I was gazing at the perfect pink town houses of Place des Vosges from a private balcony one evening last summer as a fellow dinner guest, an auctioneer, spoke of the people who lived there as if they were his small-town neighbors. His family had owned the hôtel particulier next door for some three centuries, though he’d been the first to inhabit it. Former ministers of culture, famous pianists, femmes du monde, and high-living art dealers—he had known them all and under his gavel, many of their goods had been dispersed. His conversation betrayed a very French passion for the souls of objects, an intuitive grasp of what the details of an interior might reveal about a person’s private life. He let slip, for example, that he was installing three sinks in his master bathroom, leaving his domestic arrangements to my imagination. And he sighed with contentment over a purchase he had made at Drouot, the leading French auction house, that very morning—the bookcase of a turn-of-the-century pair, the desk of which had long been in his possession. He said it was like reuniting the scattered members of a single family.
I was in Paris to visit the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which reopened in September after a decade-long, $46 million renovation. A monument to the French art de vivre, housed in a 19th-century wing of the Louvre that has been restored to Beaux-Arts splendor, its galleries and period rooms showcase eight centuries of Gallic taste in interior decoration.
It’s a unique institution in France, in that its vast collection of some 150,000 objects—from medieval prie-dieus to Sèvres porcelain to an entire Art Deco Pullman car—was built almost exclusively from private donations. The 6,000 pieces currently on view are spread out across 10 floors and arranged in roughly chronological order, punctuated by special displays, including a gallery devoted to the history of toy design and a room full of paintings by Jean Dubuffet donated by the artist in 1967.
So it is also home to a thousand ghosts. Some corseted lady, one imagines, spread her crinolines across the rich upholstery of that Second Empire sofa; some free spirit reclined on that tubular, 1920’s lounge chair, dreaming of a Modernist utopia. The hands that trailed along that sinuous Art Nouveau railing or raised a 17th-century glass to lips are never far from one’s thoughts, as are the hands of countless, often anonymous artisans. In a country where the art of the past is considered part of the national patrimony, subject to regulations as strict as the appellation "Roquefort," such dependence upon private patronage is an aberration.
"It’s linked to the origins of our institution, which was born in the 19th century out of the desire of individual industrialists and collectors," explained the museum’s director, Béatrice Salmon. "At the time," she continued, "a museum of the decorative arts wasn’t something the state considered indispensable." We were sitting in her office, one wall of which was covered with cartoon portraits of major benefactors, soon to be installed along museum staircases. Furniture manufacturers and antiques dealers mingled with artists, collectors, and philanthropists.
In her airy top-floor study overlooking the elegant topiaries of the Tuileries Gardens, Hélène David-Weill, the institution’s venerable yet sylphlike president, emphasized the intimate nature of each donation. "People gave the museum, for the most part, what they had lived with and loved," she said.
Every once in a while, the French rise up and burn their furniture. Not a single French throne survived the Revolution of 1789. Gustave Flaubert described the delirium of the hordes invading the Louvre’s royal residences during the Revolution of 1848 as "redoubling to the continuous din of breaking porcelain and shards of crystal"; 23 years later, the insurgent mobs of the Paris Commune made bonfires of the royal curtains and canapés in the Tuileries.