This is the story of a woman of extraordinary destiny. Cornelia Jacquemart, a girl of modest origins with a patrician name, had the good fortune of receiving a refined education from Madame de Vatry, a noblewoman for whom her parents worked. Nélie’s artistic inclinations did the rest. In the first part of her life, she entered the studio of the painter Léon Cogniet and by 1868, she received a medal at the Salon, the annual exhibition of contemporary art. Few had her self-assuredness and her contacts and good technique propelled her to become the darling portraitist of many political and famous men. She managed to successfully break the impasse between dilettantism and professionalism which many women painters attempted to navigate in the second part of the 19 century. Thiers, the President of the Republic, sat for her and in the stuffy world of French male politics, a man of great wealth asked her in 1872 to do his portrait.
Édouard André was a “fils unique”, the single scion of a Protestant banking family. He was nearly forty when he met Nélie, a man of the world with a reputation as a shrewd investor who had increased the family fortune speculating in the golden property development headed by Haussman which resulted in the radical transformation of Paris. And true to the tasteful models of his time, he embarked upon the construction of a magnificent residence and assembled a first-rate collection of art, inspired on both accounts, by 18 century aesthetics. Pursuits which other enlightened magnates, such as Isaac de Camondo turned into life passions to distance themselves from simply a rich man’s caprice.
When this blasé bachelor met Mlle. Jacquemart, she was already holding her own in a world where a single woman living off her painting was still an exception. No great sparks glowed out of that encounter, just a slow flame, a current of sympathy progressively strengthened. Nonetheless, nine years later Édouard asked Nélie for her hand in marriage. The Anglo-Saxon press commented on the event: “The fashionable world and the respected bourgeoisie think that M. André sets a deplorable example in taking Mlle. Jacquemart for his wife. The idea is that he should have looked out for another fortune, or have dedicated his millions to the daughter of some noble personage bearing an old title”.
And so, under that unkind auspice and the distrust of the beau monde began the second life of Nélie. The couple set about enlarging André’s collection mostly revolving around 17 and 18 century masterpieces. Nélie abandoned her paintbrushes and became a collector as avid and engaged as her husband. A gilded life of traveling in search of new treasures took them abroad and often to Italy where Nélie had stayed as a young woman at the Roman Villa Medici.
By the time Édouard died in 1894 the collection was almost completed, but not the unabated passion of Nélie for more. She journeyed to India and Burma exploring other cultures’ artifacts, seeking a new aesthetic pleasure. The destiny of this romantic heroine had no match in the pen of any of her contemporaries. The couple bequeathed their collections to the Institute de France. And today, the Jacquemart-André museum is one of the jewels of the Parisian art crown.