Words by Pedro Rei
Photography by Francis Hammond
and Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery

Hôtel de Camondo, a triumph of the French decorative arts, is located in Paris on the 63 rue de Monceau. It was built in 1911 as the residence of Count Moïse de Camondo, a preeminent Jewish banker become collectionneur extraordinaire. Within the interior of this building, which exterior appearance mirrors the designs of AngeJacques Gabriel for the Petit Trianon at Versailles, are confined some of the finest examples of the French artistic expression of the 18th Century along with the latest innovations in technology and comfort of the early 20th Century. The words that follow tell us about the Camondo family saga, starting in Constantinople and ending in Auschwitz, and the events that ultimately resulted in the creation of the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

A general view of the Garden Façade,
contiguous to Parc Monceau.

There are people marked at birth with the sign of tragedy. Sometimes even entire dynasties. We know this from literature, films or myth, but there are also around us countless examples that one fails to notice more evidently for timely proximity or rational unbelief. At 3:40pm on the 14th of November 1935 the clock has stopped counting for a grand Jewish family established in Paris since around 1875. They had been expelled from Spain in the late 15th Century and have been found in Venice, Vienna and Constantinople, the legendary capital of the Ottoman Empire. Their name was Camondo.

From merchant tradition, they passed on to finance, and prospered in the business. Soon enough, they were financing the viziers of the sultan, who granted them great privileges such as the ownership of real-estate, which was strictly interdicted to foreigners. According to the writer Pierre Assouline, author of Le Dernier des Camondos, “Abraham Salomon Camondo was, by mid-19th Century, the wealthiest of the 200.000 Jews counted amongst the Ottoman Empire”. And the Camondo had become the Empire’s unofficial bankers.

Having received great honours from both the Ottoman and the Austrian empires, Abraham was yet to achieve a higher level of social recognition. A fierce supporter of the Royal House of Savoy, he significantly contributed to finance the unification of Italy undertaken by King Vittorio Emanuel II. Just a couple of years after being naturalised Italian, along with all his family (they were Austrian subjects until that moment, since Venice had been under Austrian rule), he is bestowed with the hereditary title of Count of Camondo by Vittorio Emanuel II.

The Great Staircase viewed from
the Vestibule, with focus on
a statue of Venus and Cupid.

A view of the Great Staircase
from the Upper Ground Gallery.

A detail of the Salon des Huet,
with focus on a coffee table
by Roger Vandercruse Lacroix.

In Constantinople the Camondos always contributed to the progress and welfare of the Jewish community, starting by school education. But they faced opposition from the most conservative religious leaders, who fostered an ever growingly hostile environment to the family, accusing them of westernisation and even Christianisation of young Jews. It was time for a change. After loosing his wife, his only son and his grand-daughter all in the same year, at the age of eighty-eight, the patriarch Abraham decided to follow his two grand-sons and their families to yet another exodus: Paris.

By transferring the family’s bank to the City of Lights, the new generation of the Camondo was hoping to become part of the lifestyle it represented. It was a prosperous time for Jewish bankers, which proliferated throughout the French capital. But if their financing business was flourishing, their status in society was degrading. An antisemitic speech had been growing through the press and the writings of authors such as Édouard Drumont. That current was topped by the development of the Dreyfus affair, a very polemic case in which a Jewish captain of the French Army was trialled and unjustly convicted and imprisoned, a case that ultimately raised radicalism and antisemitism within French society.

It might be said that the Camondos moved to France looking for a change and ultimately Paris changed them. And their destiny. As always they aspired to a position at the very top of society, which in France was dominated by a snobbish ancien régime (often bankrupted) aristocracy. In a society populated by recently titled nobles of the Empire regime, added to a growingly wealthy bourgeoisie and banking class, that exclusive elite was holding stronger than ever to the keys to the club. And by all means they would keep those aliens far and apart from their châteaux, salons and charity balls. Unless they needed their money of course.

A general view of the Salon des Huet.

A view of the Great Drawing Room,
with focus on a work by
Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun.

A general view of the Great Drawing Room.

Five years after moving to Paris, Abraham Salomon Camondo died, trusting the destiny of the dynasty to his grand and greatgrand-children. Two new generations of Camondos that differed substantially from one another. Abraham’s grand-children, Abraham Béhor and Nissim had a son each, Isaac and Moïse respectively.

The two brothers installed themselves in two neighbouring mansions contiguous to Parc Monceau, in a very upcoming neighbourhood. From there they grew the family business. They partnered their bank with the recently created Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas (Paribas) and Abraham Béhor became a member of the board of directors.

The year of 1889 was to be another dark milestone for the Camondos. Nissim and Abraham Béhor died shortly after one another due to lung complications. Isaac, who had joined his father at the bank almost twenty years before, felt now free to break with the family banking tradition and pursue his real passion: art. He sold the family bank to Paribas but remained as a director of the board, keeping other representative positions in other companies as well. An aspiring composer who had restrained himself from fully exploring a musical career, he was a vibrant consumer of opera and ballet.

