Tag Archives: Musee Jacquemart-Andre

Nelie’s Chateau

Most of us can only dream of owning a chateau. Nelie Jacquemart-Andre was able to hang her hat in a chateau, late in life. When Edouard Andre died in 1894 and left Nelie Jacquemart-Andre a widow, she faithfully continued to fill out his collections. In 1902, Nelie was traveling in the Orient, scouting for antiquities, when she received word that a chateau just outside Paris was for sale. She dropped everything and rushed back to France.


This was not just any chateau. It was the Abbaye Royale de Chaalis, and she had spent a good part of her childhood and young adulthood there. The guidebook above, new since the last time I visited, gave details about Nelie’s life that I had always wondered about. It turns out Nelie was not universally admired. The Comptesse Jean de Pange is quoted in the guidebook as saying that aristocrats used to mock the “plump, impulsive and very idiosyncratic little woman” who swept in and bought herself a fabulously historic chateau.  (I sympathize with Nelie. Rich people always manage to annoy somebody).

Nelie was a talented painter even as a child, and she was taken on as a sort of protege of the chateau owners at the time, particularly Rose Pamela Vatry.  Nelie was given art instruction, a studio was built for her, and she attended soirees packed with the aristocracy, illustrious artists, musicians and writers, and even with royalty.  The young woman had a particular flair for portraits, and she obtained many commissions.  One of these commissions, to paint the rich young banker Edouard Andre, eventually led to her brilliant marriage.

But Nelie was always a bit of a handful.  Her patroness complained that she never even used her painting studio, she only appeared at dinner when the company was glittering enough, and she seemed more interested in social climbing than in painting.

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The Chaalis estate had begun as an abbey in the Middle Ages. It gained great wealth and power due to royal patronage and extensive rich lands. In the years 1255-1260, an exquisite small chapel was built, during the reign of St. Louis, the king who became a full-fledged saint.  He used to retreat to the abbey and live for awhile as a monk when he needed a break from ruling France. That chapel has been restored and is the best part of the chateau estate.



In the 1700s, the medieval buildings occupied by the religious order were rebuilt, and a little later the monks departed.  Their cells in the main building became guest rooms for a succession of owners who set about making the “abbey” into a “chateau.”



By this time, the enormous main church had become a picturesque ruin, and so it remains.

When the entire estate went up for sale in 1902, Nelie snapped it up at a bargain price.  I gather that she felt she had been treated as a sort of poor relation;  this was payback.  She set about installing her own magnificent collections, especially of antiquities.  She also, according to the guidebook, hoped to marry a neighbor at nearby Chantilly, the Prince de Broglie.  That never happened.

On her death, Nelie left both her Parisian mansion and her country chateau to the Institut de France, and both were immediately opened to the public as museums.

The Abbaye Royale de Chaalis is close to CDG Airport, making it an easy stop for drivers.  It’s near the pretty and walkable town of Senlis, with its own historic sights.  Chaalis is covered by the Paris Museum Pass, unlike the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. Indoor photos are restricted.  But the new guidebook is a great read. If anyone other than Nelie Jacquemart-Andre had bought the property, it would probably be a golf club with condos today.  Instead, it’s a permanent treasury of art and history, open to all.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

An Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun Portrait of A Polish Countess: “Pretty as an Angel, But Most Stupid”


The artist had a low opinion of her subject; hopefully she kept her thoughts to herself and concentrated on her painting. Nelie Jacquemart-Andre must have liked this portrait a lot; she hung it in her boudoir, now a room in the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, close to her luxurious bathtub (Nelie loved soaking in the tub). The subject is the Countess Skavronskaia, wife of the Polish Ambassador to Italy.  The artist is Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun, who gained fame and fortune as the official painter for Marie Antoinette and her gilded circle of friends. The artist fortunately left France just before the French Revolution.  Her reputation and talent led her through the courts of Europe.

During her stay in Naples in 1790, Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun painted this young countess.  The artist remarked in her journal, “The Countess was as mild and pretty as an angel,” but “she had no education, and her conversation was most stupid.”  Still, the artist, like everyone else, fell under the irresistible charm of this sweet young woman.  That charm shines through the portrait. Her lovely face is an island of warmth in the painting, all cool blues and greens. Is that a mirror in her hand? The artist must have allowed herself this small comment on her subject. Today’s equivalent might be a supermodel with no thought other than her own beauty. But sheer niceness always counts for something.

