Guide Tour of Cognacq-Jay Museum, Paris, France

The Cognacq-Jay Museum is a municipal museum of the City of Paris presenting a collection of 18th century works and art objects from the legacy of Ernest Cognacq. The museum’s collection was formed between 1900–1925 by Théodore-Ernest Cognacq (1839–1928) and his wife Marie-Louise Jaÿ (1838–1925), founders of La Samaritaine department store. The museum houses over 1,200 objects including paintings, sculptures, drawings, furniture and decorative objects. It is one of the fourteen museums of the City of Paris managed since January 1, 2013 by the public administrative establishment Paris Musées.

When this passionate collector died in 1928, this invaluable collection of paintings, furniture and other artifacts was bequeathed to the City of Paris. Ernest Cognacq did not bequeath his entire collection to his own home but had chosen to present a selection of 18th century pieces in a building independent of his living space in order to reconstruct, following the model of the museum Carnavalet, atmospheres where the woodwork becomes showcases for the works. The Musée Cognacq-Jay inaugurated in 1929 at 25 boulevard des Capucines, a building especially conceived for it by the Cognacq couple, who wished to display the collection in the intimacy of a seemingly inhabited home, without the conventions of a museum.

The Cognacq-Jay collection is enriched annually by acquisitions that fall within the axes formed by the taste and the look of a collector from the beginning of the 20th century, at the very time when the arts of the 18th century were an essential reference in any bourgeois interior. The nature of the collection, made up of small-sized objects, but also the selection of iconographic subjects touching on the intimate, from interior scenes to portraits, make it a privileged meeting place with the spirit of the 18th century.French century as it was conceived in the era of the Cognacqs: a century where sociability, exchanges and the art of living are at the heart of individual development.

Maintaining this spirit and this notion of a partial and retrospective view of the 18th century, the Cognacq-Jay museum offers visitors exhibitions dedicated to a better understanding of French society and art in the 18th century, but also of the reference that the spirit of this century still constitutes in our own society. In 1990, the City moved the collection to the Hôtel Donon (c. 1575) in the Marais, where the collection is displayed in twenty paneled rooms in the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI. The renovation work of the Hôtel Donon was led by Paris’ chief architect Bernard Fonquernie, whilst the interior renovation was done by Reoven Vardi.

The Musée Cognacq-Jay recreates the atmosphere of an Enlightenment-era Paris residence. Housed inside a beautiful former 16th century mansion complete with courtyard and garden. The museum has five floors where visitors will be able to discover some of the mansion’s rooms such as the kitchen or the servant’s quarters on the top floor. All the rooms in the building contain different decorative objects and works of art that Cognacq and his wife collected throughout their life together.

The museum contains an exceptional collection of fine art and decorative items, with an emphasis on 18th century France, ranging from European and Chinese ceramics, jewels, and snuffboxes, to paintings by Louis-Léopold Boilly, François Boucher, Canaletto, Jean-Siméon Chardin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Hubert Robert, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Jean-Antoine Watteau; sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, and Jacques-François-Joseph Saly; and fine furniture attributed to Jean-François Oeben and Roger Vandercruse Lacroix. 17th century is also represented, notably with two paintings by Rembrandt while 19th century is represented with works by Camille Corot, Paul Cézanne and also Edgar Degas.

Of modest origins, the couple formed by Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jaÿ constitute a remarkable example of social ascent linked to the rise of department stores at the end of the 19th century. The Young Théodore-Ernest Cognacq earn a living as an itinerant merchant in La Rochelle and Bordeaux. He moved to Paris, where he found work at a department store and met his future wife, Marie-Louise Jay. In 1867, he opened his own shop in the Marais on Rue Turbigo. It wasn’t a success, he went bankrupt. Ernest regrouped by working as a street hawker beneath Pont-Neuf.

By the age of 30, he had managed to save enough money to sublet a location where Rue du Pont-Neuf and Rue de la Monnaie join the Pont Neuf. His plan was to attract customers from the nearby Les Halles market, and this time his plan was successful. Cognacq leased the space and hired two employees. He also married his life partner, Marie-Louise, who at the time was working in the dressmaking department of Le Bon Marché department store.

