Parc Monceau, at the northern edge of the 8th Arr., was established in the late 18th century by Phillippe d’Orléans, the Duke of Chartres and cousin to King Louis XVI, as a private garden. The park is a favorite of ours and as part of research for an upcoming post on the book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, we visit this park and two museums located at its borders.
In 1779, toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the Duke of Chartres opened the Parc Monceau, an extravagant pleasure garden. At that time, the park appeared to be a hodgepodge of fantasy focused on various cultures. Among its original installations were a Roman colonnade with a pond, a miniature Egyptian pyramid, a Dutch windmill, a temple of Mars, an Italian vineyard, and other statuary. At its opening, the garden featured exotic animals and servants in flamboyant dress. It was pure fantasy designed to surprise all those who entered.
The park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860, and was part of the grand transformation of Paris created by Baron Haussmann. Exotic trees and flowers were planted, enhancing its beauty. Walkways were widened and paved to accommodate carriages and additional walking paths were added.
The park became a favorite among Parisians, including writers and painters. In the spring of 1871, with the Parc Monceau as inspiration, Claude Monet created a series of three paintings, with two additional ones painted in 1878.
We arrive at the park, now considered one of the most elegant gardens in Paris, on a very warm autumn day. We pass through the wrought iron gates embellished with gold located on either side of the rotunda.
The grounds are beautiful with the sunlight illuminating the English-style gardens. Most of the benches located along the walking paths are occupied by Parisians eating lunch, reading or chatting with companions.
Scattered throughout the grounds, you’ll find a number of statues of writers and musicians that have been added over the years.
The park is known for its spectacular collection of trees, including a sycamore maple, dating from 1853, with beautifully twisted branches that reach 30 meters in height. Because of the variety and height of the trees, as well as the pond with its large carp and smaller goldfish populations, a great diversity of birds can be found at the Parc Monceau.
As we meander through the park, we find the great lawn populated with luxuriating Parisians relishing the greens and golds of this sunny mid-October day.
Surrounding the gardens of Parc Monceau are lavish mansions built in the 19th century. The homes seem unaffected by time and the neighborhood is quiet and comfortable. The grand structures are elegant yet unassuming and speak of the wealth and sophistication of that era.
Many financiers and bankers lived on the rue de Monceau, which included the palace of Adolphe de Rothschild at #43 with its glass roofed exhibition room that housed his Renaissance art collection. Two mansions adjacent to the park are now museums, including the Camondo family home at #63, and the Cernuschi mansion on avenue Velasquez.
Musée Nissim de Camondo
The Musée Nissim de Camondo opened in 1935 and presents Moïse de Camondo’s spectacular collection of French decorative arts from the late 18th century.
We enter this museum through its beautiful courtyard. In 1911, Moïse had his father’s house razed and construction was begun on his new home, designed in the style of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Moïse and his children, Nissim and Béatrice, moved into their mansion in 1913; the ‘perfect 18th century setting’ for his collections.
There are three floors accessible by visitors with a restaurant on one side of the courtyard. It’s late in the afternoon and so we go directly into the museum.
The lower ground floor houses the kitchen, scullery, chef’s office and the servants’ dining room.
We’ve come to see the furnishings of the main house and begin our tour on the upper ground floor. We have access to six rooms including the dining room, two studies, the porcelain room and the pantry. We’re particularly interested in the furnishings contained in the two drawing rooms — the great room that opens onto the garden and the smaller oval salon with its series of pastoral scenes painted by Jean-Baptiste Huet.
We imagine what it must have been like during that time period as we walk through these rooms. The Louis XVI-style furniture in the great drawing room comprises a chest of drawers by Jean-Henri Riesener (Marie-Antoinette’s preferred cabinetmaker), a ladies’ writing desk, a suite of seats upholstered in Aubusson tapestry, and a pair of cabinets with Japanese lacquer panels by Adam Weisweller, whose work was often sold to the French court. The Savonnerie carpet in this room was produced in 1678 for the Grande Galerie at the Louvre.
In the smaller salon, we find additional Louis XVI-style furniture as well as a folding screen from the games room at Versailles by master cabinetmaker Jean-Baptiste Boulard.
On the first floor, we find the two apartments of Moïse and Nissim, plus a drawing room, the library and the bathrooms.