There’s a better image of the Countess on the website of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre at http://musee-jacquemart-andre.com/en/collections/portrait-countess-skavronskaia.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

The Golden Age is Now

"Rouen Cathedral," Claude Monet, 1894, Public Domain

“Rouen Cathedral,” Claude Monet, 1894, Public Domain

Nelie and Edouard Jacquemart-Andre only pursued art from the 18th century and earlier. Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, and Morisot were all active in the 1890s and later.  Presumably Nelie and Edouard agreed with the conventional wisdom that the Impressionists were a flash in the pan, destined for the dustbins.

On the other hand, Nelie and Eduoard bought for the future; they always intended their home to end up as an art museum.  And each had a keen eye for a bargain. They could have picked up Impressionist pieces for a song, and at least stored them away in a closet in case they ever amounted to anything.

Today, arcoss the Seine at the Musee d’Orsay, people shuffle through packed galleries and stand shoulder to shoulder to gaze at priceless Impressionist paintings.  The Musee Jacquemart-Andre is never crowded; most tourists never set foot in it. Nelie and Edouard had impeccable taste for the treasures of the past, but they must have closed their minds to the artistic innovations going on right under their noses.


The glorious Tiepolo fresco “Henri III Being Welcomed to the Contarini Villa” was commissioned by Contarinis 200 years after the historical event, to commemorate one of the proudest and happiest events in their family’s history.


When Nelie and Edouard installed the Tiepolo fresco 200 years later in their Winter Garden, they were also gazing backward into a golden time they might have preferred to their own time.


The tourist wandering the Musee Jacquemart-Andre today is gazing backward through the Parisian Belle Epoque of the 1890s, at a fresco painted in 1745 to depict a historical event from 1574. Much as I love history, I do try to live in the moment. What am I overlooking in my own contemporary world?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Nelie and Edouard’s 100th


The year 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre on the Boulevard Haussman in Paris.  Nelie and Edouard had built the palatial mansion and stuffed it with priceless art with this very purpose in mind, once their glittering lives of art collecting and high-toned socializing were over.


What they achieved was an exquisite melding of architecture, decorative arts and fine arts. The museum is not covered by the Paris Museum Pass, and most tourists pass it up in favor of the ever-crowded Louvre and Orsay Museums. It’s well worth the price of admission, though.  The audioguide is lively; music ushers the visitor into each of the grand state rooms as though a party were just beginning. In fact, there is a musicians’ gallery where Nelie and Andre used to station a small orchestra when they entertained. The rooms have been left just as they were when Nelie died in 1912.


Nelie herself created a very distinguished bronze bust of Edouard in 1890 (if I’m reading the caption correctly). She certainly had every reason to honor Edouard. Her life changed the minute she landed the extremely rich bachelor. One day she was a struggling painter, trying to get society portrait commissions; the next she was traveling the world with a handsome, dashing gazillionaire.  By all reports, she made him very happy. After Edouard’s death in 1894, she continued to build their collections. When Nelie died in 1912, she left their mansion–and her own country chateau, also stuffed with art–to the Institut de France. Both Nelie and Edouard lived out their lives in the glamorous bubble their wealth created.  They never had to deal with the terrible events of the Great War, or with the wrenching changes that war brought to their world.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!



Tiepolo for Two at Jacquemart-Andre


When Nelie and Edouard Jacquemart-Andre were planning their Paris mansion, they visited Venice in 1893. They were delighted to snap up a fresco by Giambattista Tiepolo. In fact they felt that it was just sitting there waiting for them, and  to this day it remains the crown jewel of all their art collecting.  The fresco had been painted for the Villa Contarini around 1745, when the great artist was at the height of his powers. The title is “Henri III Being Welcomed to the Contarini Villa.”  It depicts an event that actually happened in French history:  in 1574, the very young King Henri III, who was of Italian descent through his mother, Catherine de Medicis, stopped on his way to Paris to claim the throne. He was the fourth in line and had not been expected to reign.  His brother,  24-year-old Charles IX, had died unexpectedly.

