Most ages and places have had their iconic forms of self-display. Today we have the carefully curated social media page, with its endless series of aptly titled “selfies.” Early modern Europe had the daily pageant of court society, with its graceful, witty, professedly nonchalant aristocrats who had every muscle under tight control and every piece of clothing precisely arranged. And then there was the continental fin de siècle, which summons up images of cancan dancers, Impressionist paintings, and opulent Viennese coffeehouses. For the wealthy bourgeois families who dominated European society at that time, the performance of the self took place in large part through the acquisition and display of objects, especially art and furniture. Have there ever been more sumptuously crowded living rooms than in Paris or Berlin circa 1900? The period’s greatest writer, Marcel Proust, indelibly described how even the most banal material items can stir ashes of remembrance and tug insistently at the mind.
The relationship between self and objects lies at the heart of James McAuley’s elegantly written and deeply moving The House of Fragile Things. The book seems, at first glance, to have a narrow focus: the experiences of a handful of French Jewish families from the late nineteenth century to World War II, with particular attention to their art collecting. But it is really much more: a meditation on the shaping and expression of identities through the acquisition and donation of beautiful things, a glimpse into a world blasted to dust by the horrors of the twentieth century, and a tragic story about the unrequited love of men and women for a country that savagely turned on them.
These men and women were members of the Jewish grand bourgeoisie whose immigrant forefathers had acquired great fortunes in banking and trade and moved to France because of the freedoms and business opportunities the country offered. By the late nineteenth century younger family members had become indistinguishable from French gentiles of their class in education, speech, dress, taste, and leisure pursuits. A striking photograph in the book shows Abraham Salomon de Camondo (1781–1873), the patriarch of a banking dynasty who spent most of his life in Constantinople; he is dressed like a Turkish pasha in an elaborate robe and turban. Directly below on the page is his grandson Moïse (1860–1935), the very picture of an urbane young fin de siècle French gentleman in a beautifully tailored suit and cravat. Their families were initially pious and observant, but successive generations showed successively less attachment to the Jewish faith. Many of them married gentiles, and some converted to Catholicism. Increasingly, their real religion was France itself, to which they maintained an unswerving and passionate devotion. It was a God that would fail them, but they worshiped it to the end.
McAuley found relatively little of his subjects’ personal correspondence but has managed nonetheless to produce vivid portraits of them. These interrelated families—the Camondos, the Reinachs, the Cahens d’Anvers, and a branch of the Rothschilds—were all passionate art patrons and collectors. Louis and Louise Cahen d’Anvers had their three daughters painted by Renoir. The portraits radiate innocence, with the artist’s typical pastel colors and the girls’ sweet, winsome expressions (see illustration on page 20). Moïse Camondo, who married the oldest daughter, Irène, in 1891, rebuilt an elegant mansion in the eighth arrondissement, the poshest neighborhood of Paris, modeling it after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. He filled it with paintings and furniture from the reign of Louis XVI, and especially prized anything that might have been owned by Marie-Antoinette.
McAuley speculates that the prerevolutionary period symbolized for Camondo, as it did for many gentile collectors, “an imagined social world in which elites…were free to pursue lives of dalliance and refinement,” with physical spaces characterized by “restraint, harmony and order.” At the same time, his mansion served a psychological purpose for this controlling perfectionist whose wife deserted him for an Italian Catholic count after just six years of marriage, leaving him to raise their two children. In his meticulously arranged rooms he could imagine himself the absolute, Bourbon-style monarch of his own little realm and find there an antidote to the chaos of his personal life. He refused to part even temporarily with his beloved belongings, explaining on one occasion to the Metropolitan Museum in New York that “it seems like punishment to be separated for so long from an object so dear to me.”
