August 2021

Arts & Letters

Breathless spaces: ‘The House of Fragile Things’

By Helen Elliott

James McAuley’s examination of four great art-collecting families and the French anti-Semitism that brought their downfall

On Rue de Monceau, in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, there’s a small museum with an odd name: Musée Nissim de Camondo. Built in 1911 to house one of France’s greatest collections of 18th-century objets d’arts, it was inspired by Marie Antoinette’s favourite chateau at Versailles. James McAuley, now Paris correspondent for The Washington Post, initially came across the museum when he was a student. It had a lasting effect.

Since I first ambled into the museum, the lacunae in this story have bothered me in the way a dripping faucet does – a faint trickle that becomes a deafening sound … you go on with your life, but while washing dishes or running in the park you find yourself thinking about a group of people whose significance is not immediately obvious but who nevertheless seem to represent something important – albeit, what, exactly, you can never quite decide.

The fragile things of the title are, nominally, the collection, but the people who collected them had a singular fragility. McAuley’s lacunae became this enquiry into the lives behind the benign façade of 63 Rue de Monceau.

Nissim de Camondo was the only son of banker and collector Moïse de Camondo. In 1917, when Nissim was 25, he was shot down in aerial combat over Lorraine, and his father, grieving to the end of his life, gave his house and collection to the state with the proviso that it be named after his son. The testament read that the monument to Nissim was also a monument to “the glories of France during the period I have loved most among all others”.

Collections named so precisely are extreme memorials. Yet collections, regardless of magnificence, regardless even of the gleaming fact that the hands of Marie Antoinette had caressed these lovely things, are inert. Walking today through these tall rooms where not a breath of life can ever ruffle an atom is to walk through an interesting tomb. Is this how Eurydice felt, stepping through the underworld? Who on earth could ever have lived here, among such things, in such breathless spaces?

The photographs, ordinary family snaps scattered among the collection, give some answers. Moïse also had a daughter, Béatrice, who was killed in Auschwitz in January 1945, two weeks before the Russian liberation. Her children and husband had already been killed, although she would not have known it. McAuley’s story, spanning a century and involving four intertwined families, is detailed and intricate. You need to concentrate.

Moïse de Camondo, a scion of one of the great banking families and a discerning collector, was 31 years old when he married 19-year-old Irène Cahen d’Anvers, daughter of a family of equally dazzling fortune. You will possibly know Irène because she and her two sisters, Alice and Elisabeth, were painted by Renoir, as children and as young women, paintings that are now familiar worldwide as some of his most charming and identifiable works. Renoir, like Degas, was a vocal anti-Semite, and the portraits are a sombre coda to this tale. Hermann Göring, greedy collector of pilfered art, seized the portrait of Irène, later exchanging it for an artwork he desired more.

Nissim had his father’s attention and still has the attention of anyone ambling in the upscale Rue de Monceau. But McAuley wants to retrieve Béatrice, the almost invisible woman in her father’s life. People who knew her suggested she was slightly deaf, and awkward and “homely” (although she doesn’t seem it from the snaps of her riding, at family weddings, with her children or in the garden). Her letters attest to her being educated and thoughtful, kind, refined. She was also capable – her work at Drancy organising the cooking, cleaning and nursing, attests to that. Drancy was the French camp in the suburbs of Paris functioning as an anteroom to Auschwitz.

Béatrice was well-connected, even brilliantly connected. And yet, and yet, in 1942 she was rounded up by the French police. Béatrice, her husband, Leon Reinach, and their two late-teenage children were all murdered at Auschwitz, along with most other members of the four distinguished families McAuley tracks. The last that most of them saw of one another was in the convoys to the death camps.

The violent shock between immersion in Moïse de Camondo’s exacting collection and the fate of his family, those confident, lively people in the black and white photos whose lives ended in such melancholy obscurity, must be the real point of the musée at 63 Rue de Monceau. It was for McAuley, plunging him into a political, philosophical and psychological search. He finds a letter from Béatrice written to a close friend a few days before her arrest for “being a Jew”, yet she appears oblivious to her real situation. By then she had converted to Catholicism and her faith gave her serenity and strength, and in her materially charmed life she seems to have had no sense of foreboding. She stayed put in Paris. Béatrice – cultivated, sensible, aware, not lacking imagination – was psychologically unable to grasp a certain reality about France. She wasn’t unusual.

Recent history – the Dreyfus affair, the casual acceptance of the fanatical anti-Semite journalist Édouard Drumont, the writing and ideas of the influential Goncourt brothers – might have alerted Béatrice to something about France and the French, but it didn’t. She was even writing letters to the Nazi bureaucrats to ensure that a woman who worked for her was being paid a pension from her confiscated estate. What made Béatrice and her family so disbelieving, so inert when their beloved France revealed what lay just beneath the graceful surface? It was not nuanced. What Béatrice lacked was what many thoughtful people lacked at that time: any comprehension of the finicky industriousness of French anti-Semitism.

