The Cernuschi Museum has a sub-title: “Museum of the Asian arts of Paris.” This surprised me, because I thought that was what the Guimet Museum was, but it turns out that the Guimet is a ‘national’ museum, belonging to the French state, whereas the Cernuschi belongs merely to the city of Paris.
Like most of the city museums, the Cernuschi Museum does not charge for admission to its permanent collection, but as of August 2021 they were checking vaccination certificates at the front gate. This was a new procedure at the time, but it went very smoothly. I just showed them my German certificate on my smartphone, they scanned it and let me right in. Apparently the software on these certificates is now standardized throughout the European Union, but I don’t know if they can always recognize the certificates from non-EU countries.
This portrait of Henri Cernuschi (1821-1896) is on display inside the museum, along with information on his life and travels. He is described as an “Italian patriot” who was active in the 1848 revolts in Milan and Rome. His name was originally Enrico Cernuschi, but he changed his first name to Henri when he went into exile in France. “His first years in Paris proved difficult,” according to the museum’s website, “but he little by little built his reputation as an economist, and published Mécanique de l’échange (1865). His consulting services to investors and shares in various businesses earned him a fortune estimated in the late Second Empire at two million gold francs.”
Because of his republican convictions, he had to go into exile again in 1869, this time to Switzerland, but he “returned to Paris to be present at the proclamation of the Third Republic at the City Hall on 4th September 1870.”
After being “profoundly shocked by the dramatic events of the Commune of Paris,” Cernuschi “embarked on a world tour from September 1871 to January 1873, in the company of a young art critic, Théodore Duret (1838-1927). During the course of his travels in Japan and China, he acquired around 5,000 works of art, which would later form the core of his collection.”
After returning to Paris, Cernuschi bought the last remaining piece of land on the Avenue Vélasquez (an elegant impasse) and had a mansion built for himself and his artworks. Here in later years he gave elaborate parties, to which he invited his fellow celebrities of “Tout-Paris”, the affluent elite of the city.
The largest and most controversial piece in the museum is this bronze Japanese Buddha. According to Théodore Duret, who later wrote a book about their travels, he and Cernuschi found the Buddha lying abandoned and forsaken among some trees and thatched cottages. They found the owner of the land, who agreed to sell them the Buddha. They immediately detached one of the hands, and the next morning “a whole battalion” of workers came to transport the statue. “We judged it prudent not to join them, thinking that the best chance of succeeding in this operation would be if no one knew for whose benefit it was being carried out.” But the news got around, and a day later a group of protesters squatted in front of their hotel, offering to give them their money back and demanding the return of the Buddha. “You can imagine in what manner we received them! What is done is done.” (Ce qui est fait est fait.)
The bronze Buddha is now displayed in the center of the largest room of the museum.
My subjective impression, after visiting both the Cernuschi and the Guimet Museums of Asian art, is that the Guimet is larger (as befits a ‘national’ museum), but both are well worth a visit.
The Cernuschi Museum is located at 7 avenue Vélasquez in a decidedly huppé neighborhood, directly adjoining the Parc de Monceau, a fashionable park where hundreds of beautiful people go jogging (counter-clockwise only, please) on Sunday mornings.
My photos and text in this post are from 2021.