The Musée de Nissim Camondo, located in the 8th arrondissement near the Parc Monceau, houses the once private collection of 18th century arts & decor that previously belonged to Count Moïse de Camondo. In a city notorious for its many museums, the Nissim Camondo, although less-known than the Louvre or the Orsay, still very much merits a visit.
Like many museums in Paris, the history of the Musée de Nissim Camondo is just as interesting as the historical objects on display inside. Moïse de Camondo was born in Constantinople during the Ottoman empire, to a family of Sephardic Jewish bankers. Shortly after, his family moved to Paris in an effort to extend their business. Moïse was the heir to the family estate, which he rebuilt 1911 to house his extensive art collection as well as to serve as his family’s private residence. The architecture of this residence-turned-museum was largely inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
It was the intention of Moïse to pass down his estate to his son Nissim de Camondo; however, Nissim enlisted in the Armée de l’air immediately after the outbreak of World War I and was tragically killed in battle in 1917. Following the death of his only son, Moïse largely retreated from society, preferring to devote his time to his collection and occasionally receiving guests for dinner parties. In honor of his son he donated the estate to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and one year after his death in 1935 the Musée de Nissim Camondo was inaugurated. The tragic story of this family continued in 1945 when Count Camondo’s last living descendants, his daughter Beatrice de Camondo Reinach and her children, died in a concentration camp after being deported to Germany during the German Occupation of France during World War II.
The residence has been entirely preserved in its original condition and is one of the best examples of, as Moïse describes it in his will, “the recreation of an 18th-century artistic residence”. Today visitors of the museum can visit 3 floors of this once-private mansion including the kitchens (featuring a kosher design), formal rooms and private apartments, as well as the small but incredibly charming gardens. This museum also offers visitors a glimpse into the daily life of the elite upper class in the 20th century.
Some of the highlights of Moïse’s collection include Savonnerie tapestries as well as notable woodworks by Riesener and Jacob. We sat down with art historian and Context Travel docent Dr. Charlotte Daudon Lacaze to ask her favorite piece in the collection. Without hesitation, she shared what she considers to be the pièce de résistance: the small lady’s roll top desk built around 1760 by cabinet-maker Jean-François Oeben, with its “beautifully delicate inlay work of naturalistic floral motifs of precious wood and very elegant forms.” This was the first prototype of the roll top desk, and in fact, after seeing this desk in 1761, King Louis XV commissioned a larger, grander version for himself, now known as the “Bureau du Roi” (it’s on display at the Palace of Versailles).
Besides the gorgeous aesthetics of the piece, it was also functional. Louis XV kept his important documents in hidden drawers for which he had the only key, which he kept on his person at all times. We may never know how Moïse used his desk, which he acquired from famed antique dealer Jacques Seligmann in 1899, but for Charlotte, “the first and small version at the Nissim Camondo is one of the most elegant pieces of French Louis XV furniture and a wonderful testimony to Moïse de Camondo’s impeccable taste”.
The Musée de Nissim Camondo is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5:30pm.Looking to visit the museum with an expert? Context Travel can arrange private tours of the collection. For more information, contact their Paris team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out our past posts from Context Travel here!