The Camondos were part of the small group of haute bourgeoisie who were fabulously rich and lived accordingly. This elite flourished in the Belle Époque of Europe, and Paris was its heart. The era can be specifically dated from the start of the Third Republic in 1870, and ending in the tumult of World War One. The lightness and beauty of the physical world was celebrated, and the visual art – the pictures, objets, furniture and fabrics in the rooms of your house – reflected your interior, or perhaps your aspirations, as much as your clothes. Physical things, especially paintings and the exquisite affordable clothes, were regarded as conveying more emotion and sensation than written texts. They also instantly revealed status. It seemed a world that would continue forever.

Yet there were also shadows. The significance of the fate of Alfred Dreyfus cannot be overstated. Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army, was in 1894 falsely accused of treason and, despite irrefutable evidence of his wrongful sentence, served four years in pitiable circumstances in a penal colony. He wasn’t fully exonerated until 1906.

McAuley’s close and original reading of the time identifies something very particular, a material anti-Semitism for a material age. The great art collectors, these connoisseurs, believed they could reach back into the deep time of France through the physical objects that contained the national glory, and by owning them they could become as French as any aristocracy, or landed gentry. The Goncourts, the same talented brothers whose name still appends one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, joined Dumont in disabusing French society of that idea. That a Jewish family might own Marie Antoinette’s harpsicord was outrageous to them. Jews were never allowed to be aesthetically authentic.

The Camondos were originally Sephardic Jews and, like many, had come to France after the 1789 revolution gave European Jews formal equality. Moïse de Camondo’s parents came from Istanbul. The Camondos, the Reinachs, the Cahens d’Anvers, the Rothschilds – the four great families that McAuley trails – flourished in France during the 19th century, providing more than their share of leading intellectuals, musicians, writers and artists. They were cultivated and philanthropic, and became even more so through the generations. They also became more French but carefully maintained a protective and enabling clannishness. The families were intertwined and intermarried, the children often brought up as cousins. They honoured France because of what the revolution had granted them. Culturally but not religiously Jewish, they saw themselves as French.

Collecting was self-expression, and the elite, with money and educated taste, could collect to their heart’s content in the new, commodified world. And these collectors lived in Haussmann’s freshly renovated Paris, the “capital of the nineteenth century”, as McAuley notes, “the epicentre of bourgeois fantasy, an urban tableau of displays and department stores and a veritable ‘universe of commodities’ … the denizens of this city were less citizens than consumers.” The eagle-eyed Goncourts coined this new desire to accumulate, collect and possess bricabracomania. Marcel Proust’s enchanting Charles Swann was partially modelled on Moïse de Camondo and other collectors Proust knew. Swann, sought after not only for his rare charm and wit but for his eye, his erudition and taste, is culturally Jewish but his hand isn’t forced until the Dreyfus affair divides France and, to his own surprise, he has no hesitation declaring himself a Dreyfusard. These are not just fine words; Swann loses all his social elan. In real life, Émile Zola, having written the open letter “J’Accuse…!” in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, had to flee to England. Proust, who believed that the work of great artists preserves a life force capable of suspending time, also identified something wider than self-expression about collecting. It was self-discovery, the desire to make something beautiful in the face of a hostile world. Collecting these artefacts and items represented an aesthetic heritage. Moïse de Camondo, in particular, believed that there was nuanced connection between Frenchness and Jewishness. And, as McAuley writes:

… collectors could acquire patrimony and, with it, prestige … Objects and things became imbued with national significance: they furnished a plane of identity construction that was both personal and political.

The collectors were deaf to the echoes of reality. If they saw themselves as preserving the French past, a huge mass of the population, xenophobic and profoundly anti-Semitic, often aristocratic, was outraged. Who did they think they were, these Jews? It is this central conundrum in French life that, even now, rarely appears in the endless, misty, fin de siècle cinematic tales or those of World War Two, although excellent television series such as Un village français (2010–19) and the recovered novels of Irène Némirovsky redress the sleight-of-hand nostalgia.

The musée contains no photographs of the Camondos after 1944. The line ended here.

James McAuley is just 30 years old. His work is exhaustingly dense but has a sustained thread and energy. He has, too, a tenderness for his subjects framed by a beautiful moral register. His conclusions are chilling: the Holocaust stretched across Europe and into France partly because individual people made active choices unrelated to the worn concepts of banality or inertia.

There is no one to remember Béatrice and her children, Fanny and Bertrand; there are no plaques, no words in the family tomb. It was as if they never existed. Auschwitz extinguished the Moïse de Camondo line, although Irène, the mother who had left her children in 1903, survived until 1963. It was she who claimed what was left of the Camondo fortune, and it was she who, after the war, gaining possession of Renoir’s portrait of her as a young girl, quickly sold it on to a Swiss industrialist and art collector who had made a fortune making arms for the Nazis.

The people in this tale are now phantoms. But when we leave a room, traces of ourselves remain, and in the house on Rue de Monceau the living who walk through these tall, restrained rooms grasp that those who once lived and collected here loved life as profoundly and perhaps as painfully as we do now.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers’ (La petite Irène), 1880. © Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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