Art and Exile in the Third Republic

Art and Exile in the Third Republic

James McAuley’s The House of Fragile Things examines the travails of a circle of Jewish art collectors, tracing a history of betrayal and dispossession.


The European Jews fortunate enough to survive exile or deportation during World War II faced another challenge after liberation—homecoming. For some, return was inconceivable; to live among treacherous neighbors, to breathe air thick with deceit, was a fate too awful to bear. For others, willing to return, or without other options, there were practical obstacles barring the path. Many arrived home to find their properties ransacked, or worse, inhabited by strangers—their mail opened, their beds slept in.

It is not difficult to imagine the sense of repulsion that must have accompanied these scenes. Self-created worlds, our homes and our belongings are intimate reflections of who we are and who we wish to be. To defile a home is tantamount to attacking its owner. We are, in a sense, where we live. This is a maxim the Nazis, engineers of Jewish dispossession, well understood.

So too did the subjects of The House of Fragile Things, James McAuley’s new book about a circle of Jewish art collectors living during the French Third Republic, spanning from the 1870s to 1940, the year of the Battle of France. Building an art collection is always, McAuley notes, an exercise in “identity construction”—“what collectors create is themselves”—but for the group of elite, bourgeois European Jews profiled here, collecting, homemaking, and identity were intertwined in unique and historically contingent ways.

Prominent Jews living in France during an era of rising antisemitism—their adult lives spent in the shadow of the Dreyfus Affair—they faced constant charges of inauthenticity, of being, as are still the preferred dog whistles, not French but “cosmopolitan” and “rootless.” The act of collecting helped them push back against such accusations of transience and foreignness. The families McAuley follows created lavish estates filled with works of art they would later donate to France as proof of their loyalty. In the 1940s, when their property and lives were attacked under the Vichy government, these same families learned that their generosity had purchased them only a precarious foothold in French society, as even the most irreligious among them were persecuted as Jews—a status deemed by the Nazis and their sympathizers to be incommensurable with “Frenchness.”

In this engaging and poignant study, McAuley uses the collections French Jews entailed to the state in the early 1900s as a means of reconstructing their opulent world, now lost, and of piecing together the hopes and intentions that scaffolded it. As he argues, the objects that populated the glitzy interiors of their homes in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur were not only witnesses to French-Jewish history but also its agents, making and unmaking a milieu whose primary aspiration was to serve a republic that would later betray them.

Take, for example, Moïse de Camondo, founder of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris. As McAuley recounts, Moïse spent his adult years assembling a collection of rare 18th-century furniture and decorative art intended to establish his family—Ottoman Jews settled in Paris in the mid-1800s—as champions of French patrimony. Upon his death, in 1935, he bequeathed his mansion and its contents to the state as a house museum, naming it honor of his son, Nissim, who had died heroically fighting for France in the First World War. Less than a decade later, the nation to which Moïse had given so much would repay him by putting an end to his family line.

His only living child, Béatrice de Camondo, was deported and eventually murdered at Auschwitz along with her children and estranged husband, Léon Reinach, son of Théodore Reinach, an important intellectual who had given his Villa Kérylos to the Institut de France in the 1920s. The pair spent their final days in Paris fighting to reclaim a cherished piece of art stolen by the Nazis from their apartment—a Renoir portrait of Béatrice’s grandmother titled Mlle Irène Cahen d’Anvers—each petitioning Vichy officials for the painting’s return on the basis that their families had rendered “exceptional services” to France.

Their appeals went unanswered: As Béatrice and Léon made the journey to Drancy, and later, Auschwitz, “the little Irène,” as the painting was fondly called, traveled to Germany, where she charmed Hermann Göring, who briefly added the work to his personal trove of looted art.

Telling you all of this does not ruin The House of Fragile Things; the information is printed on a plaque outside of the Musée Camondo and McAuley informs us of the family’s fate in the book’s first paragraph. By disclosing such haunting details upfront, McAuley hopes in a sense to exorcise them, getting the end of the story out of the way in order to return to its beginning. The book is not about recovering histories lost to time so much as adding texture back to lives too often narrated in reverse—overdetermined by the Holocaust, lumped into the “monolithic category of victims.”

A group biography, both of people and of their possessions, The House of Fragile Things urges us to see its subjects as they saw themselves. McAuley neither wishes to dwell in the tragedy of Vichy nor chastise the Camondos and their circle for their failure to anticipate it: “To see this milieu as victims of their own blindness is to miss the point.” He instead asks why the Camondos and the families with whom they associated and intermarried—the Reinachs and Cahen d’Anvers, as well as the Ephrussis and the French Rothschilds—believed so doggedly, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that their homeland would spare them: What can their credulity tell us about French Jewish life? What can it teach us about the power, as well as the limitations, of money, things, and national pride?

Though based on McAuley’s doctoral dissertation, the book bears the traces of his work as a journalist. (He was Paris correspondent for The Washington Post, where he is now a Global Opinions columnist, and has been a contributor to The Nation.) McAuley is a capable stylist and reporter who manages, in most instances, to strike the elusive balance between concision and detail. The book can flag at times, but on the whole it moves at a brisk pace, wearing its expertise and depth of research lightly.

