Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Musée Nissim de Camondo - a history of power and betrayal

Today Mimi, Patricia and Kim and I visited the Musée Nissim de Camondo, close to Parc Monceau. 

I was honestly impressed both by the astonishing beauty of this home-museum as by the story of this unfortunate dynasty, now died out. Sepharditic Jews expelled from Spain, they moved to Istanbul where they made a fortune with their bank (they were known as the “Rothschilds of the East.”). Once they obtained the Austrian then the  Italian citizenship (thanks to the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II who made them “Counts”), they moved to Paris where they became art collectors … Isaac apparently spent a fortune to by  paintings by Monet, Cezanne and more than 30 works by Degas (painting he later donated to the Louvre!). His cousin Moise, who lived in this home as a child, decided to transform this home in a living collection of Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture and decorative arts: the building itself is inspired after the Petit Trianon, where both Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette lived. 

 Inside, each room was especially made to showcase the precious  collections, certainly one of the greatest of 18th-century French furniture: it includes rarities such as a table topped with petrified wood that was once owned by Marie Antoinette, an outstanding collection of Chinese porcelain, fine French paintings, carpets from Versailles, tapestries from Aubusson illustrating La Fontaine fables, the fabulous Sèvres Buffon service with each piece decorated with a different bird, and the bronze and the silver from Russian Empress Catherine II, and so much more.  

One of my favorite area of the museum was the cuisine: approximately 30 by 40 feet in dimension, tiled in white and black from floor to ceiling, it contains the most extraordinary stove and oven I’ve ever seen. The stove occupies almost half of the kitchen, has eight burners which could accommodate enormous pots side by side. The oven, separated, has four ovens and two steam cabinets.  On the opposite wall there is a huge work counter with cabinets beneath and numerous long shelves above displaying beautiful pieces of copper cookware, bowls and more. 

The fifteen domestics who lived in this house would eat in the adjacent room, which communicates with the main kitchen through a “passe-plats”

We are not done yet: another door takes you to the chef’s office, which has a “vertical passé-plat” communicating to the above formal dining room. The chef was also the only one, among the servants, allowed to communicate through a telephone with the exterior (mainly with the butcher…). 

 Next to the door there is a “intercom” which, by means of lightened small bulbs, would allow the servants downstairs to easily understand in which room of the immense house their service was requested. Cool! 

There was even an elevator next to the main staircase… 

When Moise’s son, Nissim, died in WWI while fighting for France, he decided to make his house into a museum in memory of his son. His daughter Beatrice, together with her kids and former husband, were arrested by the the French Vichy government deported to Dracy and then to Auschwitz, where they all died. 
First of all, there was quite a discussion among us regarding how handsome was Nissim: some say he was an Andy Garcia type, some say he looked more like Sacha Baron Cohen....I'll let you decide. 

While walking through the different areas, I tried to imagine how difficult it must have been to be raised here as child, without being able to jump on sofas, without a chance of touching or moving thins around. Not certainly a child-proof home! Probably even the owner’s wife felt unease in this museum-home…in fact she fled with the horse trainer! But my mind was mostly taken by another thought: when we watched the movie about the family, I was shocked to learn that, despite the family donation to this Country in terms of lives and money, the French government didn't help them but actually approved their tragic deportation. So much for friendship!

I hope you enjoyed my blog on this amazing museum. As always, comments are welcome and encouraged. Cheers!


  1. Very interesting thank you - can you confirm that it was the French police who arrested the family or was it the Germans?
    Thank you.

    1. Hello Agnes,
      thanks for your comment.
      I am not an historian but I love history. Regarding Beatrice de Camondo's arrest, I relied on the assertion of the book "Le derniere des Camondo" by Pierre Assouline who claims that the arrest was made by the French soldiers. It doesn't surprise me at all since is well known that after the Battle of France in 1940, the Vichy Governement, lead by Pétain, did collaborate with the Nazis until the Allied liberation, fearing the division of the country between the Axis powers.The collaboration included also enforcing the anti-semitic rules in the French territory and helping the German soldiers in the rounding-up and deportation of Jews into concentration and extermination camps. At the end of the WWII several French Vichy generals and high commanders fled but the few who were arrested, including Pétain, were put on trial for treason and crimes against humanity.
      I hope my answer is satisfactory.
      It is a great story!


As usual, comments are welcome and much appreciated.