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Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Ditte Isager 1840 Louis-Philippe-style bedroom of Baron William Hope

Photo: Ditte Isager

Perhaps it was the memory of those earlier conflagrations, as much as the threat of industrial competition from London, that inspired a group of 19th-century businessmen to create a museum of the French decorative arts. Their aim was twofold: to elevate the standards of national production by setting examples of excellence before the eyes of their workers, and to educate the tastes of a public newly attuned to the consumption of luxury goods. An early version of the museum, installed at No. 3 Place des Vosges, was open late at night so that upholsterers, cabinetmakers, and seamstresses could visit it after their ateliers had closed. Later on, the state, rallying at last to the museum’s cause, donated the Marsan Wing of the Louvre, its current location along the Rue de Rivoli, where it opened in 1905. (Although within the precincts of the Louvre, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a separate institution.)

Its focus on the "minor arts" of decoration also left it open to works that more traditional institutions, such as the Louvre, tended to shy away from. The museum was among the first in France to show African art and photography, and mounted key exhibitions of contemporary artists early in their careers, from Picasso to Daniel Buren. It still presides over two related museums, housed in the same wing of the Louvre and devoted to quintessentially French passions, fashion and advertising. (Farther afield, but also under its jurisdiction, lies the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a house that a Turkish-born Sephardic-Jewish banker, Moïse de Camondo, constructed on the eve of World War I, basing it upon the model of the Petit Trianon at Versailles and filling it with exquisite examples of Rococo furniture.)

Today, natural light floods through the oculi of a soaring central atrium (long obscured by successive renovations), and the sweep of French history unfolds through things designed mostly for daily use. Galleries highlight specific techniques and styles, such as examples of the 18th-century mania for cabinets adorned with eye-popping geometric wood veneers, or the macabre fin de siècle penchant for decorative bats and dragons on everything from table legs and mirrors to wallpaper.

Despite the national focus, the museum’s pieces show a history of constant exchange across borders, as Flemish, Chinese, and Italian influences (among others) have been absorbed and tempered by Gallic sensibilities. "Just look at European porcelain," Mme. David-Weill noted. "It began in Saxony, with manufacturers trying to surpass the achievements of the Chinese. So you can’t say that it’s a properly French tradition—it goes back even to the time of the Egyptians." Or consider a marvelously delicate writing table that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour, where the royal paramour may have sat writing love notes to King Louis XV. Its lacquered surface, inset with Orientalist scenes, imitates the Japanese, but in a blue that is classically French.

Because this is France, the history of desire is woven into these objects, and illicit passion has been among the greatest spurs to the creation and consumption of luxury goods. Witness the remarkable assortment of Lalique jewels worn by the expatriate American salonière Natalie Clifford Barney—all gifts (in a shade that matched the blue of her eyes) from her lovers: female poets and courtesans of the Belle Époque. There’s also the fantastic collection of Boucheron tie pins—miniature boars’ heads sculpted from sapphires, gold-and-enamel bees—offered to Nissim de Camondo (father of Moïse) by his mistress, a shady American divorcée from Baltimore.

On the fifth floor is a spectacular 19th-century bed cast in bronze—a throne, really, hung with velvet curtains and decorated with cupids and fleurs-de-lis—which another grande horizontale, Valtesse de la Bigne, left to the museum. She was among the models for Émile Zola’s portrait of a prostitute, Nana; her legendary bed a tool of the trade with which she had made her fortune. Though royal heads may have rested upon its embroidered pillowcases, the Louvre would not have welcomed it. Here it’s the centerpiece of a gallery devoted to the style of the great courtesans who were her contemporaries.

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