The hardworking couple eventually opened La Samaritaine department store. The business prospered, thanks to their innovative retail techniques like clearly-displayed prices, daily promotions, and the revolutionary idea that customers could try on clothes before purchasing. In 1882, sales were 600,000F (francs). In 1895, 40,000,000F and by 1925, sales broke a billion francs.

In 1883 (with sales at about 1,000,000F), Ernest Cognacq met Belgian architect Frantz Jourdain, a pioneer of Art Nouveau. Jourdain redesigned the interiors of the first La Samaritaine, as well as the Cognacq residence at 65 Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now Avenue Foch). In 1905, he designed the second La Samaritaine store and boldly featured Art Nouveau elements with visible metal frames and a facade with enameled rock panels and mosaics. The storefront was updated to an Art Deco style in about 1927.

With their untold fortune, the Cognacqs focused not only on collecting, but also on philanthropic activities. In 1907, Ernest established a local history museum on Ile de Re. Marie-Louise established Jaysinia, an Alpine botanical garden in her home region of Haut-Savoie. Together, they founded the Fondation Cognacq-Jay (still in existence); they opened a children’s nursery, a medical centre, a nursing home, a school, a maternity clinic and an orphanage.

The museum
The singular history of the museum merges, in its origins, with that of the Samaritaine, of which Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jay were the founders. From 1925, Ernest Cognacq organized temporary presentations of his own collections in the levels of the Samaritaine de Luxe, an annex to the department store located at 25-29, boulevard des Capucines. Built in the Opéra district by Frantz Jourdain, the building was dedicated to the sale of high-end products intended for the interiors of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Documentary photographs illustrate the scenographic bias of Cognacq: isolated furniture on platforms, scalloped curtains on the walls, covering decorative hanging.

As early as 1927, Ernest Cognacq acquired a set of 18th century woodwork as frames for the museum which he planned to install in the neighboring Samaritaine de Luxe building. Despite his death in 1928, his plan was pursued by Edouard Jonas, antique dealer and adviser to the boss of La Samaritaine, and the beneficiary of the bequest, the City of Paris. Inaugurated by the President of the Republic, Gaston Doumergue on June 4, 1929, the three levels present the entire Cognacq collection in reconstructions of 18th century interiors. The preface to the first Catalogue, written by art historian Seymour de Ricci in 1929, guides visitors by recalling the intentions of this new museum:

Ernest Cognacq did not claim, as a collector, to compete with the great museums of the capital. Just as his natural modesty never made him wish to reside in a palace, so he wanted, for his collections, a frame whose restricted dimensions could preserve for his works of art the atmosphere of intimacy which he had loved. to surround them. Thus, in three floors of medium height, the visitor to the Cognacq-Jay museum will find an artistic ensemble, where he will not have to look for the vast canvases and the large ceremonial pieces of furniture that one admires in the immense galleries. of the Louvre and Versailles, but he will have the joy of discovering, in a harmonious environment, all that, according to a happy expression, constituted the artistic decor of French life in the 18th century. The Cognacq-Jay Museum,

After the cessation of activities of the Samaritaine de Luxe in 1981, then its sale in 1983, the City of Paris chose a new place of conservation and presentation for the Cognacq collection, near the Carnavalet museum. Restored between 1986 and 1989, the Hôtel Donon, a 16th century residence located in the heart of the Marais, has since 1990 housed the collections of Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ. These are presented on three levels in the main building and the level of galleries bordering the courtyard.

The museography revolves around a thematic route relating to the 18th century.century leaving the last level, that of the roof, reserved for temporary presentations, and the reception area, for the history of the collection. Over the next two decades, as new exhibitions and the evolution of museum conservation standards progressed, the organization of the spaces gradually evolved to revolve around two poles: the temporary exhibitions, on the first level of the museum, and the permanent collection, deployed both in atmospheric reconstructions and typological galleries.

Hotel Donon
Since 1990, the Cognacq-Jay museum has been nestled in a mansion in the heart of the Marais, the Donon hotel. Like many buildings in the Marais, during the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20thcentury, the Hotel Donon had been used for commercial purposes and was disfigured by lean-tos; Eugène Atget’s photos testify to this state. The City of Paris acquired it in 1974 and restored it in order to present the collections of the Cognacq-Jay museum. In the meantime, the hotel had been classified as a Historic Monument.

