As it was a sparkling morning, and I was ready to set off hours before opening, I decided to walk the length of the Grands Boulevards, turning off the trajectory of the Canal Saint-Martin at Republique and steering a direct course across the city centre. My destination, the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, was the personal collection of Edouard Andre and Nelie Jacquemart, and is housed in the magnificent townhouse that he commissioned just before his marriage, on the then newly constructed Boulevard Haussmann in 1868-75. Their taste was diverse and superb: there are one or two excellent examples of the greatest artists of each period, along with exquisite furniture and objects to compliment them.
The ante-room off the hallway exhibits a pair of Boucher Venuses, a pair of Chardin still lifes, two Canalettos and a Nattier portrait. It is odd that the former, two of the greatest names of French XIIIe painting, are so dissimilar; the pale pastel colours and frothy, flirtatious figures of Boucher in their delicate oval frames are countered by Chardin’s allegories of the arts and sciences, dark, austere, rectangular, in every aspect thoroughly sober and rational – though nonetheless of an equally contemplative beauty.
In the library, having wandered passed portraits by David and Vigee-Lebrun, were the Netherlandish painters. Van Dyck’s portrait of a judge looked down sternly, his florid face with a wisp of white beard on the cusp of disappearing into the abyss of his voluminous black robes, while Frans Hals’ ‘Portrait of a Man’ gave a glance more benign yet careworn.
Another superlative van Dyck flanked the opposite side of the fireplace, showing the tense muscled figure of Time clipping the wings of a fleshy Cupid, like a shepherd dealing with an unruly lamb.
The low lighting, rich fabric of the walls, and the atmosphere of a private intellectual sanctuary within the room strengthened the already powerful effect of a painting such as Rembrandt’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, the simple but masterful play of shadows creating a sense of awe, with the silhouetted figure of Christ so tangibly present and yet still so mysterious….
The English portraitists were, quite appropriately, hung in the smoking room – it had to be either that or somewhere devoted to tea. Besides the paraphernalia of this dedicated activity, they were surrounded by all sorts of oriental objets d’art, from mosque lamps to Moroccan marquetry side tables – apparently, during the Second Empire, it was de rigueur for smoking rooms to be decorated in an Oriental style. Representing English Portraiture were the celebrated triumvirate of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lawrence with the romantic posturing of such personalities as the ‘Count of Buckingham’ (or rather Duke – perhaps a mis-translation…).
Edouard and Nelie, however, did not confine themselves to collecting only paintings and objects of a portable nature; even the fireplaces and ceiling frescoes are works of art, mainly of Italian masters. The most prized, or at least the most breathtaking in terms of its placement, is Tiepolo’s fresco at the top of the double helix staircase in the glass-roofed Winter Garden. The fresco depicts Henri III returning from Poland to succeed to the throne of France; en route he stopped off to visit the Doge Contarini in Venice, and it was for the Villa Contarini that Tiepolo created the scene, and from whence it travelled to Paris in 1893.
This is only the start. Upstairs, beyond the mezzanine that looks down onto the Music Room, a suite of rooms celebrates the Italian Renaissance. The Sculpture Gallery eventually took over the space used by Nelie to paint, while the Florentine and Venetian Galleries, with no windows, funerary monuments, choir stalls and heavy wooden furniture became a kind of private chapel after Edouard’s death, dedicated to their shared passion for Italian art.
Of the myriad variations on the Virgin and Child displayed, no one in my opinion can challenge Botticelli; yet Bellini’s full-length version with its sun-soaked Venetian colours is perhaps more striking than the softer rose and greenish-blue of Florence.
This is only to highlight a few pieces from only half of the splendid rooms in this house. But on top of this visual feast, there was also a temporary exhibition on Eugene Boudin. Boudin has no connection at all to Edouard and Nelie as far as I am aware; however, I am glad that he has been given a exhibition to himself, as he is too often overlooked. He resides under the shadow of Monet, who regarded him as a formative influence and lifelong mentor – and indeed many of the key elements of Impressionism are clear in his work, predominantly the plein-air practise that allowed him to capture fleeting atmospheric effects in loose brushstrokes. Boudin was self-taught, and though now acknowledged by the curators as the ‘roi des ciels’ was not recognised to any great degree in his own lifetime, despite choosing to paint in the newly fashionable resorts of Deauville and Trouville where he became known for his beach scenes. Now, of course, these sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and he has his own museum in Honfleur, but that is often the fickle fate of the artist.