I’ve been told that this story is confusing. If you need to get a pencil and paper please do so now.
An inexpensive copy of this painting used to hang in my parent’s living room in Peoria, Illinois, when I was growing up. The original, titled “Mademoiselle Irène Cahen d’Anvers”, was painted in 1880 by the famous Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir after he received a commission from the Cahen d’Anvers family of Paris. Irène was then 11 years old. When the work was completed, the family told Renoir that they did not like the painting and offered only 1500 francs, far less than the painter’s normal fee, to purchase both this painting and another showing Irène’s two younger sisters.
Our story begins last weekend, when we were on a Paris-Walks Tour showing Paris of the Impressionists. The tour focused on Parc Monceau and the nearby neighborhood l’Europe. Our guide displayed the picture while talking about two large houses in the neighborhood and how the son of one of the owners had rejected joining the family business so he could study art. That son later became a collector of art and financial backer of the Impressionists. The story of the Impressionists in this part of Paris we’ll save for another time, but that painting – it was in my parent’s living room – who was that person again?
In 1868, a Sephardic Jewish banking family from Constantinople moved to Paris. Two brothers, Behor Abraham Camondo and Nissim Camondo, purchased and built houses on side-by-side lots adjoining what is today the beautiful Park Monceau. Behor died and passed his home to his son Isaac. Isaac was the son who decided to study art. Nissim died and passed his home to his son Möise. Möise later (in 1912) rebuilds the other property into a masterpiece of 18th century French art and furniture. However, long before that, in 1891 he married Iréne Cahen D’Anvers (the woman in the painting), and they had two children, Nissim and Béatrice. They were married just 5 years before separating and later divorcing, and when they separated, the children remained with their father Möise. In 1896 Irène (the woman in the painting) converted to Catholicism and ran off with the Camondo’s stable man, Count Charles Sampieri. The painting of Iréne was given back to Iréne’s mother as part of the divorce settlement, and in 1910 she gave the portrait to Iréne’s daughter Béatrice.
World War I began in 1914, and late in the war tragedy struck when in 1917 Nissim (Möise’s son) was killed in aerial combat in Lorraine. This was a great blow to his father Möise, who from that point withdrew from public life. In 1918 his daughter Béatrice married Léon Reinach and had two children, Fanny and Bertrand. They purchased their own home, so Möise was then alone in his large mansion. Moïse died in 1935, with his fortune largely going to his daughter Béatrice. His mansion and art collection were donated to the City of Paris to establish Musee Nissim de Camondo to honor his deceased son Nissim.
In 1940 the Germans invaded and occupied France. Prior to that time Béatrice had divorced Léon and converted to Catholicism. She was very wealthy and well connected socially, and thinking she was safe from the Nazi’s harassment of Jews, she ignored Léon’s warning to take the children out of the country. In 1943 they were all arrested – Béatrice, Léon and their children and were sent to an internment camp and then to Auschwitz, where they were all killed. Béatrice’s estranged mother Irène (the woman in the painting), now separated from Charles the former stable man, was able to save herself from arrest by hiding behind her former husband’s Italian last name and religion.
The Renoir painting was confiscated from Béatrice in 1941 by the Germans and became the property of General Hermann Göring in Paris. He sold it to an art dealer representing Emil Bürhle, a Swiss collector and head of an arms manufacturing business. In 1946 Irène saw the painting of herself on display at an exhibition of Paris art, and she applied for and eventually succeeded in having it returned to her custody. In 1949 she sold the painting through a gallery, and the purchaser was Emil Georg Bürhle, the same person who bought it previously. The painting remains today in the Bürhle Foundation Museum in Zurich.
According to several sources, Irène was the sole heir to daughter Béatrice’s fortune from the former de Camondo estate. Sources say that she gambled away or otherwise spent the money made on that portrait and the entire Camondo fortune in casinos in southern France during the many years before 1963, when she died in Paris at age 91.
I sent a post card of the painting to my 91 year old mother with a note telling the story of Irène, her family, and the picture that was in our living room.