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A photo of the exterior facade and courtyard of the Musee Cognacq-Jay

Musée Cognacq-Jay: A World of 18th Century Art

The Marais is home to many museums. The Musée Carnavalet. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. And course, the world famous Centre Pompidou. But there are many other smaller museums tucked among the narrow, winding roads of Paris’ 3rd and 4th arrondissements. There’s a museum dedicated to the history of hunting. Yes, really. There’s also the museum of magic, which is just plain fun, and the Musée des Arts et Métiers, which is Europe’s oldest science museum. And then there’s the Musée Cognacq-Jay, a little known art museum tucked away in the Hôtel Donon. I recently paid a visit to this hidden gem, and stepping over its threshold felt like stepping back into the 18th century.

A Couple of Art Collectors

The Musée Cognacq-Jay is named after Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jay, a married couple who were both passionate art collectors. They were also the founders of the famous La Samaritaine department store, and the success of that endeavour allowed them to enthusiastically pursue their passion. They had a particular fascination for 18th century art, and between 1900 and 1925, they built their collection. Marie-Louise passed away in 1925, and Ernest followed in 1928. At his death, he bequeathed their entire art collection to the city of Paris, and the Musée Cognacq-Jay was inaugurated the following year.

The museum was originally located on Boulevard des Capucines in a building that was specially designed by the couple. They envisioned a museum that wouldn’t feel like a museum at all. Instead, they wanted visitors to feel like they were walking through an inhabited home. An inhabited home that just so happened to house over 1,200 works of art. Unfortunately, the museum is no longer located in this custom designed space. In 1990, the city of Paris decided to move it to the Marais, claiming that the neighbourhood was a much better fit, culturally speaking. Cognacq and Jay’s heirs disagreed, but nevertheless, the museum was moved. It re-opened in its current location in December, 1990.

A Step Into 18th Century Art

Ernest and Marie-Louise aimed to represent the full spectrum of 18th century art in their collection. As a result, this collection includes paintings, sculptures, furniture, and drawings, as well as objects such as snuff boxes and ceramics. The paintings come from a wide variety of artists, including masterpieces by François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Canaletto, and Tiepolo. The museum also holds two paintings by Rembrandt, a particularly exciting discovery for me when I visited.

Today, the Musée Cognacq-Jay is part of the City of Paris museums, meaning entry to the permanent collections is free. In other words, a perfect excuse to spend an hour or so wandering through this off the beaten track museum. It may not be the space that Ernest and Marie-Louise intended to showcase their impressive art collection, but it is beautiful nonetheless. And it will give you the opportunity to marvel at masterpieces of the 18th century without worrying about the crowds at the Louvre. What more could you want from an art museum?

The Musée Cognacq-Jay is located at 8 rue Elzévir in the Marais. It is open every day except Mondays, and the permanent collections are free to visit.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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