London Top Destinations

Europe’s Small House Museums

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and other idiosyncratic house museums in Europe yield pleasures beyond their size

Library dining room of the Sir John Soane Museum (Martin Charles / Sir John Soane Museum)
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At first glance, the museum could not be more different from Soane's. Bursting with color, it exudes a luxuriant sense of space. But no less than Soane's, it sweeps visitors back to another era—in this case, the Paris of La Belle Époque, when the city blossomed as Europe's capital of elegance, and to the even earlier golden age of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

No sooner does one step from the old carriage driveway into a formal courtyard than the sound of Parisian traffic fades away. Ascending wide stone steps graced by sculpted lions, one feels a flush of privilege, like a guest who has been invited to a private soirée. Inside, one is met by a three-quarter-length portrait of the master himself, Édouard André—a dashing figure in the uniform of the Imperial Guard under Emperor Napoleon III, complete with gold brocade and scarlet breeches. A manicured gardienne ushers guests into the Picture Gallery, where the seduction continues. André had a passion for 18th-century French art, fueled by his nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary days, and the first floor is devoted to it. On gilt-framed canvases, voluptuous goddesses float naked on clouds and rosy-cheeked children pose with birds and kittens. A visitor drifts from the gilded Grand Salon to the soaring Music Room, where formally attired guests once gathered for concerts, then on to the glass-roofed Winter Garden, filled with exotic plants and gleaming marble, where an extravagant double staircase spirals up to the second floor.

And so the house unfolds, offering one dazzling gallery after another. The Library, where Édouard and Nélie pored over art catalogs and plotted their purchases, is home to their world-class array of Dutch paintings, including three Rembrandts and three Van Dycks. Japanese ceramics and Persian antiquities enliven the Smoking Room, where Édouard would retire after dinner with his male companions to smoke cigars and discuss the issues of the day, while the Tapestry Room, used for business meetings, is lined with scenes of Russian peasant life created by the Beauvais Tapestry factory in 1767. As one climbs to the second floor, a playful Tiepolo fresco on the staircase wall depicts the arrival of Henry III in Venice. The upper level is devoted to the couple's "Italian Museum"—one room for Renaissance sculpture, a second for Florentine art, including two paintings by Botticelli, and a third room for André's beloved collection of the art of Venice.

The mansion, which was designed for André by architect Henri Parent, was completed in 1875, when the Boulevard Haussmann was one of Paris' chic new addresses and André was one of the city's most eligible bachelors. Heir to an enormous banking fortune, he had grown disillusioned with public life and decided to devote himself to collecting art and publishing a fine arts journal. In 1881, when he was nearly 50, he married Nélie Jacquemart, the woman who had painted his portrait nine years earlier. In many ways, she was an unlikely match for this aristocratic boulevardier. Nearly 40 herself, Jacquemart was no high-society belle. She was an independent woman from a humble background—evidently illegitimate—who had supported herself as a portrait artist, quite an unusual achievement for a woman at the time.

It was a marriage based on shared taste. During their 13 years together, the couple traveled for part of each year, most often to Italy, where they attended auctions with the help of experts from the Louvre, who were motivated to win art for France. After Édouard died in 1894, at age 61, Nélie continued traveling the world, going as far as Burma for her purchases. On her death at 71 in 1912, she donated the house to the Institut de France (an academic organization that manages foundations and museums) on the condition that the collection remain intact, so that the French public could see, she said in her will, "where a pair of amateur art-lovers lived out a life of enjoyment and luxury."

Indeed, there is enormous pleasure to be taken from seeing the couple's paintings and sculptures mixed in with their objets d'art and fine furniture in a domestic setting. After a while, however, even the finest taste can be a little overbearing. Visitors can't help but speak in hushed tones so as not to upset the exquisite equilibrium.

But the mansion bursts to exuberant life in the Dining Room—the former heart of the original mansion—which has been converted into one of Paris' most sumptuous café-restaurants. In this airy chamber, where the couple entertained friends beneath lavish tapestries, one can now enjoy a salade niçoise and glass of sauvignon blanc. There is a strange feeling of being watched here, and not just by fellow diners: the ceiling is a marvelous joke, another Tiepolo fresco—this one depicting a crowd of Venetian nobles leaning over a balustrade, pointing and smiling at the diners below.

Perched on the mantelpiece is a bust of Nélie Jacquemart. She many not have fit in with the city's fashionable set—later in life, she retired to her rural chateau, Chaalis, today another grand house museum, 30 miles outside the city—but she certainly took a fierce pride in her collection, and one imagines her still basking in the pleasure it creates.

Museo Sorolla

Madrid is a city of extravagant facades whose true attractions lie behind closed doors. Hidden beyond a stone wall in the former working-class district of Chamberí, a ten-minute taxi ride from the bustle of the Plaza Mayor in downtown Madrid, lies the sun-filled Museo Sorolla. The former home and art studio of one of Spain's most beloved painters, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, it is a succulent garden of tinkling fountains and exuberant flowers, an explosion of Mediterranean color and joie de vivre.

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