I finished another book I’d been slowly working my way through, thanks to the necessity of staying at hime for social distancing. Les Peintures, by Thérèse Burollet, provides a description of every painting, listed by the artists’ last name, in the musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris. I’ve enjoyed going to this small museum in the Marais many times, especially when they have a special exhibit. Given the petit size of the exhibits, I would always look at the permanent collection as well. Now I’ll never look at it with quite the same eyes, but I think the founder’s life would make a great series on Netflix.
Théodore-Ernest Cognacq had to give up his education when his father died. He came to Paris and became a salesperson at the elegant department store “La Belle Héloïse.” When he was summarily fired for having made a simple error, he opened his own shop, which flopped. He set up a stall in one of the half-moons of the Pont-Neuf from which he sold linens and trimmings. He scraped and saved until he could once again open a shop, this time “La Samaritaine” and finally marry his sweetheart, another salesperson at “La Belle Héloïse,” Marie-Louise Jay. She had come to the capital as a teen from a rough life of poverty in the mountains.
The two worked doggedly until “La Samaritaine” was a huge success and they began to climb the social ladder. They built a beautiful home on the elegant avenue Foch and began to fill it with art, furniture, and decorative objects from the 18th century. They exhibited a conflicting amalgam of progressive employments practices and harsh paternalism. On the positive side of the ledger, for instance, they were among the first companies to give shares in the business to their employees and they established a cafeteria to provide decent food to their workers. On the other hand, they were rigid and unpitying with their employees about the hours they worked, their appearance, and promptly dismissed any unmarried female employees who became pregnant. Out in the world, the couple engaged in very public philanthropy, often focused on children; they established foundling homes, maternity hospitals, homes for young girls in difficulty, and a retirement home. They also lent their names to a prize given by the Académie française to large families. As you may have surmised, the couple could not have children of their own.
In 1905, at the height of the Art Nouveau movement, Cognacq built a new building for “La Samaritaine” that was stunningly beautiful with an elaborate frieze in Egyptian motifs. It was within sight of his old stall on the bridge. (It closed in 2005 for restauration as it was actually becoming dangerous and is set to reopen in a new guise once we can all come out of our homes again.) He then built another store for his more expensive merchandise on the Grands Boulevards near the big competition of Printemps and Les Galeries Lafayette.
Cognacq also began to organize exhibitions of his art collection. He sought advice about what to buy and picked up some big name works, such as Canaletto and Tiepolo. The lovely Greuze, above, is on the jacket of the book and it my personal favorite in the museum. He developed the idea of founding an independent museum to house his collection after his death. Cognacq began to buy a lot from one particular dealer, some of which was quite good but much of which was simply mediocre. Was the dealer taking advantage of his client, now very old and almost blind, or did he simply make a LOT of very bad judgements? Who can say? The dealer even insisted on becoming the first head of Cognacq’s museum.
The catalogue described each of the 116 paintings in detail, giving some history and an opinion of the artistic merits of each piece. Quite often, the opinions were pretty harsh. Many paintings were dismissed as mediocre copies, erroneously attributed to a major artist. Some were by the “school of” or “student of” the artist, and thus not fakes, but certainly not the masterpieces that Cognacq thought he was buying. I guess the lessons that I learned were:
1. Don’t let the person who is selling you something also be the person who evaluates its quality;
2. Cost does not always equal quality;
3. Buy a piece of art if you love it and want to look at it forever, no matter who the artist is supposed to be;
4. Someone can be talented and successful in one area of life and a mess in another.