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The Mysterious Ennery Museum and the Remarkable Woman Behind It

Detail of the Ennery Museum collection

The Musée d’Ennery is a unique collection of Japanese and Chinese artworks that belonged to the late 19th-century collector Clémence d’Ennery. She spent most of her life acquiring pieces she loved, especially fantastical little chimeras, and then built a mansion near the Bois de Boulogne to showcase them. Clémence left it to the French state upon her death in 1898 under the condition it becomes a museum open free to the public (spoiler alert: it’s not). Today it’s part of the Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts. Because it’s only open one day a week for guided tours in French, and reservations fill up quickly, it’s one of the least-known museums in the city, but well worth the effort.

Who was Clémence d’Ennery?

Clémence d’Ennery was born Joséphine Clémence Lecarpentier two centuries ago today (August 29, 1823) in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. Despite being a vibrant woman of independent means who mingled with artists and had many famous friends (including popular playwright Adolphe d’Ennery, who would become her second husband shortly before her death), she remains a rather discreet character in Parisian history. Sadly, I couldn’t find one image of her in any of the archives I searched.

According to a recent article by art professor Elizabeth Emery, “The Musée d’Ennery: Visualizing Nineteenth-Century Parisian Networks for the Circulation of East Asian Art”, Clémence was born into a wealthy French family of noble origins. “She inherited from her mother a number of antique vases, boxes, and small sculpted objects. Unlike her friends, who spent their time and money ordering dresses, she told reporters that she had chosen to invest in art, relishing the colors, material, and workmanship of figurines.”

In 1841 she married Charles Desgranges, the son of the mayor of the 11th arrondissement. But the marriage didn’t seem to suit one or both of them, and they were legally separated in 1844 when Charles moved to Algeria for work (divorce wasn’t possible back then). Much like her contemporary Aurore Dupin (aka George Sand), this gave her the freedom to control her own considerable finances, pursue a bohemian lifestyle, and indulge in her passion for art. She soon became close to her future husband, Adolphe d’Ennery.

A bust of Adolphe d'Ennery
Adolphe d’Ennery

“Although long thought to be the collection of successful playwright Adolphe d’Ennery, whose name it bears, the museum was, in fact, the work of his wife, Clémence, known to friends by the lower-class nickname Gisette. Clémence became “Madame d’Ennery” only in 1881 after the death of her first husband, Charles Desgranges, from whom she had been estranged since shortly after their 1841 marriage. Reputed as a wild and witty hostess, she served as Adolphe’s consort and erst-while collaborator for more than fifty years, mixing with the best-known actors, writers, and journalists of the day. Among them were Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, who admired and praised her “collection of Chinese monsters,” which numbered 150 by the time Jules visited it in 1859. The brothers’ praise is noteworthy given the disdain with which they chronicled the collecting and decorating practices of so many of their contemporaries, including Adolphe d’Ennery. Indeed, Jules’s enthusiasm for the fantastical and “unwomanly” collection encountered in Clémence’s remarkable apartment at 14 rue de l’Échiquier in 1859 stands in marked contrast to the dismissive representation of her collection—“What a lot of bazaar trinkets!”—by a reporter from Le Matin nearly fifty years later, when she had transformed her private lodgings into a public museum.” – From Beyond Chinoiserie: Artistic Exchange between China and the West during the Late Qing Dynasty (1796-1911)

According to Elizabeth Emery’s article, even the mansion that now houses the Ennery Museum was wrongly attributed to her husband. “Notarial documents and receipts show that it was Clémence who purchased the land in 1875, built the house, and decorated it. The couple made this address their primary residence after their 1881 wedding, which transferred technical ownership of the house to Adolphe (wives were subordinate to husbands under nineteenth-century law). Because Clémence died before Adolphe, the final bequest was also in his name, even though it was her will (and her work) that laid out the parameters of the gift.” ☹

Clémence’s Unique Collection

Clémence collected Far Eastern arts from Japan and China from the age of 20, long before Japonisme, the nineteenth-century fascination for Japanese art, was in vogue. According to historians, she never actually visited the Far East, nor was particularly interested in the objects she collected for their artistic or market value. She simply purchased any item she personally liked. Although she had been collecting since the 1840s, most of her artworks were purchased after she had constructed the neo-classic mansion on Avenue Foch built specifically to house her growing collection that would house them.

Started in 1875 and finished in 1880, it’s a gorgeous example of (affluent) 19th-century French interior décor with its “curiosity cabinet” style, marble columns, molded ceilings, carved fireplace and parquet floors. Even the glass cases, with inlaid mother-of-pearl and topped with wooden sculptures, were commissioned by Clémence specifically for the more delicate objects in her vast collection of almost 8000 objects, including Kakiemon-style enameled porcelain from Japan, ceramics from Kyoto, Nô masks, 16th-century lacquered wooden namban chests, a few paintings, and strange creatures of all kinds in bronze, jade, ivory, rock crystal, ceramic and gilded wood.

She didn’t collect prints, like many of her contemporaries, but preferred chimeras (fantastical creatures which she called her “little monsters”), and in particular small carved objects she could hold in her hand, such as netsukes, the tiny sculpted counterweights that hang off kimono belts. The museum supposedly has the largest collection of netsukes on public display in the world. Clémence loved and purchased almost 3000 of these little figurines long before any other collectors were interested in them.

Much like the museum in the Château de Chantilly, the collection at the Ennery Museum was bequeathed to the French State on the condition that everything remained unchanged. It’s like a perfectly preserved time capsule of 19th-century French bourgeois tastes…or at least Clémence’s tastes!  