Théodore Reinach, another banking heir, whose son Léon married Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, constructed a classical Greek villa on a rugged outcropping of the Côte d’Azur. One of the great polymath scholars of his day, with expertise in mathematics, numismatics, and music, he translated Shakespeare and even composed an opera libretto in his spare time, and was above all one of the period’s great authorities on Greek antiquity. He did not furnish the villa with original objects, but he designed every piece of furniture himself “to reflect the simplicity of the ancient Greek templates.” He called the villa Kérylos, after the Greek word for the halcyon or kingfisher, a symbol of peace, tranquility, and fertility.
Inspired by Kérylos, the Rothschild heiress (and Théodore’s cousin by marriage) Béatrice Éphrussi de Rothschild purchased a large plot half a mile away and built a grand Venetian-style villa with elaborate gardens. She involved herself in every aspect of the design and construction, including an innovative support structure for the building’s roof, which she patented. Like Moïse Camondo, she adorned her property with eighteenth-century French paintings and art objects, putting many of them in private rooms unseen by visitors. Divorced from her Russian-born husband (who had infected her with syphilis, leaving her infertile) and treated by her family as scandal-prone and eccentric, in McAuley’s words she “sought solace in materiality.”
As McAuley notes, serious collecting is a form not just of self-fashioning but of social and political expression. In their collections and art patronage these Jewish men and women were staking a claim to a French identity in the face of fierce resistance. In theory, Jews had enjoyed full civil rights in France since the first years of the French Revolution. Under the militantly secular Third Republic, founded in 1870, they enjoyed greater freedoms and opportunities than their coreligionists anywhere else in the world. Jews occupied high positions in French government, academia, the art world, and especially banking and industry. But as they came to do so, they faced intensifying waves of anti-Semitism. To authors like Édouard Drumont, the author of the mephitic and wildly popular tract La France juive (1886), these “rootless cosmopolitans” symbolized everything hateful about secular, capitalist, republican modernity and the way it was supposedly destroying an older, organic, predominantly rural, and devout French society. During the Dreyfus Affair, which began with the flagrantly unjust conviction of a Jewish military officer for treason in 1894, vicious anti-Semitic invective flowed from right-wing newspapers and Catholic pulpits and inspired violence across the country.
Wealthy and visible families like the Camondos, the Cahens d’Anvers, and the Reinachs made particularly tempting targets. Their very success in adopting a French way of life filled anti-Semitic authors with particular horror. The French brothers Edmond and Jules Goncourt (for whom France’s most prestigious literary prize is still named) commented waspishly about Louise Cahen d’Anvers that “Jewesses keep, from their Eastern origins, a particular nonchalance,” and went on to say that she had “a mane of winding hair that resembled a snake’s nest.” Renoir, a notorious anti-Semite, accepted commissions from wealthy Jews but mocked them in his correspondence. He complained to a colleague about the alleged stinginess of Louis Cahen d’Anvers, who had in fact paid him more than he had yet received in his career for any single portrait. Anti-Semitic authors were particularly outraged by Jews purchasing pieces of France’s cultural patrimony. As McAuley notes, Drumont had worked as an antiquarian, and in his eyes “collecting was an act of Jewish violence,” another barbarian “invasion.” To the anti-Semites, the Jews could not possibly possess proper French taste and inevitably despoiled the objects they purchased by displaying them in gauche, absurd, and insulting ways.
In this volatile and dangerous atmosphere, the Jewish families fought back, insisting on the compatibility of Frenchness and Judaism. Théodore Reinach’s brother Joseph helped lead the battle for Dreyfus’s exoneration (which finally came in 1906) and wrote what still stands as the most complete and authoritative account of the affair. Théodore, meanwhile, made the case in books and essays for what he called “a certain secret affinity between the Jewish spirit and the French spirit.” He claimed that the values of the Hebrew prophets had found their fullest expression in the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
McAuley argues that in their collecting and patronage of the arts, figures like Moïse Camondo and Béatrice Éphrussi de Rothschild were implicitly making a similar case. Their houses demonstrated that Jews could build and decorate in as tastefully and as authentically French a manner as any Gaul-descended gentile and amass collections that breathed with the spirit of an older, more graceful, and more tranquil France. And since the French of this period generally saw ancient Greece as the direct ancestor of and inspiration for their own civilization, Théodore Reinach’s Kérylos represented, in its own way, an act of homage to France as well.