I don’t know why the fresco (and a companion ceiling, which the Jacquemart-Andres also bought) were up for sale.  Presumably the noble Venetian family that had commissioned them had fallen on hard times.  In any case, the French “Gazette des Beaux-Arts” rhadsodized about the fitness of this exquisite fresco for a grand French home:  “No other Tiepolo can be closer to our heart; one would say it was made for us. The last great Venetian painter and a part of the history of France: is it not the most beautiful blend of Venetian and French?”


The colors are clear and delicate; the figures are arranged in a grand tableau that is also entirely natural. The king and his retinue of guards and ladies, dwarves and servants are climbing the stairs of the villa, ready to greet the Contarinis.


Faces look calm and dignified, as though greeting a king were an everyday occurence.


Just across the canal are beautiful palaces and gardens.


The occasion is grand, but gracious and informal. There’s even a little dog making the king feel welcome.


An attendant’s foot extends out of the outline of the painting.  No problem!  After all, Nelie and Edouard built an entire Belle Epoque mansion around this fresco. They just made a place in the marble frame for the errant foot.

There’s much more about the fresco, and about the mansion, at museejacquemart-andre.com.  Vive la France!

Nelie and Edouard

Edouard Andre was a scion of a fabulously wealthy Protestant banking family. A measure of the family’s wealth and prestige is that he had his portrait painted by Franz Zavier Winterhalter, who routinely painted royal and imperial subjects all over Europe.

Portrait of Edouard Andre, Winterhalter, Public Domain

Portrait of Edouard Andre, Winterhalter, Public Domain

For some reason, Edouard also chose to have his portrait painted by an up-and-coming society painter, the young Nelie Jacquemart.


The resulting portrait was nondescript.  It hangs in their Belle Epoque mansion, now the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, but relegated to the back of a room display. Andre was one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe at the time.  What went on between Nelie and Andre? Nothing seemed to happen other than the production of an OK portrait, but ten years later they were married. She was 40; he was 48. They shared a passion for collecting art, and they had so much money to spend on art that they decided to work cooperatively with the Louvre so as not to outbid the great museum during sales and auctions.

Nelie gave up her career as a painter and concentrated on taking care of Andre–and spending his money. He designed a beautiful studio for her in their Paris mansion, but it became a gallery for art instead. She left her brushes and tubes of paint behind as soon as she was married.

Self Portrait of Nelie Jacquemart, Public Domain

Self Portrait of Nelie Jacquemart, Public Domain

Their marriage seems to have been very happy.  They hosted glittering society parties in their fabulous mansion of Boulevard Haussman. They traveled at least yearly to Italy to add to their collections. They lived in luxurious rooms replete with satins, marble, and fine woods.


What was not to like? I could get used to life in a Belle Epoque mansion!


Musee Jacquemart-Andre: The Belle Epoque Lives

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A Belle Epoque mansion, open to the public, still exists in Paris:  the Jacquemart-Andre Museum. The wealthy banker Edouard Andre built it with and for his wife, Nelie Jacquemart.  Work began in 1869 and was completed in 1875.  The mansion on the Boulevard Haussman was a glittering social hub which contained the couple’s fantastic art collection in purpose-built rooms. It became a museum in 1913, after the widowed Nelie bequeathed it to the Institut de France.


My favorite room in all of Paris (at least the part of Paris that is open to a lowly tourist) is the Winter Garden, replete with marble, plants, and a skylight to brighten dreary Paris winter days.


The double-helix marble staircase in the Winter Garden is a marvel of engineering and architecture. And the visitor climbing up is treated to a Tiepolo fresco at the top. Nelie and Andre snapped up the fresco during one of their many art-foraging trips to Italy.  (A fresco is not just a painting on a wall; the pigment is actually embedded in the plaster, so moving it requires carefully dismantling the entire wall.  With the Andre banking fortune, this was no problem at all for Edouard)



Join me next time!   I’ll be posting more about Jacquemart-Andre, one of the most beautiful and fascinating sights in Paris.