Culture

A Trip to 18th-Century Paris at the Musée Cognacq-Jay

For a look back at Parisian life in the 18th century, the Musée Cognacq-Jay in the Marais is hard to beat. The permanent collection will transport you to an elegant world of salons and snuffboxes, where the period furniture, carefully arranged to maintain a homely atmosphere, rather than a museum, embodies the Age of Enlightenment. The current special exhibition, Boilly: Parisian Chronicles, running until June 26th, gives a whimsical peep into everyday life in the same era through the work of the Parisian painter and caricaturist, Boilly.    This museum is also an extraordinary rags-to-riches story. Its collection was built up by Ernest Cognacq, who began working life as a traveling salesman, and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay, the first female assistant at Le Bon Marché. Together, they founded one of the city’s most successful department stores, La Samaritaine and eventually they became one of the wealthiest couples in France, with the means to gather the stunning collection housed in the museum named after them.  Their taste was for pieces from the late 18th century – paintings, sculpture, furniture,  decorative items – which they began collecting in about 1900. In 1917 they opened their new shop, La Samaritaine de Luxe on the Boulevard des Capucines, and soon began to stage exhibitions on the premises, displaying some of their prized possessions to attract and inspire their wealthy customers. When Ernest died in 1928, he left the collection to the city of Paris, on condition that it would be kept intact, and so the Musée de la Samaritaine de Luxe was opened next door to the shop, an event so prestigious that the President himself, Gaston Doumergue, was in attendance! After the closure of La Samaritaine in the 1980s, the collection was transferred to its current home, the 16th-century Hotel Donon, a monument historique in Rue Elzevir in the 3rd arrondissement.   

For a look back at Parisian life in the 18th century, the Musée Cognacq-Jay in the Marais is hard to beat. The permanent collection will transport you to an elegant world of salons and snuffboxes, where the period furniture, carefully arranged to maintain a homely atmosphere, rather than a museum, embodies the Age of Enlightenment. The current special exhibition, Boilly: Parisian Chronicles, running until June 26th, gives a whimsical peep into everyday life in the same era through the work of the Parisian painter and caricaturist, Boilly.   

This museum is also an extraordinary rags-to-riches story. Its collection was built up by Ernest Cognacq, who began working life as a traveling salesman, and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay, the first female assistant at Le Bon Marché. Together, they founded one of the city’s most successful department stores, La Samaritaine and eventually they became one of the wealthiest couples in France, with the means to gather the stunning collection housed in the museum named after them. 

Their taste was for pieces from the late 18th century – paintings, sculpture, furniture decorative items – which they began collecting in about 1900. In 1917 they opened their new shop, La Samaritaine de Luxe on the Boulevard des Capucines, and soon began to stage exhibitions on the premises, displaying some of their prized possessions to attract and inspire their wealthy customers. When Ernest died in 1928, he left the collection to the city of Paris, on condition that it would be kept intact, and so the Musée de la Samaritaine de Luxe was opened next door to the shop, an event so prestigious that the President himself, Gaston Doumergue, was in attendance! After the closure of La Samaritaine in the 1980s, the collection was transferred to its current home, the 16th-century Hotel Donon, a monument historique in Rue Elzevir in the 3rd arrondissement.   

Artwork in Cognac-Jay museum, paris

Artwork in the Cognacq-Jay museum, Paris © Isogood at Wikimedia Commons

The tone is set throughout by the furniture pieces on display: a Louis XVI chair covered with Beauvais tapestry, exquisite carved writing desks inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. The elegant cabinets are full of fine decorative household items: delicately painted Dresden porcelain vases, a potpourri holder in the shape of an elephant, Sèvres porcelain pendulum clocks. The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment influence much of what is on display: a fascination for la lointaine (far-away places) brought new materials like amber, jade and porcelain, and the new custom – for the rich at least – of taking a Grand Tour means that Greece, Rome and Venice are referenced in the design of the objects on display. 

Many of the everyday objects on display are exquisite. Delicate porcelain accessories for the new ritual of tea-drinking hint at the refined life of the well-to-do. Fashionable gentlemen had inlaid snuffboxes and decorative pocket watches, their wives and daughters kept porcelain perfume bottles and little trinket boxes inlaid with precious stones on their dressing tables. Miniature precious objects were exchanged as gifts, for example tiny enamel portraits, and the fans and hair ornaments known as nécessaires de bal, wonderfully translated by Google as “prom essentials.”   