The opening chapters, “Portraits of a Milieu” and “From Dreyfus and Drumont,” are especially impressive in this regard, deftly telling a rich and nuanced history of 19th-century Franco-Jewish life in a remarkably short span. As McAuley makes clear, French Jews had every reason to believe in the promise of French republicanism. Revolutionary France was the first country to “emancipate” its Jewish population in the 1790s, and by the late 1800s, Jews had ascended to the top of French society—the owners of some of its most important banks and department stores, the glittering stars of its stages and nightclubs. Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress whom literary scholar Sharon Marcus credits with being the first modern “celebrity,” was born to a Jewish mother. So was Louise Weber, or “La Goulue,” the cancan queen of the Moulin Rouge immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec.

For most of the men and women in McAuley’s circle, it was patriotism, not religion, that lay at the heart of their selfhood. If Jewishness was a fact of existence, Frenchness was a calling, and they were zealots first and foremost of Gallic universalism. All were secular Jews, invested in the separation of church and state. Some were Jewish in loose terms only, what we might today call “culturally Jewish.” Others had fraught relationships to Judaism and would have felt more comfortable being labeled as atheists. Still others went even further, divesting themselves of their Jewish heritage and seeking out new faiths. Béatrice de Camondo, McAuley reveals, was a devout Catholic convert, who saw herself as a Catholic even after her deportation—a disclosure that adds another layer of dark irony to the Camondo story.

It was Jewish success in the French Republic—and in particular success within the modern world of Parisian leisure and consumer culture—that bred a fresh wave of anti-Semitism in the 19th century. For those opposed to republicanism, and to the social changes it had wrought, Jews were a convenient scapegoat for all that was rotten in the state of France. “French antisemites came to see Jews as the victors of the Revolution, the ennobled faces of a corrupt and decadent republic,” McAuley writes. The Jewish families, like the Camondos, who used the wealth reaped from the new France to stake a claim to the old, collecting antiques and artworks from France’s prerevolutionary history, only added fuel to the fire of their resentment.

“The fin de siècle was a predominantly material world,” McAuley observes, and the anti-Semitism of the period thus adopted a material cast. At its center was the conviction that Jews were pillaging French culture, a heritage to which they had no rightful claim. According to the popular journalist and writer Édouard Drumont, so virulent in his hatred of Jews that he was dubbed the “pope of antisemitism,” Jews were unscrupulous hoarders of French masterpieces, lacking in taste and unable to create anything of true beauty or value from them. Upon visiting the Rothschild manor, Château de Ferrières, he seethed that “the impression left by this house is one of fatigue, rather than admiration. It’s a mess, a train wreck, an incredible junk store.” Through such language, Drumont and his Catholic royalist allies made a “battleground” of French culture; in response, the men and women at whom he took aim doubled down on their collecting.

In the chapters that follow, McAuley examines three individuals in depth, describing how each sought, in his or her own manner, to chip away at the stereotypes erected by Drumont and his followers through their homes and possessions. For Moïse de Camondo, the solution was to beat Drumont at his own game. He built a mansion in the style of the Petit Trianon at Versailles and adorned it with treasures from the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, a period preferred by royalists for obvious reasons. Théodore Reinach, a scholar of antiquities, looked instead to ancient Greece as his point of reference, erecting an ornate Greek-style villa on the Côte d’Azur that put him at the center of an even older vision of Western civilization. Falling in love with Théodore’s villa, Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild was inspired to commission her own nearby, which she also donated to the Institut de France upon her death. A testament to her aesthetic independence as both a Jew and a divorced woman, she filled her villa with an eclectic, but meticulously chosen, set of items, from chinoiserie to Old Masters. Her primary condition for her bequeath was that the house’s interior remain exactly as she had organized it—a rebuke to all who would see the Rothschild name as synonymous with bad taste.

At the end of their lives, France willingly and gratefully took all the gifts these collectors offered. Given the battle raging over French material culture, was it wrong of their families to believe that accepting their homes and possessions was akin to accepting them and their milieu, to acknowledging them to be as French as Jewish?

Perhaps the most upsetting discovery of The House of Fragile Things is not the horror that befell its protagonists, recounted in the book’s final pages, but the realization that it need not have. As McAuley notes in his conclusion, the Holocaust was not “predestined or divinely preordained, and it was not somehow beyond the realm of human control.” The French state did indeed embrace the homes and collections of Jewish patrons, now proudly displayed as part of “French” patrimony. Though their ancestors may not have lived to see it, “their house of fragile things still stands.” To this, one might add that there were many in France who disagreed with Drumont, who spoke in defense of Dreyfus, who joined the Resistance. Vichy officials likely did have the power to stand up for the Camondos and demand the return of Little Irène. In allowing the painting to be removed, a choice was made. In sending Béatrice de Camondo to Drancy, then Auschwitz, a choice was made. With every piece of furniture looted from a Jewish home, a choice was made. We are all collectors—of things but also of decisions—and it is both of these that determine who we are.

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