The Portrait and Story of Mademoiselle Irène Cahen d’Anvers

September 5, 2012 63 comments

I am not entirely sure how old I was when I first noticed it hanging in my grandparents’ living room. Maybe three or four, or perhaps younger. Certainly not old enough to realize it wasn’t a real painting hanging there. It was a print of a painting on a piece of board bought at the supermarket down the street framed as if it were the actual painting. Not that it mattered. I was sucked in from the first moment.

Every trip that took me to my grandparents house as a child would find me sitting on the living room couch at my grandparents’ house studying the portrait. Over many visits I spent many hours taking in the portrait of little Irène, trying to figure out were the flowing mane of hair ended and the backdrop began, trying to decide whether it was a bow in her hair or a small fish (it’s a bow), or just taking in the little girl forever around my age (at the time) sitting there in her little blue dress, hands clasped in her lap, with a look on her face that says, “Please Mr. Renior, can I please get up now? This is awfully boring, I just want to PLAY.” Even as a teenager and young adult, it was the first thing I would look for upon entering my grandparents’ house.

My grandmother payed mind to the fact that I was always enamored with that portrait. She used to ask me what I was doing when look at it to hear whatever explanation I had that time for what I was studying. After my grandfather had died and she planned to move to a retirement community, she gave it to me without me ever asking for it. It hanged in my living room for a number of years, and is currently sitting in my office awaiting a new frame. Needless to say, this is the painting that first made me realize the power of art to draw one in. As such, it is still my favorite portrait, and I count Renoir as my favorite painter for it.

Some time ago while once again studying the portrait, at this point hanging in my living room, I realized I had never made an attempt to learn more about it’s subject.  I immediately went to my computer and began searching. I found …nothing.  Some time later, I started to find a little, and after a year or two a little more.  Eventually I managed to piece together enough for a few paragraphs.

Irène was born in 1872 and lived in Paris, where she would live at least until she was married.  Her father, a wealthy Jewish banker named Louis Raphael Cahen d’Anvers commissioned Pierre Auguste Renior for three portraits in 1880; one of each of his daughters.

At that time, Renior had been doing portraits for many of the Jewish families in Paris, and the Cahen family was one of the richest there was.  As such, Renoir did not negotiate a price before beginning his work.  Upon completing the portrait of Irène, the Cahens decided that they did not like it, and told Renior to paint Irène’s two younger sisters (Alice and Elisabeth) together. After he finished that portrait, the Lois Cahen paid Renoir a mere 1,500 francs for both paintings (far less than they were truly worth, even at that time), and to add insult to injury, hung them in his servant’s quarters. Renoir was furious.

At the age of 19, Irène married Moïse de Camondo.  Moïse was the last of a long line of Jewish bankers from the Ottoman empire, very wealthy in his own right. During their marriage, her portrait by Renoir hung in one of the Camondo’s hotels. Irène and Moïse had two children, Nissim and Béatrice during their short five year marriage before Irène converted to Catholicism and ran off with the Camondo’s stable man, Count Charles Sampieri in 1896. Irène was able to procure a divorce by giving Moïse full custody of their children, and Irène would marry Charles, becoming the Countess Irène Sampieri. The portrait would go back to Irène’s mother, Louise, during the divorce, and she in turn would give it to her granddaughter Béatrice sometime between 1910 and 1933.

Irène’s son (at this point estranged) would go on to become an aviator in the French Army during World War I. He was shot down in a dogfight in 1917, dying of his wounds a few days later.  Irène’s daughter Béatrice married Léon Reinach and had two children, Fanny and Bertrand. Moïse died in 1935, with his fortune largely going to his daughter and his mansion and art collection going to a foundation to set up a museum in honor of his son, the Musee Nissim de Comondo.

In 1939, the Nazis invaded France. Like many others, Béatrice and Léon opted to stay in Paris, believing that their wealth and status would protect them.  They were wrong, and in 1941 Béatrice, Léon and their children (along with Irène’s sister Elisabeth) were sent to Auschwitz, where they were all killed.  Irène, now separated from Charles was able to save herself by hiding behind her Italian last name and religion.  Her other sister, Alice, also survived the holocaust and lived until 1969 in Nice.

The now very expensive portrait was looted from the Reinach home in 1941 by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce and essentially became the property of Herman Göring, and was potentially going to be used to exchange for other works of art. From here you see some conflicting accounts. Some say the portrait was in Göring’s personal collection. Some say Göring ceded it to a Swiss arms exporter named Emil Georg Bührle.  In both cases, they are wrong. In actuality, Göring traded the portrait for a Florentine Tondo to
Gustav Rochlitz in 1942.  In 1945, the Allies liberated the portrait, and it was sent to a collection point in Munich. It is likely that the rumors that Bührle had it in his personal collection were due to an attempt to paint him as a villian due to the fact that he exported arms to Germany and Italy on request of the Swiss government.

Late in 1946, the portrait began traveling in an exhibit with other liberated paintings entitled, “Masterpieces of French collections found in Germany and Switzerland”, where it was seen by Irène. She began lobbying to have it restored to her, and ultimately was successful in doing so as it’s last legal possession was that of her daughter, of whom Irène was the inheritor. Bored of it again by 1949, Irène would sell it to Emil Georg Bührle, who was just beginning to stock up on works by French impressionists.  Over the next few years, Irène gambled away or otherwise spent the money made on that portrait and the entire Camondo fortune in casinos in southern France by her death in 1963.

After the death of Emil Georg Bührle in 1956, the portrait was eventually given to the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Zurich where it is now on display.  I have not been to see it in person, but hope to one day. You can see it listed here: http://www.buehrle.ch/works_detail.php?lang=en&id_pic=62

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Hello, all you people who happen across my blog whilst searching for C++ functions!

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If you’re on facebook, you can go to my page and view it/become a fan:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pete-Riesett/97794497979

Otherwise you can view it from youtube below.

Be sure to comment and let me know what you think!

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I’m doing a little summer concert on facebook right now, so if you enjoy medieval/renassaince music, head over to http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/pages/Pete-Riesett/97794497979 and become a fan!

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I’ll be back eventually

Brief hiatus from any sort of blogging…too busy currently. But I have *alot* more to show you, world.

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