The House of Fragile Things by James McAuley

Reviewed by Harriet

‘Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France’: it was this subtitle that pulled me in, and I requested the book knowing almost nothing of what it would contain. I think I’d imagined it would be about the art that was seized by the Nazis in WW2. But interesting as this would no doubt have been, The House of Fragile Things is far less about the art than about the families who collected it, and of course, as the subtitle indicates, what their eventual fate was. It’s a story which is fascinating but also deeply distressing, and one of those non-fiction books which is as hard to put down as an exciting novel. 

The art collectors in question are members of those fabulously rich Jewish families – bankers and traders – who made their homes in France. You’ve probably heard some of their names: Rothschild, of course, also de Camondo, Cahen d’Anvers, Ephrussi and Reinach. Some of these, when they first arrived in France in the late nineteenth century, held tight to their religion and traditions. But by the fin de siècle, they had completely assimilated (or so they believed). Some converted to Christianity, and they mingled in French society, notably befriending Proust and having portraits painted by Renoir. So, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when collecting became a mania among the wealthy – both Jewish and non-Jewish – it’s hardly surprising that these families participated with enthusiasm. What is more surprising and dispiriting is the wave of anti-semitism that was unleashed as a result. The extracts from contemporary newspapers and essays are painful to read today.

Typical of the way in which these collectors displayed their exquisite possessions is the rebuilt mansion created by Moïse Camondo, who so admired eighteenth-century art and artefacts that he made the house into a near replica of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. After the death in WW1 of his son Nissam, Moïse gifted it to the nation as a memorial to his son, whose name the museum still bears. Then there’s Theodor Reinbach’s ancient Greek replica Villa Kérylos, on the Cote d’Azur, and Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild’s nearby Venetian-style villa, both filled with priceless objects. But none of this cut any ice with the many anti-semitic members of the French intelligentsia, who were outraged that these foreigners were collecting valuable examples of French patrimony, and displaying them in what they considered to be tasteless proximity.

The Salon des Huet, Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, 2014.

Converting to Catholicism or Protestantism, and gifting your precious collections to the state, might seem to be ways of deflecting anti-semitic hatred. How far this was from the truth became clear when, in 1940, the German army crushed Allied resistance and conquered France. The collaborationist Vichy regime of Pétain and his supporters rapidly enacted so-called Jewish Laws, banning Jews from public office, academia, the arts and the professions. In late 1941, Jews were presented as parasites set to corrupt and destroy France in a popular Paris exhibition. But few of the prominent Jewish families believed all this applied to them. Those who had converted were sure  that this would save them – as Béatrice Reinarch wrote to a friend in 1942, ‘I am certain that I am miraculously protected…. Will I have the years necessary to thank God and the Virgin enough for their protection?’. But she, and many of her contemporaries were wrong. Among the 76,000 Jews deported were Béatrice, her husband, their daughter Fanny and son Bernard, her aunt Élisabeth, and their cousin Julien, who was the only one not to meet his death in the Holocaust, though his health never recovered. As McAuley writes:

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.

This, then, is an enlightening and deeply moving book. Paris Correspondent of the Washington Post, and holder of an Oxford doctorate in French History (where his research towards this book began). James McAuley writes from the heart, and from what he calls an American Jewish perspective. His interest actually began during a visit to the Musée Nissam de Camodo in Paris, where a small plaque is displayed revealing the murders of the founder’s daughter Béatrice and her family in Auschwitz. It’s somewhat encouraging to learn that, after decades of pressure, the French government has acknowledged and apologised for the dark events of the 1940s. President Chirac specifically apologised for Vichy collaboration in 1995, and black plaques have been put on the facades of every school in Paris from which Jewish children were deported, reminding passers by that they died ‘parce que juifs’ – because Jewish rather than ‘died for France’. This is how McAuley describes the lived experience of the families he writes of here:

The collections they left behind are testimonies to the specific people they were, but also to the proud identity this milieu sought to build – Jewish and French, particular and universal. Granted, in the commodified fin de siècle, Jews were far from the only elites who embraced collecting as a bourgeois sport and pastime, and nor were they particularly unique in the items they sought. But for them, collecting bore special significance. As numerous archival materials show, in the wake of various personal tragedies and in the midst of a vocal antisemitism that reached fever pitch during the Dreyfus Affair, the objects they arranged and the homes they designed provided a profound sense of solace and sanctuary. In the private spaces they created, they had total control and absolute authority, a security they never enjoyed in the outside world.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

James McAuley, The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021). 978-0300233377, 288pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. Sounds very powerful, Harriet. It’s easy to be judgemental, and we shouldn’t because we don’t know how we would behave in any given situation, but I find it hard to accept the behaviour of the French Government during the war – still very shocking…

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