The blue drawing room was once Béatrice’s apartments. After she and her family moved out in 1923, Moïse turned the space into a large, light-filled room to be used as a drawing room and study. The wood paneling was originally painted a peacock blue and so the room was called the “Salon Bleu.” Due to age, the paneling now appears to be a shade of green, but the room is beautiful and elegant and includes a series of paintings of Paris, along with eight watercolors from the 1880s by Johan Barthold Jongkind.
Of course, the library is my favorite with its wonderful view of the Parc Monceau and its carved wood paneling housing the books collected by the family. The room is rotunda-shaped and located in the center of the private apartments.
Moïse’s bedroom contains several pieces dating from the mid-1700s, including the bed and another Savonnerie carpet, which was originally in the chapel at Versailles. There are a number of stamped pieces including a marquetry chest of drawers by Matthieu-Guillaume Cramer and a folding screen by Louis Falconnet.
Nissim’s apartment has not been kept as it was, with some of the furnishings moved to the blue drawing room; however, the bed and other historical objects speak to a time when Nissim resided here.
The furniture throughout this beautiful home turned museum has been crafted by artisans who worked for the king and other wealthy clients.
A bit of history about the Camondo family
Shortly after the Camondo’s moved into their new mansion on rue de Monceau, Nissim joined the French Army. It was 1914 and the beginning of the First World War. He transferred to the air force in 1916, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and subsequently became a pilot. On September 5, 1917, Nissim’s plane was shot down during aerial combat near Emberménil in Lorraine.
Moïse’s daughter, Béatrice and her husband Léon Reinach, had two children, Fanny and Bertrand. When the Second World War broke out, the family continued their lives as usual. In 1942, Béatrice, Léon and their children were arrested and interned in Drancy. Léon, Fanny and Bertrand were deported to Auschwitz in November 1943. Béatrice was deported in March 1944. None of them survived.
As for Moïse, he never quite recovered from his son’s tragic death. He closed down the family’s bank and his life was never the same. Rare visitors were either close friends or scholars. His home and collections were bequeathed to the French state in Nissim’s memory upon Moïse’s death in 1935.
Located at 7 avenue Velasquez at the east entrance to the Parc Monceau, you’ll find the Musée Cernuschi, or Museum of the Asian arts of Paris.
Henri Cernuschi was an Italian patriot and one of three heroes who liberated Milan from Austrian occupation in 1848. He fled to Paris after the fall of the Roman Republic and eventually built his reputation as an economist. From 1871 to 1873, Henri and his friend, Théodore Duret, a young art critic, traveled to Japan and China where he acquired a collection of about 5,000 works of art.
Upon his return to Paris, Henri built his home on the Parc Monceau, a private neoclassical-style mansion where you can see mosaic medallions of Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci on its façade.
Upon entering the museum, one is immediately taken with its high ceilings and windows that look out onto the park. A great bronze Buddha, acquired in Japan, dominates the room.
As you move through the space, you’re able to follow Henri and Théodore’s journey through China and Japan from the plaques arranged on the friezes at ceiling level.
By the time Henri returned in 1873, Japan had opened up in Paris and it was the height of what was called ‘Japonisme.’ The wealthy of Paris, along with writers and painters — in particular the Impressionists — couldn’t get enough of Japanese art. In an article in the Gazette des beaux-arts in 1878, a writer wrote:
“One kept oneself informed about new cargoes. Old ivories, enamels, faience and porcelain, bronzes, lacquer, wooden sculptures … [they] simply arrived at a merchant’s shop and immediately left for the artists’ studios or writers’ studies.”
This passion for Asian art made Henri’s mansion a center of activity from 1876 to 1896.
Since its opening in 1898, the museum has acquired additional objects including archaeological pieces discovered in the mid-20th century in China and Vietnam. Throughout the years, the museum has hosted major exhibitions of works from China and enjoys close associations with Asian artists active in Paris.
There are currently about 12,500 art and archaeology objects in the collection with about 900 on permanent exhibit in the museum. The collection includes pottery, jade, ivory, bronzes and statues. A collection of contemporary paintings and photographs can also be viewed.
Henri bequeathed his mansion and Asian collections to the City of Paris in 1896.
These fascinating museums, along with a stroll through Parc Monceau, are perfect for a beautiful, sunny October day.