May 3, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Musee Cognacq-Jay, le Marais

A comprehensive collection of 18th century decorative art reflecting the rise of the bourgeois power and influence in Paris.

To take advantage of a sunny afternoon, I took Lee to le Marais to visit Musee Cognacq-Jay. Like the nearby Musee Carnavalet, which we visited back in March, it's one of the Paris municipal museums - entry is free.

The museum is based almost entirely on the private collection of Théodore-Ernest Cognacq (1839–1928) and his wife Marie-Louise, née Jay (1838–1925), founders of La Samaritaine department store. At his death, Cognacq bequeathed the collection to the City of Paris; in the 1990s, the museum was moved from its original location by the boulevard des Capucines to le Marais to a former 16th-century private residence called Hotel Donon.

From an artistic perspective, the collection is relatively insignificant. Most of the pieces are fairly mediocre, often veering towards the kitsch spectrum of things. The museum does feature a minor Rembrandt (The Prophet Balaam and the Ass) as well as works by Cézanne and Degas.

From a socio-historical viewpoint, however, it's quite fascinating - essentially a testament to the triumph of the bourgeoisie on the domestic front, with echoes of Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. The furnishings - especially comfort-driven "occasion" items such as nightstands - as well as the smaller porcellain figurines, ornate snuffboxes, candyboxes, and pocketwatches are symptomatic synecdoches of a period in history when the market for luxury items expanded beyond the aristocracy - for whom the end of the 18th century was rather unpleasant in France.

As for the artistic merit of these increasingly mass-produced items, I can only refer to what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the depth of art in a democracy, previously quoted in my review of Disneyland Paris:

The productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished. No longer able to soar to what is great, they cultivate what is pretty and elegant; and appearance is more attended to than reality. In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries, a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former, statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modelled in plaster.

A theory on which, of course, writers such as Water Benjamin expanded.

Kids-wise, Lee was not a fan - it's definitely more for the over-ten crowd. And even then it might be a chore unless there's a genuine interest in history and / or art. She was patient enough and loved a statue (not pictured) of a little baby faun being carried by a nymph ("He's a boy with goat legs!"), but my constant admonitions of "please don't touch that!" increasingly frustrated her. So her verdict is relatively damning: "So boring - I want you to go there all by yourself and not take me." When we later walked past Musee Carnavalet, she added that she liked that museum "so much better."

A separate entry on our stroll through the rest of le Marais, including a restaurant review, will follow.

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