A Rich Artistic Legacy in Paris

While it is true that Paris is best known for the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, not to mention Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides, it also happens to boast one of the largest public collections of Jewish art and religious artifacts in Western Europe, as well as a stunning house museum owned by a little-known Jewish philanthropist. Now both have become a major draw for both residents and tourists in the French capital.

Both the French Government and the City of Paris have invested the French capital with a magnificent museum, Le Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme, in the heart of the Marais district, the hub of the Jewish community during the Middle Ages. While it is impossible to palliate the terrible history of deportations of a large segment of the French Jewish community in 1942 and 1943 which led to 76,000 deaths, this new museum reflects the French Government’s effort to atone for the past.

Not only did the City of Paris donate the land and the splendid seventeenth century Hotel de Saint-Aignan, which represents one of the outstanding examples of French classical architecture, but it allocated more than $15 million for its restoration and transformation. Art critic John Russell proclaimed in the New York Times shortly after it opened in 1998, ‘It is one of the great museums of the world.’

Taking into account both the lengthy history of the Jewish people and the lack of knowledge regarding ritual outside the Jewish community, the Museum makes a concerted effort to introduce visitors to those texts and symbolic objects that have been the cultural and religious cornerstones of the Jewish people. The introductory gallery displays an exceptional sixteenth century parchment Torah scroll from the Ottoman Empire, an elegant silver eighteenth century Chanukah menorah from Frankfort-am-Main, a pair of nineteenth century pagoda-shaped silver Torah ornaments (rimonim) from Shanghai and a portable bas-relief of Jerusalem made in Odessa in 1892.

Secular aspects of Judaism are represented by the printed decree of emancipation of 1790 proclaiming full civil rights for French Jews inscribed with the seal of Louis XVI, and a sculpture by the artist Chana Orloff (1888-1968), whose title ‘The Jewish Artist’ summarises the endless interrogation on Jewish identity, so characteristic of our present era.

Though the oldest synagogues in Paris date only from around 1850, it is remarkable to see the Museum’s collection of manuscripts and ritual objects, as well as vestiges of tombstones, dating as far back as the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most moving artifact of all is a bronze fourteenth century French Chanukah lamp, dating just prior to the last expulsion of the Jews by Charles VI in 1394 and discovered in the old Jewish quarter of Lyon five centuries later. For many visitors however, the exhibition’s highlight are a dramatically lit assembly of funerary steles from the thirteenth century, unearthed in 1849 on the Left Bank of Paris, not far from the Boulevard Saint Michel.

What makes this museum exceptional is that it brings to life the joyous celebrations and rituals that have held the Jewish people together for centuries, through an impressive display of beautiful objects and clear explanations in both French and English posted on wall panels in each gallery. Visitors can come away with an excellent understanding of the different rites de passage in Jewish life, from circumcision to bar mitzvahs, to marriages and funerals, and how each of these has evolved over the centuries.

The rituals are made tangible through a wide range of objects, ranging from an eighteenth century gilded wood and red damask covered circumcision armchair from Italy that once belonged to the Chief Rabbi of France Zadoc Kahn, to ancient gold and enamel wedding rings inscribed with the word Mazel Tov (Good luck!), to exquisitely hand-painted ketoubbahs (marriage contracts), written in Aramaic, and outlining the duties owed by a husband to his wife. Many of these ketoubbahs are masterpieces of illuminated calligraphy, dating as far back as the eighteenth century.

Knowing that few visitors are familiar with the Jewish calendar and its major holidays, the Museum illustrates this aspect of Jewish life with stunning displays of ritual objects. Perhaps the most outstanding of these is a group of Chanukah lamps from Central and Eastern Europe and North Africa, made of such diverse materials as bronze, silver, tin and terracotta, and decorated with a variety of motifs, ranging from flowers to biblical scenes to mythological figures.

One of the most poignant exhibitions is a gallery showing ten scale models of synagogues built in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania in the second half of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, which constituted one of the most remarkable groups of synagogue architecture in all of Europe. Inspired by local buildings made of wood, notably churches, they were distinguished essentially by their multi-level roofs, many of which resemble pagodas. Other synagogues, built outside the walls of the town, were often designed like fortresses, to protect the local population against wars and pogroms. All that remains of this unique architectural legacy are some faded photographs and these scale models. The Nazis destroyed most of the original buildings.

The Museum’s comprehensive and inclusive approach aims to show the rich diversity of the Jewish people. While the first floor galleries are mainly devoted to the Ashkenazi communities in England, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, that were later chased to Eastern Europe and Russia, the second floor is devoted to the Sephardic community, descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1496. Most Sephardic Jews emigrated to North Africa and the Middle East, as well as to Turkey, where they lived in relative security and prosperity as guests of the tolerant Ottoman Empire.

This exhibition shows stunning examples of lavishly and brightly ornamented traditional wedding costumes and headgear of Sephardic brides, and demonstrates the way local Jewish artisans made gold thread, embroidery and other hand-made ornamentation used for clothing and in bridal dowries. This intricate handiwork lasted until around 1920, when businesses began importing machinery that would replicate it.

Although ritual objects make up a good portion of the Museum’s holdings, the curators judiciously chose to display works of the ‘The School of Paris,’ a famous art movement of the twentieth century that largely comprised Jewish artists. Unable to study art in their Eastern European homelands, they took off for Paris where they discovered Modernism, and became artists in their own right. Many such as Ossip Zadkine, Sonia Delaunay, Louis Marcoussis and Jacques Lipchitz were captivated by Cubism. Others found their style in Expressionism, notably Chaim Soutine, Jules Pascin, Michel Kikoine and Amedeo Modigliani. Not only does the Museum pay tribute to these and other artists, it also shows in a moving exhibition how as Jews they were forced to flee France during the Nazi Occupation, or how the deportations led to their untimely death.

