Lieutenant Nissim de Camondo (1892-1917) was a French military pilot in the First World War. He died in aerial combat in 1917 and was later buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
His grieving father, the banker and art collector Count Moïse de Camondo (1860-1935), determined in his will that after his death the family mansion on Rue de Monceau, together with his collection of 18th century artworks and furniture, would be given to the Decorative Arts Society for use as a museum, to be named in honor of his son Nissim.
Since the Cernuschi Museum and the Nissim de Camondo Museum are very close together — practically back-to-back at the edge of the Parc de Monceau — they are sometimes thought to be rather similar. Both mansions were built by wealthy art collectors who wanted to reside in luxury surrounded by their artworks, and both were intended to become public museums after the deaths of their owners. Both owners had non-French-sounding names, although they were both naturalized French citizens and ardent French patriots.
But the differences between the two museums are considerable. First, the contents: the Musée Cernuschi shows Asian artworks from Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea, whereas the Musée Nissim de Camondo shows French art and furniture from the second half of the 18th century, mainly from the reign of King Louis XVI (= the 16th).
Also, the two museums are organized differently. The Cernuschi has conventional glass display cases, whereas the Nissim de Camondo has been preserved as a luxurious residence, much as it was when Moïse de Camondo lived there, complete with an authentic kitchen and bathroom from the first decades of the 20th century.
Both owners were wealthy, of course, but otherwise they had contrasting personalities. The flamboyant bachelor Henri Cernuschi was a celebrity who held elaborate parties in his mansion and cultivated friendships with his fellow celebrities of Tout-Paris, whereas the divorced and discouraged Count Moïse de Camondo gradually withdrew from business and social life, especially after the death of his son, and devoted himself to his art collection; he routinely rejected requests from museums that wanted to borrow artworks for exhibitions, on the grounds that he only had a few more years to live and wanted to have his complete collection around him for as long as he could.
The two owners were from different generations — Henri Cernuschi was 39 years older than Moïse de Camondo — and it’s not clear if they even knew each other, although they were neighbors and could easily have chatted over the back fence that divided their properties.
All you loyal readers of my post on the Bührle Collection at the Maillol Museum might recall that one of the outstanding paintings in that exhibition was this one by Auguste Renoir, painted in 1880.
The model, Irène Cahen d’Anvers, was the eight-year-old daughter of a prominent Jewish banker. Eleven years later, when she was 19, she married the 31-year-old Count Moïse de Camondo in what a recent article describes as “a fairy tale wedding” that united two major banking families and “was the talk of Paris for months.”
They had two children, but their marriage was an unhappy one. They separated after five years, when Irène had a passionate affair with her husband’s stable master (who was also her riding instructor), an impoverished Italian Count named Charles Sampieri. After getting her divorce, which took another six years and was widely publicized, Irène further shocked her family by converting to Catholicism so she could marry Sampieri.
Moïse de Camondo died in 1935, and in 1936 the house was opened as a museum. The heiress of the rest of his fortune was his daughter Béatrice, who continued to live in Paris even after the city was occupied by the German army at the beginning of the Second World War. The Germans, aided by numerous anti-Semitic French collaborators, began deporting Jews to the death camps, but Béatrice did not believe she was in any danger. She didn’t even consider herself Jewish, and was confident that her immense fortune and her circle of influential friends would protect her. As late as 1942, according to some reports, she often went horseback riding in the Bois de Boulogne, accompanied by a German officer.
At the same time, the Germans — especially Hermann Göring — began confiscating valuable French artworks, including some that had been deposited for safekeeping at Chambord Castle. One of these was a painting that belonged to Béatrice, the world-famous portrait by Auguste Renoir of her mother Irène at age eight. This so infuriated Béatrice that she and her husband wrote numerous letters to influential friends and acquaintances, asking for help in getting the painting back.
Unfortunately, at least one of these letters fell into the hands of a prominent anti-Semitic French collaborator, who informed Nazi officials that Béatrice and her husband and two children were Jews who had not yet been deported. As a result, they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered.
As for Irène, she survived by keeping a low profile, sheltered by her religion (Catholic) and her Italian name (Countess Sampieri). After the war she noticed that Renoir’s portrait of herself at age eight had been found and displayed in an exhibition of stolen artworks. She campaigned successfully to recover the painting, but soon sold it to a Swiss art dealer, which is how it ended up in the Bührle Collection in Switzerland.
In later years, Irène had a serious gambling addiction. At fashionable casinos, she squandered not only the fortune she had inherited from her murdered daughter Béatrice, but also the proceeds from the sale of Renoir’s painting. Irène died in Paris in 1963 at age 91, reportedly destitute.
My photos in this post are from 2019 and 2021. I wrote the text in 2021.