by Janine Lea-Oesi,
Once the home of the Camondo family of bankers, this museum houses a collection of 18th century French art and offers a glimpse of life in the 19th century. Like the musée de la Vie Romantique and Musée Marmottan-Monet, the Hôtel Camondo was once a private residence.
It belonged to the Camondo family who were forced to flee Spain during the years of the Inquisition. The family subsequently established itself in Turkey, Italy and France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first generation were bankers: Isaac Camondo established a bank in Istanbul in 1802, which passed to his brother Abraham in 1832. In Italy the family contributed financially to the reunification of the country and was rewarded in 1867 with noble status (they would henceforth be counts) by king Victor Emmanuel II.
Abraham’s grandsons, the brothers Abraham-Behor and Nissim, moved to France in 1868, where they set up house next door to each other in two mansions in rue de Monceau, overlooking park Monceau, in the 8th arrondissement of the city. When Abraham and Nissim died, their sons, the cousins Isaac and Moïse, inherited their respective properties, although Moïse demolished his house in 1911 and replaced it with a much more modern edifice (the present Hôtel).
The family’s Paris bank was involved in the economic development of Turkey and in lending to the French state (much like the Rothchilds) and continued in existence until 1917 when Moïse closed it down after the death of his son Nissim, who was killed in aerial combat during World War I at the age of twenty-five. Moïse died in 1935, his daughter Béatrice his only descendant.
Tragic end to an illustrious family
The family was Jewish and during the German occupation of France, Béatrice, her husband Léon Reinach, and their two children, Fanny and Bertrand, the family’s only remaining members, were sent to Auschwitz. Tragically, like so many, they never returned. Béatrice and her daughter were arrested in Paris and her husband and son in the south of France, as they were attempting to escape to Spain. Initially they were all held at Drancy. Léon, Fanny and Bertrand were deported in November, 1943 and Béatrice in March,1944.
The Hôtel today
Isaac and his cousin Moïse were avid and knowledgeable collectors. Whilst Isaac was more interested in the Far East, eighteenth century France and the Impressionists (the Louvre houses a large part of his collection), Moïse busied himself almost exclusively with the decorative arts of the French eighteenth century. The Hôtel is a wonderful testimony to this, housing as it does arguably the most complete collection of artefacts in existence from this period.
Moïse was also passionate about the ‘mod cons’ of the day and had a lift, telephones, flushing toilets and electricity installed. Although the house has the appearance of cut stone, it is actually built of concrete. Wanting to perpetuate the memory of his father, Count Nissim de Camondo, and his son, the pilot Nissim de Camondo, Moïse bequeathed the house and its collections to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs upon his death in 1935.
Visiting the Hôtel
This is a fascinating museum and it is not difficult to imagine the day-to-day life of its occupants, as one wanders from room to room. I was as struck by the modernity of the kitchen and bathrooms (not to mention the lift and dumb-waiter) as I was by the seeming discomfort of the sofas of the time, with their narrow, overstuffed seats and rigid, straight backs! But, as another visitor pointed out, when one considers the way people of this particular social class dressed at the time, the modern, softer couches that we are used to today just wouldn’t have suited at all.
Apart from the kitchen, office, laundry and staff dining room on the ground floor, the three apartments occupied by Moïse de Camondo and his two children, Nissim and Béatrice, have been fully restored. One of the loveliest rooms, the formal dining room, overlooks park Monceau, alive with birdsong even in winter. Our guide told us that there is a possibility that the higher floors will be open to the public in the future and I certainly hope this is the case.
The Hôtel Camondo is located at 63, rue de Monceau, in the 8th district of Paris. If you take the metro, line 3, get out at stop Monceau, walk across the park and then turn left for the street. If you are going by bus, lines 81 and 43 will get you there. It is a beautiful part of the city.