In Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, historian Charles Dellheim recounts the story of a commission that could have gone terribly awry. In 1900, Josse and Gaston Bernheim, the sons of respected Parisian art dealer Alexandre Bernheim, wanted to celebrate their engagement to two sisters, Mathilde and Suzanne Adler, by asking Pierre-Auguste Renoir to paint their fiancées’ portraits. The problem was that the Bernheims and their fiancées were Jewish, and Renoir’s willingness to accept a commission from Jewish patrons was in some doubt. The ongoing Dreyfus affair had split the Impressionists along political lines, with Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro sticking up for the falsely accused French officer, while Renoir, Edgar Degas, and their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, expressed their anti-Semitism publicly and privately. Hoping that Renoir’s interest in a lucrative commission would overcome his bias, the Bernheims sent him a proposal. He accepted, and the two women sat for Renoir over ten days at their home. The resulting portraits are charming, bearing no trace of the artist’s prejudice. Renoir remained friendly with both couples for years afterward.
Dellheim doesn’t tell this story to imply that spending time with the Bernheims and their fiancées made Renoir less disposed to anti-Semitism. Like dozens of similar anecdotes found in the pages of Belonging and Betrayal, the tale of the engagement portraits reveals the complex negotiations, spoken and unspoken, that structured social, economic, and political life for Jews in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century western Europe. Despite implicit stereotyping as well as overt discrimination, Jews rose to positions of prominence across virtually all industries, including the art world. At the same time, their newfound achievements gave them unprecedented visibility, which often proved a liability.
Belonging and Betrayal seeks to explain how Jews found significant, if precarious, success in the European art world during this period. It traces the emergence of Jewish art dealers in France and Germany, and to a lesser extent, Austria, Italy, and the United Kingdom, from the 1880s until the 1940s, when Jewish cultural life across Europe was arrested by the Nazi regime. Joining Dellheim’s study in this mission is James McAuley’s House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France, a book more narrowly focused on a small group of extraordinarily wealthy Jewish French collectors—the Camondos, Rothschilds, Ephrussis, Cahen d’Anvers, and Reinachs—who ultimately became an extended family through generations of intermarriage.
Belonging and Betrayal and House of Fragile Things describe a moment of tremendous upheaval and expansion in Europe’s metropolises, especially Paris, where the Jewish population grew swiftly, arriving from Eastern Europe and historically Jewish regions of France like Alsace. With its promise of economic opportunity, social mobility, and a particular brand of French universalism, Paris was an ideal home for those seeking freedom, tolerance, and greater prosperity.
The upending of social and economic hierarchies in nineteenth-century Paris opened new horizons for both the artistic avant-garde and newly arrived Jews. Belonging and Betrayal explores the intersection of these two worlds, telling the story of enterprising middle-class Jews—grain traders and horse dealers by profession—who became so enamored of the art they saw on trips to the Louvre that they eventually switched careers, tying their trade to their passions, and trying their luck in the burgeoning art market. Almost none of these first dealers, such as Nathan Wildenstein and Ernest Gimpel, were formally trained in art or art history. Instead, they relied on skills developed in their previous occupations: a good eye for quality, solid business acumen, and the ability to negotiate with buyers and sellers. Jewish dealers were drawn to modernism for practical and aesthetic reasons. They found success within the emerging market for modern art, which, because it was new, had a less established structure and therefore less discriminatory hurdles for them to clear. At the same time, Dellheim suggests, their love for art allowed the first Jewish dealers in Paris to take great risks in an uncertain new market above and beyond economic considerations. He shows how these dealers proved their commitment to modern art and artists in the face of potential financial instability and public derision.
McAuley’s House of Fragile Things, on the other hand, looks at the Parisian art world of this period from the perspective of its most exclusive Jewish circles. It focuses on how those patrons, most of whom made their fortune in the world of international finance, later dedicated their lives to cultivating a sense of national belonging, only to be betrayed by fellow citizens who would deny first their Jewish countrymen’s Frenchness, then their humanity. Rather than follow the emerging avant-garde, these collectors tended toward French art of the ancien régime as a matter of both taste and national pride. Their aesthetic preferences were remarkably shared by some of the most anti-Semitic thinkers of fin de siècle France, Édouard Drumont and Jules de Goncourt, who argued that the era directly preceding the French Revolution most embodied the French national spirit. Their biting attacks against Jewish collectors illuminate how even the most privileged israélites, French-born Jews, were not immune to slander and scorn: Drumont, author of the anti-Semitic screed La France juive, wrote of the opulent Château de Ferrières, built by James de Rothschild in north central France, “it’s a mess, a train wreck, an incredible junk store,” but that in the manse’s Louis XVI salon “in the middle, like a trophy, there is the incomparable harpsichord of Marie-Antoinette, which is heartbreaking to find in this house of Jews.” Collectors like the Rothschilds were excoriated for having bad taste, on the one hand, and on the other for “stealing” French patrimony. Despite the slander, these collectors considered themselves both patriots and custodians of French culture, and many of their collections were bequeathed to the state. Moïse de Camondo, for example, donated his house and collection to the state upon his death; the museum is named after his son, Nissim, who was killed fighting for the French during World War I.
