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Pushing the doors to the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild is a privileged experience that will transport you back in time. This wonder room is testament not only to art and the joy of collecting, but also to a beautiful but tragic love story.
Salomon James de Rothschild was born in Paris in 1835, the fourth child of James Meyer de Rothschild, the head of the French branch of the banking dynasty. Salomon was gifted, but not particularly interested in the business. In the hope of reining in his dare-devilishness, his father sent him to Frankfurt to apprentice with his German cousin, Mayer Carl von Rothschild. Book-keeping by day, mingling in intellectual and aristocratic circles by night, Salomon learned the ropes of the business. His Prussian residence however, brought him more than financial acumen, because it is here that he met his cousin Adèle, Mayer Carl’s daughter, and fell in love.
In a rare marriage of love, uncommon at the time amongst their peers, Salomon and Adèle spent two blissful years, and had a daughter. Salomon collected compulsively: not only Old Masters and Renaissance artifacts, but also more exotic masterpieces, discovered in the course of his extensive travels. Unfortunately, Salomon’s boundless love for the pleasures of life caught up with him, a massive coronary killing him unexpectedly at the age of 29. Adèle, left with a seven-month-old infant to raise on her own, retired from public life to grieve the loss of her beloved husband.
Adèle had always shared Salomon’s passion for the arts. Upon his death, she decided to have a new residence built, with the aim of staging an ideal setting to display the wonders the couple had amassed.
Adèle commissioned a mansion in Louis XVI style, to be erected on the grounds once occupied by the Folie Beaujon, a country house with extensive grounds built for Nicolas Beaujoun (one of Louis XV’s bankers and the original owner of Hôtel d’Evreux, now known as the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the French President). At the time, in what has later come to be know as “the Rothschild taste,” 18th-century decorative arts were considered to be the height of chic.
A formidable character (she repudiated her daughter for marrying out of the Jewish faith), upon her death in 1922, Adèle bequeathed most of her extensive collections to French museums but left the mansion and a considerable endowment to what is known today as the Fondation des Artistes, a charity that helps fragile artists in their old age or through illness.
The endowment bore one condition: that the wonder room she had created to display a carefully curated selection of Salomon’s collection would be left untouched. Today, it remains as she left it 100 years ago, as I discovered recently, lucky enough to be granted access to this little known gem.
The main door to the mansion is imposing, closed on most days, passersby having no clue to the beauty it hides. The courtyard reveals a traditional looking hôtel particulier, whose richly decorated salons now lay empty, only used as an event venue.
To enter the wonder room, I am asked to don a pair of hospital shoe covers, and am handed a small torch. The curiosity cabinet, a jewel of a room measuring less than 200 square feet, is in fact shrouded in darkness, the blinds permanently drawn to protect the fragile colors of the tapestries and the carpet.
Now, the carpet gets my attention. It looks rather drab, its faded red patched up in places, and does not seem worthy of the extra precaution afforded by the shoe covers we are compelled to wear. My guide Guenièvre, a lovely French lecturer whose passion for 19th century history is infectious, soon sets me right: The carpet was woven by the royal manufacture of the Savonnerie, and as such is one of the priceless artifacts on display.
As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see that every available inch of the room is home to wonderful discoveries. Salomon’s taste was indeed eclectic, and ranged from Italian Renaissance maiolica figures (including one by Della Robbia, which was long considered a reproduction but which turned out recently, in the course of a careful restoration, to be “the real deal”), to Persian swords; from a Chinese vase whose brilliant turquoise color is rendered with feather marquetry, to an early Rodin sculpture; from 16th-century, Swiss, stained glass windows to a Gobelin tapestry covering the ceiling. Everywhere I look, there is more to admire.
Guenièvre is a wonderful story-teller, and she brings to life not only the objects but also the life of the Rothschilds. From Salomon’s gallant escapades, to Adèle’s love for cigars and brandy (as testified by the significant bills found in the archives of her butler), almost two hours go by as I take it all in. It is a window on a world gone by, as if I had stepped in a Proust novel.
What strikes me the most, though, as entertaining as the anecdotes on the the social life of the couple may be, is that my visit offers a unique insight in the mind of a 19th century collector. Adèle de Rothschild surely edited their collection, with the aim of presenting their life under the most flattering light, the same way celebrities and influencers today edit their lives on social networks. But the one thing here that is totally sincere, is their insatiable desire as collectors, dictated by passion and taste, rather than profit or investment.
Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild is located in the 8th arrondissement, and can be visited on demand.
Lead photo credit : The façade. Photo credit © Sarah Bartesaghi Truong