Although few of us can relate to the rarefied worlds of wealthy Jewish art collectors during the French Third Republic, two recent books reinforce some profound lessons to be learned from their experiences.
In “The disappeared collection”, Pauline Baer de Pérignon records his investigation of the legacy of his Frankfurt-born great-grandfather, Jules Strauss, who moved to Paris in 1881 and became a notable figure in the art world. The book is translated from French by Natasha Lehrer.
Strauss, as well as being one of the earliest collectors of Impressionists, left his own impression by donating frames to the Louvre that he felt were more appropriate for paintings there – frames that dated from the period. of the creation of each table. In doing so, he brought about a lasting change in the framing of the museum’s works.
De Pérignon knew little about Strauss, but his interest was piqued when a cousin mentioned that their great-grandfather had probably been forced to sell his art collection in 1942 for fear that the paintings would be outright stolen by the Germans. Addicted to the mystery (as well as the question of why her Jewish great-grandparents were able to remain in Nazi-occupied Paris without being arrested), de Pérignon embarked on an obsessive quest for the truth.
What is striking is how quickly the track had become cold within his family. There was little curiosity about the fate of the Strauss collection, which included paintings by Renoir, Monet and Degas, and the oldest living member of the family doubted any foul play. It was only through a search of the German federal archives that de Pérignon discovered that his widowed great-grandmother had continued an unsuccessful 16-year quest for the return of some of the works that had been wrongfully taken from her husband. .
It is not known why the family buried this acquaintance. A possible factor could be their ambivalence towards their Jewish past, as a number of Strauss’ descendants converted to Catholicism. It was only after her investigation that de Pérignon, who was baptized as a child, came to wonder “how and why we, as a family, had almost entirely erased this part of our identity “.
These stories lack happy endings, but, while her great-grandmother’s quest for restitution failed due to lack of evidence, de Pérignon’s hard detective work managed to uncover proof that Strauss’s paintings came into German possession against its will. A Dresden museum that initially tried to fend off de Pérignon’s efforts ended up giving away its painting belonging to Strauss. But perhaps a more meaningful ending involves reviving memory and forging a new connection with the past.
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Strauss’s collection was tiny compared to the fine art and furniture collected by the Ephrussis, Camondos, Reinachs, Rothschilds, and other Jewish banking families living in Paris in the late 19th century. In “The House of Fragile Things: Collectors of Jewish Art and the Fall of France”, James McAuley offers striking portraits of these families and searches for meaning in their fallen fortunes.
These families, most of whom had roots in other countries, were notable not only for developing these extraordinary collections, but for giving them and their superb estates to the French public before World War II. McAuley notes that “the collections they left are testimonies to the specific people they were, but also to the proud identity that this milieu sought to build – Jewish and French, particular and universal”. And their gifts reflected their love for a nation they believed in the promise.
Alas, the feeling has not always been mutual. These Jewish figures were closely watched (and they provided their critics with more than their fair share of scandals), and their art collections were subjected to intense scrutiny. Particularly offensive was their interest in objects from earlier eras of French history, which bigots viewed as the purchase of cultural heritage that rightfully belonged to the Catholic elite. In the eyes of the anti-Semites, the Jews could not be truly French and were “dedicated to a mimetic parrot of a national identity which could never be theirs”.
McAuley explores families in depth, paying attention to both their collection and their private lives. As with the descendants of Jules Strauss, these families generally witnessed a drift away from their Jewish heritage over the generations, and particularly among young women. For these women, struggling “to reconcile their autonomy with the subordinate roles assigned to them in their respective families,” McAuley argues that “leaving the faith was a silent rebellion, an attempt to regain whatever control they could grasp.”
But turning one’s back on Judaism was irrelevant to Nazi-era racial politics, and the descendants of these illustrious families who remained in France during World War II endured fates resembling those of their Jewish compatriots, including betrayal. of their French fellow citizens. McAuley reminds us that although Auschwitz may have been a German project, nearly 90 percent of the French Jews who were deported there were first taken to Drancy, the notorious concentration camp on the outskirts of Paris that was ” entirely managed by the French authorities”.
He pays particular attention to Béatrice de Camondo, who converted to Catholicism in 1942 and believed that her social status would protect her. She will nevertheless die in Auschwitz, like her children and her ex-husband, Léon Reinach, ending the Camondo lineage for eternity.
But McAuley’s intention is not to offer portraits in mistaken faith. On the contrary, he is unabashed in his admiration for these families and their commitment to the possibilities of their country. He notes with emotion in an epilogue that “each in its own way, the collections – and now the museums – that this Jewish elite left behind were attempts to create something beautiful in an increasingly hostile environment”, but that “the real beauty these collectors have achieved is in their respective visions of Franco-Jewish encounter, a passionate embrace by a cast of outsiders from a place where they have come to see themselves as insiders.
“The Vanished Collection” by Pauline Baer de Pérignon (New Vessel Press, 256 pages)
“The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France” by James McAuley (Yale University Press, 320 pages)