Both books historicize the rise of Jewish art dealers and collectors (and to a far lesser extent, artists and art historians) in western Europe, but their definitions of Jewishness, and their portrayals of its centrality to their subjects’ identities, remain deliberately open. Both authors thankfully avoid characterizations of Jewish identity that present these collectors’ late arrival to the art world in essentialist terms, i.e., as due to some kind of inherent Jewish aversion to graven images. They also take pains to chart the wide range of beliefs and religious practices among their subjects, from those who remained stalwarts of the Jewish community to atheists and everything in between: Moïse de Camondo’s Louis XVI–inspired Parisian mansion included a kosher kitchen, while his daughter, Béatrice, converted to Catholicism. Moreover, there is no monolithic “Jewish art world” in either account. By no means did Jewish collectors purchase exclusively Jewish art—indeed, McAuley emphasizes how Jewish collectors in France strove to project Frenchness over Jewishness in their collecting practices. Nor did Jewish dealers necessarily go out of their way to seek out emerging Jewish artists. Jewishness, while an indelible marker of identity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century western Europe, defined neither taste nor business practice for the protagonists of these histories.
That said, McAuley and Dellheim’s books are definitively social histories not art histories; artworks serve as illustrations to emphasize a collector’s refined taste or a dealer’s bold vision. For instance, Dellheim recounts how Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who would become one of Cubism’s great champions, offered to buy Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (then known as The Philosophical Brothel) on the spot when he first visited the artist’s studio in 1907, even though he found the painting practically incomprehensible. Jewish artists active in Paris at the time, such as Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, and Chaim Soutine, are similarly ancillary figures in both texts. Even though details on Jewish artists are scarce, such omissions ultimately prove the authors’ point about the heterogeneity of these collectors and dealers, and indeed, their desire to assimilate into the European cultural milieu writ large.
While Nazi looting and destruction of cultural property are not their sole focus, both books inevitably conclude with the Holocaust and the decimation of Jewish lives and material culture. It is no secret that anti-modernism and anti-Semitism went hand in hand in Europe, a fusion on spectacular display at the Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibitions held in various German and Austrian cities beginning in 1937. While an attack against all forms of modernism, these shows separated the Jewish artists from the rest, singling them out for their double “degeneracy” by placing their works in their own gallery near the entrance. Even though these artists—Jankel Adler, Chagall, Hanns Katz, Pissarro, Gert Wollheim, and Ludwig Meidner—represented a small fraction of the 112 artists in the original Munich exhibition, many more non-Jewish artists were derided for their apparently “Semitic” mindset. Dellheim points out that these sentiments, despite being raised to a dangerous fever pitch by the Nazis, were not at all new in Germany, or indeed in Europe in general. Especially after World War I, the German public greeted modernist art with an added degree of nationalist hostility for its presumed Frenchness—that many of the dealers bringing this work to the public were Jewish only increased its presumed foreignness.
Jewish response to discrimination by their countrymen, and later to persecution at the hands of the Nazis, was as diverse as the collections, careers, and desires chronicled in these two books. Some Jews detected the incoming threat and mobilized their resources and contacts to act quickly. Dellheim writes that Paris-based dealer Paul Rosenberg escaped in 1940 with his family via Portugal, heading to New York, where he established an eponymous gallery on 57th Street. After the war, he spent his final years attempting to recover his looted art collection, which had been dispersed across Europe—a protracted legal fight continued by his heirs to this day. Others never quite seemed to grasp the extreme danger they faced. McAuley attempts to reconstruct the last days of heiress Béatrice Reinach (née Camondo). She remained in Paris, writing to a friend in September 1942, “I am certain that I am miraculously protected,” believing her Christian faith, perhaps along with her vaunted family name, would offer salvation. Three months later, she was arrested along with her daughter and sent to the Drancy internment camp, where they were soon joined by her son and ex-husband, who were detained during an attempt to cross the French border into Spain. They later all perished in Auschwitz.
One of Reinach’s most prized possessions was an 1880 Renoir painting of her mother, Irène Cahen d’Anvers, as a child. La Petite Fille au ruban bleu or La Petite Irène was confiscated by the Nazis, and was for a time part of Hermann Göring’s personal collection. After the war, Irène—who had survived in hiding in Paris—had the painting repatriated. However, she kept it only briefly before selling it to Emil Georg Bührle, a Swiss arms manufacturer who amassed extraordinary wealth during the war by supplying weapons to the Axis powers. La Petite Irène remains a highlight of the E.G. Bührle collection in Zürich today. McAuley’s last chapter highlights this painting’s disturbing afterlife in the collection of man who profiteered from its former owner’s murder. If that feels unsettling, it should. The effects of Nazi looting and dispossession linger in museums and private collections across the world. As much as McAuley and Dellheim seek to recover histories effaced by the Holocaust, they emphasize that these histories persist in our present.
This article appears in the March 2022 issue, pp. 30–34.