In the 1920s and 1930s Moïse Camondo, Théodore Reinach, and Béatrice Éphrussi de Rothschild took an additional large step to demonstrate that they were eminent and authentically French citizens and collectors. At their deaths, each of them donated to the French state, as museums, the houses they had so lovingly built and decorated. So did several other members of the Jewish grand bourgeoisie. These houses remain very much as their builders left them, and the French government often makes use of them for state occasions. In 2019 President Emmanuel Macron received the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, at Kérylos.
But the donations did not succeed in getting these families accepted as fully French benefactors of the patrie, and here McAuley’s story turns dark. Through his remarkable research, he has reconstructed the interlocked fates of the Camondo, Cahen d’Anvers, and Reinach families in marvelous detail. Their members do not always come off as heroes, but most of them became, in one way or another, victims.
Despite the fact that it united two of the families, the 1919 wedding of Béatrice Camondo and Léon Reinach was a subdued affair, far less lavish than that of Béatrice’s parents, Moïse Camondo and Irène Cahen d’Anvers, twenty-eight years earlier. The horrific slaughter of World War I had claimed Béatrice’s brother Nissim and Léon’s cousin Adolphe among its millions of casualties. (It was Nissim’s death that prompted Moïse to leave his mansion to the state, and to name what is still known as the Musée Nissim de Camondo after his fallen son.) Béatrice, heavyset and slightly deaf, was estranged from the mother who had largely abandoned her, and who had subsequently married and divorced the Italian count. The extended families were fragmenting and scattering. Of the two other Cahen d’Anvers daughters painted by Renoir (Irène’s sisters, Béatrice’s aunts), Alice had married a British major general and Élisabeth a French Catholic and then a French Protestant (divorcing both). By the late 1930s, with so many of the families’ grand houses and art collections in the hands of the state, they were no longer obvious, ostentatious targets for anti-Semitic hatred.
This did not save them. In June 1940 the German army crushed Allied resistance and conquered France. After fleeing to Bordeaux, the French parliament voted full powers to a hero of World War I, the aging, reactionary Marshal Philippe Pétain. As the Germans occupied northern France and the Atlantic coast, Pétain and his supporters set up their collaborationist regime in the spa town of Vichy and quickly began a “national revolution” aimed at overturning the achievements of the liberal, secular Third Republic. On its own initiative, it enacted two “Jewish laws” that banned most Jews from public office, the media, the arts, business, academia, and the professions. A popular exhibition in Paris in late 1941 presented the Jews as parasites seeking to corrupt and destroy France.
The Camondos and the Reinachs at first could not believe they were in danger, and so they missed the best opportunity to flee or hide. Béatrice Reinach, who divorced her husband and converted, quite sincerely, to Catholicism in 1942, wrote to a friend that year, “I am certain that I am miraculously protected…. Will I have the years necessary to thank God and the Virgin enough for their protection?” Her brother-in-law Julien Reinach, an eminent scholar like his father, Théodore, remained at Kérylos, working on a translation of a Roman law text. In a letter to Vichy’s General Commissariat for Jewish Questions in October 1941, he protested having to pay the new fines levied on Jews and listed everything he had contributed to the arts and scholarship in France. “I divided my life,” he insisted, “between the service of the fatherland, the foundation of a family and a constant work in a number of scientific and literary domains.” The underlined words were the slogan of Vichy’s “National Revolution”: travail, famille, patrie, which had replaced liberté, égalité, fraternité.
In 1942 the Germans asked the Vichy regime to help it deport Jews from France to the concentration and extermination camps in the east. Vichy enthusiastically agreed and used the French police to round up Jews, to hold them in camps and other facilities (including the notorious Vél d’Hiv indoor bicycle stadium in Paris in July 1942), and to send them on to Poland. Ultimately, Vichy collaborated in the deportation of some 76,000 Jews, almost all of whom perished in the Holocaust. Vichy’s defenders claim to this day that the regime principally targeted foreign-born Jews without French citizenship, but as many scholars have shown, and as McAuley’s book further underlines, no French Jew was safe.