Perhaps it is this mingling of beauty and tragedy that most characterises the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme. For as visitors admire the mansion’s stunning restoration, the trompe l’oeil ceiling at the top of the grand staircase, the handsomely lit displays, they also learn that it was in this very building where seven residents of the Hotel de Saint-Aignan were arrested on 16 July 1942, and that a total of thirteen died in deportation. Here, in the Museum’s grand entrance, we see the faded black-and-white photographs of a vanished world of hat makers, tie makers, knitters and watchmakers, who once dwelled here, eking out a precarious existence. And as visitors take in the exhibits on each level of the Museum, they are reminded of this terrible past as they gaze out at Christian Boltanski’s installation The Inhabitants of the Hotel de Saint-Aignan in 1939. Consisting of a series of oversize white mourning cards stuck to a concrete courtyard wall, each one bears the name of the Jewish deportee, his country of origin and his profession–the very bits of information that helped send each one to their death.

In French, the word for mourning card is faire part, which literally means ‘to share in.’ The Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme seems in the end to have a remarkable mission: to ask visitors to share in all of the past of the Jewish people–in other words to take in the art of their sorrow as well as their joy.

Nissim de Camondo Museum:
There are at least two buildings with the architectural leitmotif of the Petit Trianon in the Paris area: the original manor at Versailles, and the other, a replica built between 1911 and 1914, on a residential street next to the enchanting Parc Monceau. Ironically, both the royal retinue at the Petit Trianon and the occupants of this replica, now known as the Nissim de Camondo Museum, were victims of a tragic fate.

Walking through the mansion’s exquisitely appointed rooms, with their harmonious interrelation of boiseries, richly colored tapestries, sumptuous silk brocade draperies and upholstery, and paintings by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and Francesco Guardi, it is understandable that connoisseurs have compared the Nissim de Camondo Museum with the Frick Collection in New York.

The Museum’s extensive collections of rare hand-painted Sevres, Meissen and Chantilly services in the Cabinet des Porcelaines, its dazzling chandelier resplendent with goose-egg drops of amethyst, rock crystal, and smoky quartz, its still-lifes in petit-point that bear a startling resemblance to the works of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and Anne Valleyer-Coster–and these are only a smattering of the splendours on display–make an impression that can be almost overwhelming. No wonder so many experts claim that the French decorative arts reached their apex in the eighteenth century.

This Museum represents the life-long passion of a collector who fell in love with the eighteenth century, Moise de Camondo. It was his great-grandfather, Abraham Solomon, banker to the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan, and head of the Jewish community in Constantinople, who exerted the greatest influence over the family fortunes. As head of the family bank, I. Camondo and Compagnie, he spurred his grandsons to open a branch office in Paris. Although Austrian by nationality, his affinities were Italian. In 1865, to the great surprise of the inhabitants of Constantinople he obtained Italian citizenship, and moved to Italy. He offered his financial assistance to King Victor Emmanuel II, who, to express his thanks made him a count by decree in 1867, a title that was transmissible through male heirs.

This exceptional man’s enlightened views made a great impression on his grandsons, Nissim and Abraham Behor, who in Paris came to be known as ‘the Rothschilds of the East’ as they kept pace with the worlds of art and finance. They were regular guests at the Elysee Palace and financed the Italian Pavilion at the 1889 World Fair. Upon their deaths in 1889, they left such a prosperous bank behind them that their respective sons Isaac and Moise could devote themselves to a life of leisure and collecting.

Unlike his cousin Isaac, who collected everything from eighteenth century French furniture to such Impressionists as Monet, Manet, Sisley and Degas, Moise limited his passion to the Ancien Regime. The Museum’s most impressive rooms are on the second floor. The Grand Salon with its gold and white wainscoting taken from a Parisian mansion on the Rue Royale is a handsome backdrop for the suite of Jacob furniture upholstered with Aubusson tapestries, two rare and charming end tables decorated with plaques of hand-painted porcelain by Martin Carlin and a rather incongruous faded leather tub chair that once belonged to Louis XVI’s brother, the last Bourbon king of France, Charles X.

The dining room, which overlooks a French formal garden, is notable for its watercolour-green eighteenth century painted boiseries, in the same tonality as the hand-painted Sevres porcelain on display. The green walls and hanging tapestries are a perfect foil for the massive silver tureens, ice-buckets and other serving pieces that Catherine the Great had ordered made for her lover, the Count Orloff, and which Camondo purchased from the cash-poor Soviet government in 1922.

By the time Moise took up residence with his two children Nissim and Beatrice, World War I had begun. It destroyed the unclouded, well-ordered universe that he had worked so hard to establish, and cut down his only son. Nissim de Camondo, awarded the Legion d’Honneur posthumously in 1920, was to have inherited the bank and this splendid home.

Moise’s surviving child Beatrice was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, along with her husband and two children. It seems that, as members of the French Establishment, who had once hunted with Hermann Goerring in Germany, who had once had Marechal Petain at their dinner table, the Camondos felt they were safe. Both Moise and Isaac de Camondo had once been publicly acclaimed for their princely donations of art to the Louvre, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, and the Musee Guimet.

In his will, Moise de Camondo wrote: ‘In bequeathing my townhouse and its collections to the State, my purpose is to preserve in France one of the finest examples of this decorative art which was one of the glories of France.’ Now, visitors to this exceptional Museum, have a chance to admire the final gift of this extraordinary collector, which has become part of the heritage of France.

Similar Posts:

The Ardabil Carpet: a 16th century masterpiece conserved
Fine Art, Fashion and Foppishness: Ceramics of the Aesthetic Movement