If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics of her collection and where she acquired each piece, Clémence and her servants actually documented everything in notebooks that are now part of the Musée Guimet’s archives, and also online — in English! — in the Montclair State University Digital Commons:

“Because d’Ennery did not sell her collection at auction, as did contemporaries such as Philippe Burty, Edmond de Goncourt, or Charles Gillot, and because most of her collection remains intact in the museum today, these records provide remarkable insights into the kinds of objects available at nineteenth-century Parisian shops specialized in imported antiquities and, more importantly, the quality ascribed to them now and then.”

The Museum’s Complicated History

The museum almost didn’t exist at all. Clémence died in 1898, and her husband Adolphe followed in 1899. The contestation of the will by his heirs (particularly a daughter born out of wedlock he only recognized on his deathbed) delayed the validation of her legacy. It was finally officially recognized in 1901 thanks to the dedication of Émile Guimet and Georges Clemenceau, friends who were also the executors of the Ennery’s estate, who made sure that Clémence’s wishes for it to become a museum open free to the public were carried out. The Musée d’Ennery finally opened in 1908.

It was closed from 1986 through 2012 for extensive renovations (costing €1.16 million according to Le Point) to bring the building up to security codes. Because it was so complicated to visit, I never got a chance to go inside before it closed again in 2020, but I did take a peek through the fence at one point in 2018 and recall that it looked completely abandoned, its little garden overgrown with weeds (it doesn’t look much better today, honestly).

It was closed again for more renovations from 2020 until April 2023. According to the Journal des Arts, although the museum is now open for restricted visits, they’re currently looking for a partner to help with the extensive renovations that are still needed.

When you visit it’s quite obvious that the basics of any museum – good lighting and signage – are sadly lacking.

Aside from a few tiny descriptions (tiny as in written in faded ink in 6-point font with a fountain pen) of a few select artworks, like the names of some of the netsukes, there are no descriptions of what you’re looking at. Some of the glass cases even say “Various Artworks”. Had no one, in the museum’s long existence, ever thought to make a few descriptive signs or even handouts?

According to a recent article in Le Figaro, only the first floor is in decent shape. Otherwise, the roof is poorly insulated, the façade needs to be restored, the ceilings are peeling, and the entire heating and ventilation system needs an overhaul.

“We had a study carried out and it would take 15 million euros to put the building back on its feet, a sum that we obviously do not have,” indicated Yannick Lintz, director of the Guimet Museum, which has managed the Ennery since it first opened to the public in 1906.”

There’s also something odd about the whole atmosphere of the place, which is probably due to the chilly “welcome” from the two surly docents/security personnel who seem to be annoyed to be “invaded” by visitors one day per week. This isn’t your typical Parisian aloofness, either. I found a comment on TripAdvisor left by a French couple visiting the museum in 2018 who loved the collection and their guide, but who added “En revanche les personnes chargées de la surveillance du musée sont absolument détestables et nous ont véritablement gâché ce moment.” Translation: “However, the people in charge of monitoring the museum are absolutely detestable and truly ruined this moment for us.”

 A bit of research into the museum also brought up another rather scandalous incident of the unceremonious ejection of the Armenian Museum of France which had been renting space in the mansion’s ground-floor since 1953. According to Le Journal des Arts, the collections of the Musée Arménien de France were boxed up and sent to a storage space in 2011 because of the ongoing renovations, but then weren’t allowed to return when the Ennery opened back up in 2012. They have been actively looking for a new home for the collection since then, occasionally participating in special exhibitions in other locations, such as the 70th anniversary of the collection’s existence last April at ARP (Art Research Paris) Auction House in the 8th arrondissement.

September 6, 2023 UPDATE: When I visited in August, the tours were still free. However when ticketing opened on September 4th for the October dates, they now cost €9. Why? No idea, since they also never answer the phone (but I’m guessing it’s because they’re desperately trying to raise funds for renovations). As the tours are only in French, you’ll have to decide whether it’s still worth the time and effort.

How to Visit the Ennery Museum

You can only visit during one of the free €9 guided tours led by French art historians on Saturdays at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Reservations are required via the Guimet Museum’s website. All tours are sold out for September.

Reservations for October will open on September 4th, be quick if you want to get a spot! Book your spot under “Visites Commentées”: https://billetterie.guimet.fr/fr-FR/accueil

The museum is located at 59 Avenue Foch (near the Bois de Boulogne) in the 16th arrondissement, closest metro Victor Hugo or Porte Dauphine. The gate is only opened the moment your tour starts, so don’t bother getting there too early. After letting them scan the bar code on your reservation confirmation, you’ll be asked to put your (small) bags and coats in the free lockers provided.

Then everyone is led up to the first floor (or second floor if you’re American), the only part of the building open to the public.

The lighting isn’t great. Photos without flash are allowed, but good luck getting an image without reflections from the windows. If your guide shows up, you’ll be given a one-hour tour taking you through a succession of five rooms, each more fantastic than the last. The tour is only in French, and from what I hear the guides are very good. If your guide doesn’t show (like when I visited, but it was one of the last free tours, so I’m guessing that won’t happen again), you’ll still be allowed in by the grumpy docents who will herd the group through each room, giving you plenty of time to look and photograph, but who will not answer any questions at all besides where to find the restrooms (back down on the ground floor).

As mentioned above, there is no additional information provided beyond a few barely-legible tags, so if you’re really interested in knowing what you’re looking at, I highly recommend you visit the Guimet Museum first if you’re not already familiar with Far Eastern arts.

The stairs continue, but only the first floor is open to the public in the Ennery Museum.


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  • I have had the privilege to visit the museum decades ago, when it was much more open to the public than now.
    it was a blast ! (No surly docents then)
    I strongly recommend it, and as usual I am “épaté” by Heather’s flair : -))))