This is the Hare With Amber Eyes, for which Edmund de Waal named the book he wrote about his family, the Ephrussis. My edition is subtitled “A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”. The hare is one of 264 netsuke (net-ski), tiny sculptures that hung on traditional Japanese costumes, fastening pouches -external pockets. At the end of World War II, this collection of tiny objects was the only part of the great Ephrussi fortune to survive.
Charles Ephrussi bought the collection from a Paris dealer in 1880. Charles is the man in the top hat in The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir and one of two men who served as the model for Proust’s Swann. (De Waal cautions us not to assume that Charles would actually wear such clothes to a boating party.)
Nineteen years later, Charles sent the nesuke in their black vitrine to Vienna as a wedding gift to his cousin Victor and his bride, Emmy. There in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, the netsuke lived in Emmy’s dressing room where their children played with them. They remained there when the family fled in 1938. Although the palace was occupied by the Nazis, the netsuke were miraculously spared from plunder and came back into the family’s hands in 1947. Amazingly, Iggy Ephrussi took Tokyo where he lived until his death, leaving them to his nephew Edmund de Waal, the author of The Hare With Amber Eyes.
Charles Ephrussi, who first bought the collection, kept the 264 tiny carvings in the salon of his second floor apartment on a Parisian hill. Being the third and youngest son, bookish and uninterested in making money, he was not required to join the family business. It had started as wheat dealing in Odessa, but had grown into banking and family members had been dispatched to Paris, Vienna and ultimately, to Moscow to establish branches. Charles was free to indulge his interest in art, writing a book about Durer, as well as magazine articles, becoming the proprietor of the Gazette and collecting paintings by Impressionist painters for himself and others, as well as offering the artists personal encouragement and friendship. Edmund de Waal imagines the walls of the salon as it must have been, hung with these pictures three deep. Included among the 40 paintings Charles hung were Renoir’s Gypsy Girl, Manet’s Asparagus, Monet’s Pommiers and Morisot’s On the Lawn.
The description of Charles’ salon with its yellow arm chair, its walls glowing with luminous Impressionist paintings and the black lacquered vitrine is one of my favourite parts of the book.
The story is told anecdotally as the author travels to the places where the collection lived and delves deeper into the family history but because it is his family, de Waal is very much a part of it, offering his response to his discoveries. If I had to choose one word to describe The Hare With Amber Eyes, it would be charming. In spite of the fact that it is a story of great loss, reading about such beauty salves the soul.
(Another post will talk about the netsuke in Vienna.)