“Moïse de Camondo was an
héritier, a wealthy man who
enjoyed the traditional and
aristocratic pleasures
of horses, hunting
and fine cuisine”

To mark this turning point of his life, he left his mansion at rue de Monceau and moved to an apartment facing the artists’ entrance at the Palais Garnier opera house. There he became an avid collector of art and a constant presence in the auction houses and galleries of the capital. With a refined taste, he developed a particular interest in Asian art, in particular Japanese, and was one of the first big collectors of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.

In his apartments, that were growing in number—he kept on buying more units in his building as his collection grew—he displayed his fine collection of furniture, sculpture, painting and other decorative arts mainly from the 18th Century period to his time. He had an official mistress and probably a series of unofficial ones, but never got married.

Ultimately he had two illegitimate children whom he never recognised (he would have never guessed these could be the family’s only chance for continuity). Isaac seemed determined to recover the time lost and at a later age he finally composed a series of plays, from which the most important was Le Clown, premiered at his beloved Opera Garnier.

A view of the Vestibule.

A view of the Chef’s Office.

The Staircase to the Private Apartments
of Moïse, Nissim and Béatrice,
viewed from the Upper Ground Gallery.

Isaac’s important collection ended up at the centre of a polemic upon his death in 1911. Aware of its importance, and with no legitimate heirs, he bequeathed his collection to the French state, to be housed at the Louvre under strict conditions: they were to be displayed in a series of adjacent rooms forming a gallery carrying his name for a minimum of 50 years.

The problem was that the museum wouldn’t accept works of artists that wouldn’t have been dead for a minimum of 10 years. Naturally the impressionist works of Degas and Monet, who were still well alive, represented a clear obstacle. Isaac had been right to assume the prestigious museum would find a way to overcome this detail and his vast collection was kindly accepted and installed as requested.

Moïse, on his turn, being the junior of the two, was determined to live a more traditional life than his flamboyant cousin. He was of common looks and partially deaf and blind from the right side, following a hunting accident, which caused him to use a dark monocle over the blind eye. As Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs puts it, Moïse was a “man of his time, a great traveller, enamoured by speed and fascinated by technical and mechanical progress”. He was above all an héritier, a wealthy man who enjoyed the traditional and more aristocratic pleasures of horses, hunting and fine cuisine.

A general view of the Kitchen.

He had married Irène, twelve years his junior, in 1891. She was the daughter of one of his best friends, Count Louis Raphael Cahen d’Anvers, a banker and the head of an equally (if not greater) wealthy Sephardi Jewish family also established in France. As opposed to the Camondos, the Cahen d’Anvers were a family who loved hosting, throwing and participating in parties, in particular Irène’s socialite mother, Louise.

Like many others, this was an arranged union and, in the three first years of marriage they had produced two children, Nissim and Béatrice. But their personalities couldn’t be more unlike. Moïse “lacked fantasy and frivolity, or in one word, folly” and Irène “wasn’t of a great beauty” but she had “chicness, that indefinable quality,” besides being “cultivated and polyglot,” who captivated by her “ability to make others laugh,” writes Pierre Assouline. Like her mother before her, whose most famous lover is said to have been Alfonso XIII, king of Spain, Irène soon discovered the pleasures of an adulterous life that filled the emotional holes left by a marriage of convenience. But for Moïse life wasn’t that simple—he was a man of principles and he was a man in love.

Soon enough, the young countess, not yet in her thirties, fell madly in love with an Italian playboy, the penniless Count Charles Sanpieri, who had worked at the Camondos’ stables training their horses. He was a handsome seducer, not at all anonymous in Parisian society. Moïse understood this affair was different from the rest when he came home one day to find his wife nowhere to be found. She had abandoned him and, worse than that, her children. Moïse was devastated to find himself at the centre of such scandal and never recovered from the treachery.

“A recreation of an
18th Century home,
completed with all modern
conveniences, such as a
high-end kitchen, modern
bathrooms, electricity
and telephone”

In 1901, ten years after their wedding, they officialized the divorce. Moïse was granted the guardianship of the children and Irène was disinherited by her father. She was no longer Countess of Camondo. She became Countess Sanpieri—whatever that meant.

Moïse gave up on love. His heart couldn’t afford such coup again and he closed his emotions to all but his family and friends. He wanted most of all to raise Nissim, his beloved son and heir, to become the best possible version of himself.

So when Moïse’s mother dies, in 1910, he takes over the family mansion at 63 rue de Monceau, hires the architect René Sergent, brings the place down and commissions what would become his life legacy: “an almost exact replica of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, which Louis XV completed in 1768, before it became the private quarters of Marie Antoinette during the reign of Louis XVI” writes Olivier Gabet. Inside, Moïse wanted to create a family home as an homage to France, recreating the era he considered the country’s most glorious: the transition period.

