Jean-André Bloch was a successful property developer, who built a number of handsome apartment and office blocks in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. These include 73 Quai d'Orsay, in the 7th arrondissement, where he had his residence, and 18 Avenue Matignon, in the 8th, which housed his office. Bloch had a passion for French architecture and the decorative arts. He amassed an important collection of seventeenth-century furniture, silver, and faience, as well as a significant library. As an avocation he was a director of a private, nonprofit association known as the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs (which still functions today under a shortened name). He designed the furniture for his office in collaboration with Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, and it was there that he wished to hang a portrait of his family. Bloch and his wife, Gilberte, were both from families with origins in Alsace. Like many French Jews, they were highly assimilated and nonobservant, raising their children without religious affiliation.
Madame Claude Dalsace, the Blochs’ third child, remembers:
"My father, Jean-André Bloch, was born in Paris in 1884. His family came from Alsace, in eastern France. After his three-year military service, he started working with his father in property development. During World War I he fought at Verdun, earning the rank of lieutenant and the Military Cross and Legion of Honor. In 1919 he married my mother, Gilberte, née Liewer. She was born in 1893 in Paris and her family was also Alsatian. She had wanted to become a doctor but her father considered such a profession improper for a young lady, so she studied literature instead. When World War I broke out, her father changed his mind and encouraged her to attend medical school, as the war created a great need for nurses and doctors. When she married my father in 1919, she left her studies. They had four children: Giselle (born 1920), Thierri (1921–95), me (born 1924), and Agnès (1928–2006).
Besides his deep interest in architecture, my father had a passion for the arts. He had begun collecting as a young boy and eventually chose to specialize in the decorative arts of the seventeenth century (furniture, silverware, faïence, and an important library on seventeenth-century architecture) and the twentieth—he was a friend of the great Art Déco furniture designer Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and an aficionado of contemporary painting. As a director of the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, he collaborated on the compilation of the Répertoire de la Faïence Française, published on the occasion of a retrospective on French faïence at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. As a collector and art connoisseur he met many artists and art dealers, among them the Hessels and Edouard Vuillard."
The family is gathered in the elegant Grand Salon, a room hung in deep red seventeenth-century silk from Jean-André Bloch’s collection. The decor, with its paneled doors, Persian carpets, and heavy gilded furniture, belongs to a previous era. The portrait of Pope Clement XI, seen on the back wall, is a reminder that the Blochs were collectors, whose tastes and lifestyle were secular and cosmopolitan. The portrait is a tapestry woven after a painting by the Italian Baroque painter Pietro Nelli and was sold in 1961. As Vuillard himself was a profound student of the art of the past, his frequent inclusion of paintings within his paintings may be read as an homage to other masters. Here, he echoes the Baroque period of the papal image in his palette of rich red tones with glinting touches of gold. In all four versions of the portrait, Gilberte and her children wear the fashions of the late 1920s or 1930s: the girls are in smocked dresses with puffed sleeves, Thierri has a sailor suit, Madame Bloch wears a loose, sleeveless silk dress, and her hair is dressed in a stylish bob. Despite these contemporary details, the room—and the painter’s impressionistic technique—might belong to an earlier era of French art. Vuillard started the work in the Bloch’s apartment, in Avenue Bosquet in the 7th arrondissment, and finished it when they moved to the Quai d'Orsay. Despite that change, he kept the original background in the painting.
Claude Dalsace, née Bloch, tells what happened
to her family during World War II:
73 Quai d'Orsay, Paris, France
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18 Avenue Matignon, Paris, France
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