Sep 8, 2017

Collection Collectors: Cabrinou


To own just one Picasso, one Monet, one Modigliani is a pretty unattainable dream for most of us. So it's pretty jaw-dropping when you realize how certain people have managed to amass extensive collections of hundreds, even thousands, of some of the world's greatest works of art. Luckily for the rest of us, the French government has managed to collect several of these collectors and their collections.

The Musée Nissim de Camondo is a jewel in the 8th arrondissement that somehow doesn't make it onto most tourist maps. That's a shame, because it turns out to be one of my favorite small museums in Paris.

The museum starts with the house itself, built between 1911-1914 and modeled after Le Petit Trianon at Versailles for its owner, Moïse de Camondo, (born in Turkey in 1860, died in Paris 1935) who was a fabulously wealthy banker and fanatic of the late 18th century, King Louis XVI/Marie-Antoinette time period. When I say fanatic, I mean he basically gave up any pretense of working for the bank his family had built over several generations and instead managed his personal fortune and spent his time tracking down late 18th century art to add to his collection.


He was divorced in 1902, and upon the death of his beloved son Nissim in 1917, a WWI pilot shot down in battle, he mostly just holed up in the house, with his art for company. His daughter, Béatrice, was never interested in art, so in his will he left the entirety of his art collection and the house itself to the French government. There were a few provisos: the donation to the Louvre had to remain together, labeled with the De Comando name, for 50 years. And the house itself, decorated to the hilt with more fine art and furnishings, was to remain virtually untouched and unchanged for posterity, bearing the name of his beloved son (and the beloved father after whom he was named). The family line died out in World War II, when Béatrice and her family (the De Camondos were Jewish) were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

When I call it a "small" museum, that's only in comparison to places like the Louvre, or the d'Orsay, both of whom owe much of their collection to the De Camondo legacy.

The Nissim De Camondo museum opened in December 1936, promptly closed again for World War II (during which time I don't know where the art and furnishings were hidden, but somehow the collection managed to stay intact). The painting collection not hung in the house was donated to the Louvre at that time, and I don't think it's any coincidence that the Musée d'Orsay opened its doors to the public exactly 50 years later, in December 1986. So many of the d'Orsay's seminal and most famous pieces are the from the De Camondo collection, once the pieces at the Louvre were allowed to be split up.

This is only about a quarter of the De Camondo legacy displayed at the Musée d'Orsay, and doesn't even take into account the art on display at the Louvre, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée Guimet, Musée de l'Histoire de France, Musée National de la Marine, Jeu de Paume, and in the De Camondo mansion itself. It's like a Who's Who of famous impressionists and of impressionist paintings you know:

By coincidence, just the day after visiting Nissim de Camondo, we visit the Musée d'Orsay and are amazed at just how much of what covers the wall originally came from his collection.
Marlene and Spencer Hayes, currently alive and well-off in Texas, are bequeathing 600 pieces of art valued at about $350 million, including Degas, Modigliani, and Rodin, to the Musée d'Orsay. Much of the collection is late impressionist Nabis period French works, including Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Maillol, Ranson, and Vuillard. It's called the largest donation of paintings to the French government since 1945 and the end of the Second World War. Again, this is probably not a coincidence. I assume some foreigner or foreign entity re-patriated many works of French art at the end of the war.

187 pieces, worth about $175 million have already been donated and the rest will be upon their deaths. Again, there is a proviso: all the works must be kept together. The d'Orsay is happy to cooperate, but for a collection of this size, that's no simple task: the museum will move its library and some office facilities to make way for the expansion of the collection.

The 80 year olds are, besides obvious art lovers and Francophiles, self-made and seriously cool. Spencer told a reporter at the Telegraph, "Every night, before I go to bed, I spend at least 45 minutes to an hour plus walking around looking at every painting. Because that's what's so wonderful about the Nabis (a group of artists) -- you can always discover something else." I love how much he appreciates the art.

He's a Bernie Sanders kind of millionaire and has told his employees that they will inherit the company (through shares) upon his death rather than hand it down to his wife or children. The man still flies economy class, for heaven's sake.