Cognacq Jay Permanent Collection of some knick knacks

Knick knacks in the Cognacq-Jay Museum’s permanent collection. © Marian Jones

The Cognacq-Jays collected paintings too, again almost exclusively from the 18th century. There are works by well-known artists of the day, such as Jean-Henri Fragonard and François Boucher, including some of the intimate domestic scenes by Boucher which led to his description as “a witness of 18th-century life.” They include La Belle Cuisinière (The Pretty Cook) and La Leçon de Musique (The Music Lesson). Portraits were booming, the trend being for depicting subjects other than royalty, often in less formal poses. The collection includes one by Louise-Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun of a young woman playing a guitar and another by Maurice Quentin de la Tour showing the Countess of Rieux dressed for a masked ball. Both look straight at the viewer, smiling slightly and seeming to take us into their confidence. Reflecting the trend for visiting Venice as part of a Grand Tour, there are also two Canaletto paintings: The Grand Canal from the Ponte di Rialto and View of Canale di Sante Chiara.

The museum has a history of special exhibitions which expand on 18th-century themes, and in previous years have staged one onTea, Coffee or Chocolate?” and another called “The Age of Enlightenment,” devised by Christian Lacroix in 2016. This year, there is “Boilly, Parisian Chronicles,” highlighting the work of Louis-Léopold Boilly, (1761-1845) whose varied work gives a detailed, often wry, picture of what critics called “the public spectacle of the Parisian boulevards.”  He is said to have captured the city in many guises over nearly 60 years, “from one revolution (1789) to another (1848).”   

The early part of the exhibition focuses on his large-scale “scene paintings,” such as “Carneval,” showing crowds of revelers gathered in the street: admirers clustering round a young woman dressed as a princess, carriages coming and going, a little boy in a Pierrot costume which is too big for him, a dog wearing a mask. Attentive study keeps revealing new vignettes in this festive street scene. Boilly painted intimate domestic scenes too, often capturing an amusing moment, such as in “Le départ précipité” which shows a young woman who seems to have left a social gathering to take to her room, blocking the doorway with a chair. She looks over her shoulder to see a young man – the one from whom she is escaping?- trying to get in.        

Boilly was also a sought-after portraitist, completing over 5000 in all, usually delivering a finished picture after one twohour sitting. The exhibition shows a selection of these small-format pictures in identical frames, a panoply of 18th-century Parisian faces. More revealing still is the display of Grimaces, his caricatures of Parisians from all walks of life, described as “a colorful inventory of expressions and passions.” Through them you can meet a group of street urchins or a gaggle of bonneted women in every mood from jollity to grief and feel you have just rounded a corner and bumped into them. Some depict characters who personify abstract ideas – “avarice” or “pride” – and others show aspects of daily life: a harrowing visit to an 18th-century dentist, a baby being given the new smallpox vaccine, as was encouraged by Napoleon’s government. To see them is to be plunged into life in Boilly’s era in all its diversity. 

Perhaps you will go to the Marais to visit the Musée Carnavalet, the city’s main history museum. Maybe you just want to wander the cobbled streets, seeking out hidden courtyards and hôtels particuliers, or do a little shopping. Do also consider taking time to visit the Musée Cognacq-Jay, because it means you will see inside the 16th century Hôtel Donon and then be taken on a glamorous tour of Parisian life in the Age of Enlightenment. If you can go before June 26th, you will have the added bonus of Louis-Léopold Boilly’s memorable take on that period too.   

Musée Cognacq-Jay
8 rue Elzévir, 3rd arrondissement
Tel: 01 40 27 07 21

Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Entry to the permanent collection is free.
Entry during special exhibitions:
Full price: 8€
Concessions: 6€

The museum’s bookshop-boutique offers a selection of books related to the 18th century and its artists, as well as a range of thematic souvenirs: stationery, gastronomy, decoration.

Lead photo credit : The exterior of the Cognacq-Jay museum, Paris. © Isogood at Wikimedia Commons