In a city of magnificent museums, the often-overlooked Musée Jacquemart-André is a real treat, particularly for those with a romantic heart…
Paris as we know it today, was built during the era of the Second Empire in the mid-to-late 1800s. Under the direction of Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew), the prefect Baron Haussman embarked on a massive regeneration of Paris. All the old twisty, overcrowded and unhealthy city-centre streets were demolished and in their place, the grandiose long boulevards and public parks that we associate with the French capital were built.
It was a time of possibility, prosperity and modernity for France as the romantic Paris that we know today began to take shape. On the smart wide boulevard named after Baron Haussman (the Boulevard Haussman), many fine townhouses belonging to Paris’ elite sprang up. One of them was owned by super-wealthy banker Édouard André. The young André had a keen interest in art and a spark of romance was lit when he sat for a portrait artist of humble beginnings named Nélie Jacquemart.
Nine years after they first met as artist and subject, they were married. United by a passion for art, the wealthy young couple quickly became the darlings of upper-class Parisian society, throwing great social occasions in their mansion on Boulevard Haussman – set off the 2.5km-long elegant uniform avenue in the posh 8th arrondissment. Their names became bywords for great taste; people with more than enough artistic sense to match their money.The Jacquemart-André’s began to collect priceless artwork at a rate like nobody else before them or since; so much so, that their collection of Italian art alone was to become the finest one in the country outside of the Louvre.
Today, their former home is magnificent museum. It was donated to the state, complete with its amazing collection of artwork, when Nélie died in 1912. As soon as you enter this beautiful building, you’re aware that you’re entering not just an art gallery, but a home; one that was designed and decorated using these priceless works of art not just by some rich people who wanted to show off how much money they had and how cultured they were, but who had a passion that they wanted to share with the entire world.
When the Hôtel André (as it was then known) was opened in 1876, l’Illustration magazine was gushing in its description:
“Nothing was lacking to make Mr André’s ball one of those sensational events whose magnificence marks our era. The walls of the two entrance rooms, the cloakroom and the vestibule, disappeared under a scented curtain of violets and camellias. The gold decorations of the double ballroom flowed, sparkling under the blaze of a thousand candles.”
Passing from the reception area into the gilded area known as the State Apartments, you get a real sense of how the couple’s ambitions were to create a home in the ornate style of the era. The frescoed ceilings and decorative pillars are as stunning as the art hanging on the wall. This was where the Jacquemart-André’s threw their most lavish receptions and the dividing walls of this area all folded or submerged to make one enormous room for the biggest society parties.
You’re then taken through a series of smaller rooms in which perfectly-chosen works by artists such as Van Dyck and Fragonard are hanging on the walls of rooms where, you’re told by the audio-guide that comes with the admission ticket, Madame had her private quarters with bathroom off or in her sewing room, where she liked to sit and admire paintings by some of the best French portrait artists of the day.The Winter Garden is one of the highlights of the house. This area was destined to be a showcase not only for the Jacquemart-André’s themselves but for the architect Henri Parent, who was keen to show his flair to the world having been turned down for the job of designing Paris’ Opera House.
A monumental staircase of marble, iron and bronze and supported by marble columns ascends in a space all of its own lit by a ceiling fanlight and reflected by mirrors all around. On the way up the stairs, you can admire a fresco by Tiepolo that was imported intact from Venice.
It’s on the first floor that you’ll also find the Italian Museum. In a great room under an ornately panelled ceiling, there are over 80 works from the 14th and 15th centuries to admire, as well as many more from the 16th. A lot of the paintings are from the Florentine school, but you’ll also see many pieces of sculpture too that were brought back from Italy after the couple’s numerous trips to Venice, Florence and Rome.
If you’re visiting the French capital for a short break, then you simply cannot see any more than a little fraction of the vast acres of gallery of the Louvre Museum. The Musée Jacquemart-André is as great a collection of art as you will find just about anywhere. Moreover, it’s a place where you can admire the works of such luminaries as Bellini, Boticelli, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Signorelli and Canaletto in the context of a real home and in a museum that was borne out of pure love.
Get Yourself There
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly daily from Cork or Dublin to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Visit www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com for information, contact number and tickets (€11 each for adults).