ESSAY: Death with a blue ribbon

A closeup from Girl with a Blue Ribbon

When 11-year-old Irene Cahen d’Anvers sat for Renoir’s masterpiece known as Girl with a Blue Ribbon, she could not have known that the painting would be embroiled in a monumental tragedy, culminating in the murder of her entire family in Auschwitz a few decades later. 

The Cahen d’Anvers were among the wealthiest and most renowned families in Paris during la belle époch and also generous patrons of the arts. Hoping to advance his career and attract new clients, Renoir turned to the artistic impresario extraordinaire Charles Ephrussi for help submitting paintings to official salons. Ephrussi, who at the time was having a scandalous affair with the wife of Raphael Cahen d’Anvers, Louise, suggested that the Cahen daughters would make admirable subjects for Renoir’s canvas. He had no difficulty in convincing his paramour, and Louise commissioned two paintings: Girl with a Blue Ribbon in 1880 and Pink and Blue in 1881. 

Over the years, these paintings assumed their rightful places in the salons of the Cahen d’Anvers and were prominently displayed when Irene, a beautiful girl in her late teens, married Count Moise de Camondo, uniting two major banking families in a fairy tale wedding that was the talk of Paris for months.

But sorrow was biding its time in the shadows of Irene’s gilded life. 

Although the marriage produced two children, Beatrice and Nissim, it was not a happy one. Irene became distant and withdrawn, and unexpectedly converted to Catholicism as she was having a tempestuous affair, reminiscent of Anna Karenina, with the dashing Italian Count Charles Sampieri, her husband’s master of the stables. She abandoned her family and ran away with the Italian aristocrat. 

The scandal shook the foundation of Parisian society to its very core and became the subject of endless salon gossip. Irene was so deeply in love with Sampieri that she traded a divorce for full custody of the children. The portrait was removed from the Camondo residence on Rue Monceau and sent to Irene’s mother, Louise. 

Misfortune pursued Irene relentlessly. When her son, Nissim, fell in World War I, she became inconsolable. Then came the calamitous Dreyfus Affair, which added insult to injury. In retrospect, it was only the first sip of the poisoned chalice that would be proffered to European Jews in years to come.

When Adolf Hitler visited Palais Garnier as the overlord of Paris after the fall of France, the first thing Beatrice and her husband, Leon Reinach, did was to take the painting to the Château de Chambord and place it under the protection of the state. It was a last-minute false donation meant to prevent the work from being confiscated by the Nazis. 

But the plan did not work our as expected: Herman Goering was determined to loot all Jewish-owned works of art including Girl with a Blue Ribbon. French museum authorities actively participated in the confiscation of priceless works of art owned by Jews.

When Goering stole the portrait from Chambord, Beatrice and Leon complained and contacted all their highly placed friends both in Paris and in Vichy asking for the return of the painting. Goering had other plans. He traded the work for a Florentine tondo to Gustav Rochlitz, a German art dealer in Paris who played a key role in the looting of art during the war and acted as Goering’s official agent through the offices of the arch thief Reichsleiter Rosenberg. 

Rummaging through archives, I found a letter written by Leon in August 1941 addressed to the director of French National Museums, protesting the seizure of “La petite fille au ruban blue,” reminding him of the donation made in “favour of French patrimony” and asking for “restitution and the assurance that the ownership of our works of art would be respected in the future.” He did not have to remind him that his wife’s family had already donated 56 impressionist paintings, including the fabled Le Joueur de fifre by Édouard Manet to the Louvre. 

Leon also wrote his friend George Duhamel, secretary general of the Académie Française, who responded favourably and used his considerable influence to secure the release of the painting. Inexplicably, Duhamel also contacted Ferdinand de Biron, a leading collaborator and notorious anti-Semite. Not surprisingly, Biron passed on the complaint to Goering’s henchman, Sipo-SD chief Helmut Knochen in charge of deporting Jews. In a set of documents dated March 24 to May 15, 1943, the Nazi police chief writes about Leon’s letters, calling him a “typically insolent Jew” alluding to the necessity of deporting him in 1941.

In effect, writing letters about the return of the Renoir, Leon was signing his death warrant and that of his entire family. 

In a matter of months after these letters were written, the Reinach family was arrested, detained in Drancy and subsequently deported to Auschwitz, where they all died. Goering had no patience for “insolent Jews” who interfered with his new “art collection.” 

Irene, living in Paris as Countess Sampieri, was made aware of her son-in-law’s efforts to save her portrait and the deportation of her entire family, including her grandchildren, while hiding behind the curtains of her apartment.  

In 1946, by pure chance, Irene saw the painting in an exhibit of liberated works of art. She fought bitterly to have the portrait restored to her and succeeded in the end. But in 1949, nearly penniless, having spent the remaining Camondo inheritance at the gambling tables in Monaco, she sold her portrait to the Swiss arms industrialist Emil Georg Buhrle, who had augmented his family’s fortune considerably by selling arms to the Third Reich. Irene squandered this money too and died in poverty aged 91 in 1963.  

The Renoir was given by Buhrle’s heirs to the Foundation E.G. Buhrle Collection Museum in Zurich, where today it can be admired with tenderness tinged with regret. We might prefer to remember Irene as she was then, innocence incarnate, and not as she became later, a woman without a soul in the fullness of time. 

Erol Araf is a Montreal-based strategic planning consultant.