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Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy: The Rothschild Women

Published on , by Éric Jansen

This art historian specializing in the Rothschild collections is co-curator of an exhibition devoted to the women of the family by the Musée La Boverie in Liège. A new light on some outstanding women collectors and donors.

ARR Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy: The Rothschild Women


With Charlotte, Béatrice, Adèle, Cécile, Liliane and others, nine women are honored in this exhibition focusing on the Baronesses de Rothschild, collectors and patrons, staged in partnership with the Musée du Louvre. Nine women with extraordinary destinies.

How did this exhibition come about?
The idea did not come from me, but from Pierre Paquet, the director of the Musée La Boverie in Liège. He wanted to devote an exhibition to the Rothschild women collectors after reading the three books I edited on Les Rothschild, une dynastie de mécènes en France (The Rothschilds: A Dynasty of Patrons in France). But it’s true that I mentioned female patronage in my introduction because the project had brought to light some important women hitherto overlooked.

This enormous set has become the reference work on Rothschild donations...
Nine years’ work was involved, but the project goes back a long way, as I started working on the Rothschilds in 1987. At the time, I was looking for a subject for my thesis. I was interested in the Rothschilds as builders, but there was nothing on the topic. I unearthed 60 buildings that were built by them. At that time, I met Baron Élie, who suggested something else: making an inventory of everything the family had given to French museums. This had never been done before. So I wrote to 1,300 museums in France asking them if they had any Rothschild donations, and received over 900 replies. After that, I drew up a list of 60,000 works, which took me two years. Of course, this was before the Internet and computers. It was very factual, but I then realized the extent and diversity of the fields concerned. These gifts ranged from antiquity to the present day, and they didn’t just go to Paris: a lot of museums in the provinces had also benefited. I was doing this research at the same time as my thesis, which I defended in 1992 at the Sorbonne, supervised by Bruno Foucart. His subject, "Architecture and interior design in houses built by the Rothschilds in Europe", then led to a book published in 1995.

It is easy to see why this family has become familiar to you...
Let's say that I began to have a more precise view of things, but once I’d handed over my survey to Baron Élie, I didn't think about it anymore. It wasn't until 2007 that I decided to go back and do some exhaustive work on the Rothschild donations. Meanwhile, I discovered a lot of things at Waddesdon Manor, and even in Moscow! The Internet also enabled more exchanges with museums, which were computerizing their archives, and my list grew from 60,000 works to 130,000. I went to see the art publisher Somogy, and we established a partnership with the Louvre and the Bibliothèque National de France (BnF). I surrounded myself with art historians and curators, and after many years, this book was finally published in 2016.

The room devoted to Charlotte, with Greuze's La Laitière in the foreground, the first painting purchased by James de Rothschild and bequea

The room devoted to Charlotte, with Greuze's La Laitière in the foreground, the first painting purchased by James de Rothschild and bequeathed to the Louvre by his daughter in 1899.
© Gérald Micheels – Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège/La Boverie

To go back to the exhibition: what was your role?
I joined the team as co-curator, with Vincent Pomarède and Fanny Moens. While the angle of the Rothschild women collectors was maintained, some refinement was needed; they don’t all have the same typology. My main concern was to add the concept of patron and donor, because I wanted to include Baroness Salomon's legacy, which is considerable. Adèle gave 5,000 works to the State, to the Louvre, Cluny, and so on. She received a colossal inheritance from her father, then from her husband. She took care of it throughout her life, swelling it with various pieces she bought herself. Her sister Thérèse did the same with the collection of manuscripts and antiquarian books assembled by her husband, Baron James-Édouard. Both women feature in the exhibition. I call them "the guardians of the temple."

Your relationship with the family must have been invaluable for various loans...
Putting on an exhibition about the Rothschilds isn’t easy. It’s true that the family needs to play a part because while a lot of works are in museums, there are still some very interesting pieces in private hands.

Like the portrait of Charlotte by Ary Scheffer?
Yes, it was lent by Baron Eric. It’s remarkable. Not only is it very beautiful, but it also complements the many pieces donated by Charlotte to the Louvre, starting with The Milkmaid by Greuze: the first painting purchased by her father, Baron James. As the Louvre was a partner of the exhibition, the painting made the trip to Liège, as did Gérôme’s portrait of Charlotte and some of her own works, as she was a talented watercolorist. Charlotte ticks all the boxes: a collector, a donor and an artist herself!

Another woman also well represented in the exhibition is Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, who had a famous villa built for herself in Cap Ferrat...
Yes, the museum has been very generous. We have furniture, a Fragonard that was restored for the exhibition, a very fine Boucher, a sculpture by Clodion, some Meissen porcelain, a Sisley, two Renoirs, two Gustave Moreaus—in short, a wealth of art illustrating what a major collector she was, as well as a generous donor. At her death, she bequeathed not only the villa to the Institut de France, but also 5,000 works.

The exhibition enables us to discover other atypical baronesses, like Alice and Mathilde.
The former inherited Waddesdon Manor on the death of her brother Ferdinand. She took devoted care of it, but she also liked to escape to her estate in Grasse, where she created a garden in a plot of 100 hectares (about 250 acres). At her death, she left the city an unusual collection of pipes; we are showing a selection of these. Even more surprising are the skull and crossbones objects Mathilde collected: 180 trinkets bequeathed to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which had lain somewhat forgotten in the reserves.

Why did you also highlight two women closer to our times, Cécile and Alix?
Cécile is often reduced to her friendship with Greta Garbo, but people who knew her were aware that she got her love of modern painting from her father, Baron Robert. There’s a well-known story: one day he came home with a package under his arm, which intrigued his children. He asked them to guess what it was, giving them a single clue: the letter C. Whoever gave the right answer would win the object. Cécile, who was 13 at the time, said, “Cézanne!” and received a magnificent painting as a gift: The Bathers. The family has made a special loan of it to us.
Famous for her villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild photographed in the 1920s. Anonymous, autochrome. Albert-Ka

Famous for her villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild photographed in the 1920s. Anonymous, autochrome. Albert-Kahn Museum, Boulogne-Billancourt

And Alix?
The first wife of Baron Guy is perhaps my favorite of all these women. I find her really extraordinary. She always said she was not a collector, and she only bought according to her friendships, but she assembled 2,000 works all the same. And what eclecticism! It ranged from African art to contemporary artists like Balthus, Calder and Music. She also helped young artists, and financed workshops and exhibitions. She was a true patron of the arts.

Baron Elijah’s wife Liliane was an avowed collector, on the other hand...
The exhibition ends with her. She was fascinated by Marie-Antoinette and owned a host of objects that belonged to her. To evoke her, we have included two paintings that went to Versailles after her death.

What are you particularly proud of?
Of the exhibition! With 350 works on display, it is a great success and a fine tribute to these women, who hardly got a mention in the Rothschild historiography.

Are there still things to discover?
Of course. The Rothschilds were so active in every sphere that you find something whenever you start delving. They are still France’s greatest patrons of the arts.

Worth reading
The catalog of the exhibition at the Musée La Boverie,
Collectionneuses Rothschild - mécènes et donatrices d'exception (Rothschild Women Collectors: Remarkable Patrons and Donors),
Fanny Moens, Vincent Pomarède and Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy,
"Artha Books", Exhibitions International, 2022.
Until February 26, 2023.
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