© Fabulorum. José Medio

In 1880, when Auguste Renoir was asked by Louise Cahen d’Anvers to paint the portrait of her daughter Irène, he was becoming increasingly popular among Parisian Jewish patrons. His friend Charles Ephrussi, lover of Louise, and art critic at the respected Gazette des Beaux-Arts had introduced him to these families and Renoir saw an opportunity to make some money and get more exposure for his art.

At first sight the work certainly pleased the mother of Irène. She did not hesitate to commission a second one of her two younger daughters, Elizabeth and Alice. Irène’s portrait was widely admired when it was shown at the Salon in 1881. Huysmans wrote that it was “painted with a flourish of color that has only ever been approached by the old masters of the English school”. It is a masterly work, the brushstrokes and the play of light giving it a hypnotic glow.

All was not going to end well between Renoir and his charming and influential patroness. In a rather undocumented twist, she changed her mind about her appreciation of the artist and the portraits wound up in the servants’ quarters. The family took more than a year to pay for his work, a miserly sum of 1500 francs. “as for the 1500 francs from the Cahens, I must say that I find it hard to swallow. The family is so stingy”, he wrote to a friend.

In 1891, Irène, was married to Moïse de Camondo, an awkward match planned by their banking families. She was only 19 years-old, he 31 and one-eyed. The portrait followed her to her new home and when five years later, after giving Moïse two children, she separated, it was again the subject of another migration, this time, adding to her share of  items in the bitter divorce settlement.

Her separation had a name: Carlo Sampieri, the Italian aristocrat in charge of the stables of the Camondo family. She had probably fallen in love for the first time. Undaunted, she married him and converted to Catholicism. The scandal took a toll on her reserved children, Nissim and Béatrice, who continued to live with their father.

Almost four decades later, Béatrice became the custodian of the canvas. She must have liked it more than her mother, who hovered between indifference and dislike for the way Renoir portrayed her. A second and violent chapter opened for the artwork in 1941, with the arrival of the Nazis in Paris, plundering all art found in their wake. The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce appropriated the canvas and Béatrice was sent to Drancy, the internment camp outside Paris. It was then perhaps sold to a Swiss arms-dealer, Georg Bürhle by Hermann Goering. Béatrice’s final destiny was Auschwitz where her two children and estranged husband, Reinach, were sent earlier. None of them survived.

After the Liberation, Contessa Sampieri, the sweet Iréne of the painting and sole heiress of her daughter’s fortune, discovered her portrait in a 1946 exhibition organized by the Allied Forces, “Masterpieces of the French collections found in Germany” at L’Orangerie museum. She claimed the asset through the Commission for the Art Recoveries and two years later it entered again into her possession.

In her ambivalence about the work and in need of money for her gambling habits, she put the canvas on sale at a Paris art gallery. A buyer was quickly found and a price agreed. His name was Georg Bürhle and the canvas today hangs in the foundation bearing his name in Zurich. Irène Sampieri died in 1963 at the age of 91, after squandering all of her fortune in the casinos.


  1. Charley Brown says: July 2, 20145:16 pm

    Although I am not a fan of most of Renoir’s work, I find this story to be fascinating. Your research mining the rich gold vein of the Camondo family is revealing fabulous nuggets.

  2. Susan says: July 4, 20141:09 am

    What a refreshing take: to follow the history of the painting, rather than the individuals. We don’t really think of the works of art having their own history, do we… you have shown that they do indeed. Such a fascinating story.