A view of the Dining Room.
In pride of place a Bust of a Black Woman
by Jean-Philippe Thomire after Jean-Antoine Houdon.

A view of the Porcelain Room,
with focus on a Meissen tea service.

A view of the Dining Room,
with pieces from the
Buffon Service on display.

Like his cousin before him, Moïse became an avid collector, constantly in search for the most exquisite pieces to decorate his life’s work. And if he hadn’t been blessed with the most accurate of tastes, “with the help and advice of curators at the Louvre and at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, his taste became increasingly more refined” highlights Oliver Gabet. But besides being a recreation of an 18th Century home, it was to be completed with all modern conveniences, such as a high-end kitchen, modern bathrooms, electricity and telephone. And whenever he found a furniture piece meant for a specific corner, then that corner should be adapted to it.

In 1914 Moïse’s work was achieved. The entrance was, and still is, made through a gate at the service quarters, an unaltered building that faces the street, that leads to the courtyard where the ‘Petit Trianon façade’ can be contemplated. The mansion itself is L-shaped and hides a luxurious garden in the back that extends to Parc Monceau. Inside, besides the social and servants’ areas, there could be found Moïse’s, Nissim’s and Béatrice’s apartments.

From furniture to china, from tapestries to chandeliers, from cutlery to sculptures, everything was meant to be where it was. Moïse must have felt at that point a relief he didn’t feel in quite some time, a little breath of hope, that told him that everything would be fine.

A view of the Small Study.

A view of the Ground Floor Gallery.

The fireplace at the Great Study.

But 1914 wasn’t a year for hope, for war knocked at Europe’s front door. And it didn’t wait to be invited in. Nissim was one of the 40.000 Jewish soldiers fighting under France’s flag, as an observation lieutenant for the air force. And on the 3rd of September 1917, while returning from Deauville in a photographic mission, his plane was shot by the enemy and ended up crashing behind enemy lines. Moïse was devastated. His beloved son, the person he loved the most and above all, the heir to his legacy was missing and it wasn’t until the 27th of September that his death would be confirmed.

On the 12th of October, a funeral was celebrated with great honours and attendees at the Grand Synagogue at rue de la Victoire. But it was a bodiless funeral. It wasn’t until after the end of the war, two years after he had seen him for the last time that, after much struggle and determination, Moïse de Camondo could finally burry his son in the family mausoleum in Montmartre. It was the end. What else there was for him to hope for. He still had his daughter, of course, but she was already married to another family. From all he knew, the Camondo family ended with him. And he was right.

The last years of Moïse were monotonous and grey. A man who was alive because it wasn’t for him to control what God is to control. He had little pleasures but the occasional purchase of yet another impressive piece for his home or the gourmandise that never left him.

“An art patron who wanted
to honour his father
and son, a man who
died knowing to be the
last of his epic lineage”

In an evening well spent he would have an old friend sitting at his dining table, eating the finest food and drinking the best wines. They would go around talking about the past and present and the count would invariably sit them at his left side. He wouldn’t tell them that was because of his right-sided blindness and deafness, but rather elegantly would say that “left is the side of the heart.”

Moïse’s God was kind enough to grant him a final touch of mercifulness when in 1935 received him in His arms. For the Camondos the ultimate coup was yet to come. With the development of the Second World War, Paris was occupied by Nazi troops. Béatrice, now divorced from her husband and converted to Christianity, couldn’t still save herself and her children from deportation. Neither her new religion, nor her position or wealth were enough to protect her to board that fateful train to Auschwitz where she ended up gassed along with her children and ex-husband.

A general view of Moïse’s Bedroom.

When we pass by 63 rue de Monceau today, we might not guess that this fantastic Petit Trianon folly hides behind those yellowish walls. We most probably won’t know that the plaque that reads “Musée Nissim de Camondo” refers to the donation to the French state of an art patron who wanted to honour his father and son, a man who died knowing to be the last of his epic lineage.

Most won’t know either that Nissim is the Hebrew plural for miracle. A miracle that came in the singular form, through the writing of the Camondo name in France’s cultural history. For no matter how achieving they were, all they ever did, otherwise exceptional, seemed to have never been enough.

A work by Thomire
in the Upper Ground Gallery,
next to the Staircase to
the Private Apartments.

A view of the Blue Drawing Room,
formerly the bedroom and
boudoir of Béatrice.

A view of the Great Drawing Room.
In pride of place a lady’s
writing table by Martin Carlin.

An architectural detail
of the Entrance Court.

A view of the Entrance Court and
Main Façade designed by René Sergent.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
SCALA REGIA #5
scala regia magazine

Opening spread of the paper version.

SCALA REGIA, 2020