The hotel’s architect adopted a regular plan: the buildings surround a rectangular courtyard. Basically, the main building is located between courtyard and garden; two wings connect it to the building on the street; the south one probably housed sheds and stables, while a simple gallery occupied the north wing. On the side of the courtyard, as well as on the side of the garden, two small side pavilions project. The structure of the main building is characteristic of hotels in the Marais in the 16th century.century: two floors of cellars – one of them in the semi-basement reserved for the kitchens and the common room – above which rise two floors of the same height, one on the ground floor high floor reserved for reception apartments, the other square floor topped with a high roof, one of the most beautiful still existing today.

The elegance of this architecture is due to the perfection of the rhythm of the openings: half-crossed – crossed – crossed – half-crossed. Subtly, on the side of the courtyard, everything contributes to create a pyramid effect: thus the two skylights pierced in the roof are united under the same pediment; on the garden side, only the full windows are surmounted by skylights. This already classic purity is not weighed down by any carved decoration: at the base of the roof, the consoles are left bare, simple moldings underline the rounding of the skylights and the slopes of the pediments. If the main building seems intact, the same is not true of the pavilions: the analysis of their construction makes one think of an addition or an elevation.

The transformations made in the 17th and 18th centuries no longer make it possible to locate with certainty the location of the main entrance to the hotel. It is likely that a pierced door on the ground floor of the northern pavilion of the courtyard gave access to the staircase leading to the apartment, the outbuildings and the garden. The current staircase, of the “vacuum” type and equipped with a wrought iron banister, dates from the end of the 17th century.century, as shown by its characteristics and comparisons with other staircases in the Marais. Its modification led to that of the north pavilion and, for the sake of symmetry, a transformation of the south pavilion. The wings were probably raised at the same time, as the traces of an old roof of the north wing suggested during the restoration of the hotel.

In addition, the windows of the side galleries do not have mullions unlike those of the main building. The architecture of the building facing the street, with its portal surmounted by a pediment decorated with a shell, cannot date from the 16th century either, but from a later work campaign, probably from the end of the 17th century.century. Probably around 1710, direct access to the garden from the reception apartment, located on the upper ground floor, was provided by drilling a French window opening onto a porch (map of Paris by Jaillot, 1774).

Some elements of interior decoration remain. Of the original decoration there remains, in the lower chamber (room IV of the museum) and in the north pavilion overlooking the garden (room II), ceilings with exposed beams and joists, painted in imitation of marquetry with ornaments such as foliage rosettes. Transformations from the beginning of the 17th century date the white and gold paneling located in the same pavilion and in the large room on the ground floor (room III).

The rooms on the ground floor are decorated with woodwork. The museum brings together collections of paintings by Nicolas de Largillierre, Jean Siméon Chardin, Rembrandt (Balaam and his donkey, 1626), Ruisdael, Canaletto, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (The Banquet of Cleopatra, circa 1742-1743), Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, François Boucher (The Return of Diane the Huntress), pastels by Maurice Quentin de La Tour and very beautiful drawings by Watteau. Fragonard is also present with figures of children. Sculptures by Houdon and Clodion are on display.

Each room has been restored with period furniture and precious objects. Showcases show porcelain from Saxony, snuffboxes, bezels and toiletry sets. The whole evokes the refined life of the Age of Enlightenment. There are also some later works, including two Canalettos, some Guardi, three canvases by Hubert Robert and a very fine portrait of the Princess of Metternich attributed to Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The museum regularly organizes temporary exhibitions: “The century of Watteau” (2008), “Tivoli” (2011), “The patina of time” (2012), “The golden century of the fan” (2014), “Jean-Baptiste Huet, the pleasure of nature” (2016), “The childhood of lights” (2018), “The manufacture of luxury: Parisian haberdashers in the 18th century ” (2019), “The empire The senses. From Boucher to Greuze” (2020-2021), “Louis-Léopold Boilly, Parisian chronicles” (2022). The museum also sometimes hosts interventions by contemporary artists. Christian Lacroix had carte blanche for an exhibition entitled “Lights” in 2015.