Henri Cernuschi: revolutionary, economist and patron of the arts

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BNP Paribas Historical Archives

BNP Paribas Historical Archives

An Italian patriot exiled to France, an economist and banker who was passionate about both politics and art, Henri Cernuschi helped to found the Banque de Paris, thus laying one of the first cornerstones of what became the BNP Paribas Group.

An Italian revolutionary…

Enrico Cernuschi (he later adopted the French equivalent of his first name) was born in Milan in 1821. After studying in Milan and Pavia, he obtained a licence to practice law in 1846. A man of fiery temperament and true heart, as some of his economist colleagues would later describe him, he took part in an uprising in Milan against the Austrian suzerainty in 1848.  He then left for Rome, where he was elected in 1849 to the Assembly of the new-born – and short-lived – Roman Republic.  He was arrested, tried and twice acquitted in 1850, before leaving for exile in France.

…who became a financier and an economist

At first Cernuschi survived in Paris by giving Italian lessons and working as a copyist, while at the same time learning languages and studying economic and banking subjects. In 1852, he joined Crédit Mobilier, a highly-reputed real estate specialist bank set up by the Pereire brothers. There he rose rapidly, eventually obtaining a seat on the Board of Directors.  Then in 1858, when regulations on the meat trade had just been relaxed, Cernuschi went into the butchery business, a venture which unfortunately turned out to be a fiasco.

In 1865, he published a major work entitled Mécanique de l’échange (‘Mechanism of Exchange’), in which he set out his arguments against what he called ‘presumptive gold’ – i.e. fiduciary currency. He was a passionate supporter of bimetallism (i.e. a monetary standard based on both gold and silver). His links with economists and businessmen led to him becoming one of the founding directors, alongside Adrien Delahante and Edmond Joubert, of the Banque de Paris, which set up shop at 3 rue d’Antin in Paris.  This bank merged in 1872 with the Amsterdam-based Nederlandsche Credit- en Deposito Bank to form Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, later known as Paribas. However, Henri Cernuschi had already left the bank in 1870 to fight on an entirely different front.

Mécanique de l’échange (‘Mechanism of Exchange’) 1865 - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
Mécanique de l’échange (‘Mechanism of Exchange’) 1865 – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

The Republican struggle in France

In 1870, Cernuschi bought a majority stake in the Republican journal Le Siècle and financially supported the committee working to defeat the motion in favour of Napoleonic-style imperial rule in France. For this political activity he was forced into exile in April by the Emperor Napoleon III.  However, his exile did not last long as the Second French Empire collapsed not long afterwards. Cernuschi arrived back in Paris just in time to attend the official proclamation of the Third Republic at the Paris City Hall on 4 September. He was an active member of the Commission for Essential Provisions during the 1870-71 siege of Paris by the Prussian army, and obtained naturalisation as a French citizen on 29 January 1871.

Collector and patron of the arts

However, Cernuschi had been profoundly affected by the tragic events of the Paris Commune, not least the death of the Le Siècle Editor-in-Chief, Gustave Chaudey. He set off on an extended trip around the world with his friend Théodore Duret, an art critic, from September 1871 to January 1873. Their sojourn in the Far East was to prove highly influential in deciding the course of the rest of his life.  In Japan and China, drawing on the fortune he had built up under the Second Empire, he acquired some four thousand works of art which came to form the core of his collection. On his return, he lent all his acquisitions to the Oriental Exhibition which ran from August 1873 to January 1874 at the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris. Through the Pereire brothers, Cernuschi then bought the last free plot on avenue Vélasquez, commissioning the architect William Bouwens van der Boijen, who had designed the Crédit Lyonnais headquarters, to build a small mansion which would serve as a museum to house his collections and also as his private residence, where he held sumptuous parties. Towards the end of his life, he retired to Menton, having bequeathed his Paris mansion with its collections to the City of Paris, which turned the house into the magnificent Cernuschi Museum that we know today. Henri Cernuschi died in 1896.


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