Forever Adding to the Body of Knowledge
Bellini isn’t just a tipple, y’know. An exhibition in the museum’s modern gallery on the artist Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430 to 1516) of depictions of Christ resonates with meaning on Good Friday. White faced depictions of the olive skinned Nazarene. Sainte Justine Borromée painted in around 1475, a dagger forever thrust through her heart. A cobblestoned carriageway leads from Boulevard Haussmann up and round to the entrance portico which overlooks the most private of urban gardens. Soon you are in another world of glamour and sophistication and mirrored brilliance. Even by Parisian standards, Musée Jacquemart-André is astonishingly beautiful. And it unarguably has the best porphyry columned staircase in the French capital. Or at least the most aristocratically idiosyncratic.
We’re connoisseurs of mad staircases. Mourne Park in Kilkeel, County Down: parallel flights of fancy leading each and every way, overlooked by 13 Persian cats. Lissan House in Cookstown, County Tyrone, with its estate carpenter-built stairs ascending and descending in all directions, getting in trouble for calling it “eccentric” (then owner Hazel Dolling took it as a slight about her). Musée Jacquemart-André is a new well deserved entrant into our genre. An intricate three dimensional jigsaw of galleries and suspended catwalks is visually doubled by a mirrored wall.
Museum Chairman Bruno Monnier explains, “We want visitors to feel like the honoured guests of the two art lovers that were the spouses Édouard André and Nélie Jacquemart. That is why we have done all we can to preserve the original atmosphere of this sumptuous 19th century mansion. Works from the Italian Renaissance, French painting from the 18th century, 17th century Flemish painting and an array of furniture all bear witness to the refined taste of the two founders.”
Édouard André (1833 to 1894) was the scion of a rich Protestant banking family from Nîmes. The Banque André was powerful in the economy of the Second Empire and Édouard moved in the circle of Napoléon III. A short lived political career ended with the abdication of Napoléon III and the fall of the Second Empire. In 1872 he chose to devote the remainder of his life to his true vocation, that of collector and patron of the arts. Édouard’s wife, Nélie Jacquemart (1841 to 1912), was a society painter.
In 1868 Édouard bought a plot of land along the future Boulevard Haussmann. Henri Parent (1819 to 1895), architect par excellence d’hôtels particulier, resurrected the Louis XVI style for his gleaming masterwork. Édouard and British collector Richard Wallace were both members of the Union Centrale des Arts Appliqués à l’Industrie. Richard opened his house museum in London, The Wallace Collection, in 1900. Musée Jacquemart-André would open 13 years later as bequeathed by the widow Nélie in accordance with her late husband’s wishes. Both cultural attractions still brim with the personalities of their founders.
Henri brought the best craftsmen and Nélie managed the designers, contractors and suppliers. The married pair of patrons holidayed in Italy every year, bringing back trinkets and souvenirs, not least the Staircase Hall frescoes from a villa in the Veneto. The Staircase Hall flows into a Winter Garden – the latter was all the rage in the late 19th century following the invention of central heating. It was Nélie’s idea to transform the empty rooms of the first floor into an Italian museum. The pieces are like a roll call of la crème de la crème artists down the ages and across the borders: Sandro Botticelli, Giovanni Canaletto, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds … The ‘salons de style’ filling the ground floor are made for entertaining. The double height Music Room allows for a musicians’ gallery. In contrast, the Private Apartments, bedroom suites for Édouard and Nélie, are discreetly located facing away from Boulevard Haussmann.
A Protestant people’s palace. So handy too. Musée Jacquemart-André is just five minutes from Gare du Nord (on the back of a motorbike). It’s time to sip a Bellini in the garden.