We cannot speak of large, private art collections without mentioning the Château of Chantilly (officially the Musée Condé) -- not just an enormous castle, just outside of Paris, it's also the second largest collection of art in France, after the Louvre. But what's even more amazing is that everything here is from just one single collector in one lifetime, as opposed to the Louvre which is mined from many collectors over the centuries.

Henri Duc d'Aumale (1822-1897), the 5th son of Queen Marie-Amelie & King Louis-Philippe (the last king of the French, from 1830-1848) inherited this castle, built on the site of several previous incarnations starting in the 11th century. Not only did he leave the castle to the French government but also the other buildings on the estate (horse stables and more); and the grounds themselves, designed by Le Nôtre, who called this his favorite garden in France, even over one of his other little creations -- the gardens at Versailles.


The quaint "peasant" village on the castle grounds served as inspiration for Marie-Antoinettes hamlet on the grounds of Versailles.

The castle once belonged to Louis II de Bourbon-Condé, called the "Grand Condé" , who most famous for being embroiled in the Fronde, the unsuccessful attempt to take power from his cousin, the young King Louis XIV.


Not surprisingly, the castle was used as a prison and generally invaded, ransacked, and damaged during the French revolution. In 1830, when the 9th and last Condé prince died, his nephew and godson, Henri Duc d'Aumale, the son of King Louis-Philippe I, inherited the entire kit and caboodle. Upon the fall of his father's monarchy, Henri went into exile in England from 1848-1870, where he spent much of his time collecting valuable books, painting, drawings, and objets d'art. It's literally a collection of collections, and he bequeathed it all to the French state, too.


The scope of the collections is pretty breathtaking, including less-obvious collections of things like lace, porcelain service, and even the hearts of the Condé princes, (yes, their actual hearts, from their dead bodies) in urns in the little round chapel shown below.

The Duc d'Aumale returned to France from exile in 1871 and rebuilt his castle from 1876-1882. He had nobody to leave it all to, since his only son, the Duke d'Enghien, was shot and killed in the trenches of Vincennes under Napoleon Bonaparte. He too had spent a lifetime using his wealth to admire, appreciate, and acquire art, and with no heir, he wrote in his will of 1884 that the estate and the art would be turned over to France, making a similar caveat that it should remain decorated and the art works displayed just as they were upon his death, in 1897. It remains that way to this day: when you walk through, you're seeing how he lived (quite extravagantly) on the last day of his life.

THE CHEESE: Cabrinou

Cabrinou is not just one cheese; it's a collection of little farmhouse raw goats' milk cheeses that serve like blank canvases to a wide variety of colorful crusts.

It comes coated in fines herbes, Provencale, "garden herbs" (onion, garlic, shallot, chives, parsley, celery seed), cumin, black pepper, and something called "salempa" for which I can find no translation (and no other examples of the word's existence, other than this particular farm's promotional materials), ashed, honey-nut coated, fresh and aged.

Cabrinou is made at the Ferme de Falgayroles in the village of Monteils, in the department of Aveyron, in the region of Occitanie. Cabrinou follows local monastic -- and now also secular -- traditions for the raising of goats and fabrication of the cheese.

You would expect this to be a rock hard, dry nugget of cheese, but you would be wrong. When you break into the crust of a nicely aged version, it's actually oozy and wet. A younger version would be creamy. I taste the pepper-coated version, and, like the label on the cheese in the store says, it's an explosive taste. Amazingly, the taste of the cheese shines through all this pepper, which gives a wonderful kick in the pants without blowing off the roof. The character of the cheese itself is goaty, farmy, and lovely, a real treasure of a cheese.


Besides the nice little alliteration between Collecting Collectors and Cabrinou, there's also a connection between the collection of Cabrinous -- which like works of art are multi-colored and varied -- and the collections collected by collectors and then collected by the ultimate collection collector, the state of France. To end on, here's a picture of a Cabrinou that looks very much like an impressionist painting. But this Cabrinou will not end up in the Louvre or the d'Orsay. It will end up in my stomach.


  1. The Camondo is one of my favorites! Love this article, great job!

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