Béatrice Reinach and her daughter, Fanny, were arrested on December 5, 1942, and sent to the Drancy concentration camp on the outskirts of Paris. There the heiress to the Camondo fortune was set to work peeling vegetables for soup and cleaning the kitchens. Her ex-husband, Léon, and their son, Bertrand, were caught a week later trying to sneak over the border into Spain and imprisoned at Drancy as well. Léon, Bertrand, and Fanny were all deported from France to Auschwitz in November 1943. None of them was sent to the gas chambers on arrival, but Fanny died of disease on December 31. Bertrand met the same fate on March 14, 1944, and Léon two months after that. Béatrice arrived in Auschwitz in March 1944 and was killed on January 4, 1945, just two weeks before the Red Army liberated the camp. Her French death certificate says she “died for France,” but as McAuley notes, she actually “died because of France.” Her aunt Élisabeth, despite having converted to Christianity decades earlier, was deported to Auschwitz and died there on April 15, 1944. Julien Reinach was arrested at Kérylos in September 1943 and sent first to Drancy and then to Bergen-Belsen. He survived the war, but with his health irretrievably ruined, and died in 1962. As McAuley concludes, “The entire social world that a generation of Jewish collectors had built was quickly and deliberately destroyed with the approval—and even the encouragement—of the same nation they had championed.”
The aftermath of the war did not bring any closure or solace to the survivors of these families. Béatrice’s mother, Irène, who had avoided arrest and deportation, “wasted no time in seizing what remained of the fortune of her estranged and murdered daughter.” She put particular energy into recovering the portrait Renoir had painted of her as a girl, which Béatrice had owned, which had been stolen during the war, and which had belonged briefly to Hermann Göring. Upon recovering it, Irène promptly sold it to Emil Georg Bührle, a Swiss businessman who had provided war matériel to the Nazis; it is still in the collection named for him. (It was featured briefly in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and has become a popular advertising image in Japan.) Irène and her other daughter soon spent the remainder of the Camondo fortune.
Today, even the family tombs have begun to crumble for lack of attention, and the men and women interred there have largely passed into oblivion. The museums donated to France so lovingly by these families do relatively little to make visitors aware of their history. The website of the Musée Nissim de Camondo does not mention that of Moïse Camondo’s four descendants, one died for France and the other three were murdered with the help of the French state. McAuley writes that despite the beauty of the mansion and the objects displayed there, “there is no way to wander through…without feeling a sense of crushing emptiness.” If the history of the families has recently attracted more attention, it is largely because the English artist Edmund de Waal, a descendant of the Éphrussi family (into which Béatrice Éphrussi de Rothschild married), has written movingly about them.*
Since the 1990s the French state has gone some distance toward acknowledging its complicity in the Holocaust and in making its citizens aware of what happened. In 1995 President Jacques Chirac gave a somber speech in which he said, “These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions.” But the battles over wartime memory continue. In 2018 President Macron insisted on paying homage to Marshal Pétain for his service in World War I, and the resurgent French far right has become more aggressive in recent years in defending Vichy. (Bizarrely, one of the chief advocates, Éric Zemmour, is Jewish.) France could do more, at the museums donated to it by Jewish citizens, to honor those men and women who wanted nothing so much as to be accepted as fully French. For a start, it could make sure that every visitor has the opportunity to purchase, in French translation, a copy of James McAuley’s haunting book.
Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); and Letters to Camondo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). The second of these books, published almost simultaneously with The House of Fragile Things, consists of a series of imagined letters to Moïse Camondo about his collection and his family. Beautifully written, it covers some of the same territory as McAuley’s book but without his extensive research and situating of these families in modern French history. ↩