In 1994, the world-class ceramics artist Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 netsuke from his great uncle Ignace (Iggie). De Waal decided to trace the history of the netsuke from the time they came into his family, and in doing so, to trace the history of the family itself and the times they lived in. The result is a fascinating combination of memoir, history, art history, and collection of musings on related topics, The Hare with Amber Eyes.
Charles Ephrussi originally purchased the netsuke in Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Ephrussis were at that time a wealthy family of bankers, originally from Odessa, who in previous generations had expanded their offices to Vienna and from there to Paris. Charles Ephrussi was not a banker but a noted art collector and critic, friend of Impressionists such as Degas and Manet, and one of the two models Proust used for his character Charles Swann.
De Waal attempts to understand Charles through an examination of his writings and possessions and through events in his time, particularly the effect of the Dreyfuss case on antisemitism in France. Charles’s work in art was an important part of his life, and in this section of the book I was struck by the connection de Waal makes between Japonisme–the interest in and collection of Japanese artifacts, with their focus on nature and everyday life–and the rise of Impressionism, which was considered revolutionary partly because of its focus on nature and everyday life instead of “noble” subject matter such as historical scenes or stories from the Bible or mythology.
In 1899, Charles sent the netsuke to Vienna as a wedding present for his younger cousin Viktor Ephrussi, de Waal’s great grandfather and eventual head of the Ephrussi bank in Vienna. De Waal traced what he could of the life of Viktor and his family, this story culminating shortly after the dual terrors of the Anschluss and Kristalnacht. During this time, everything that this branch of the family owned was confiscated by the Gestapo. In these pages of the book, de Waal does a better job of conveying the fears and anxieties of those times than any of the recent books I have read.
De Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth recovered the netsuke after the war. How they returned to the family is an incredible story that I will not reveal. Shortly after she returned to England with them, where some of the family had made their home, they traveled to post-war Japan with de Waal’s great uncle Iggie.
I have just supplied the barest outline of the fate of the netsuke, which provides a focus for de Waal’s investigations and musings, but the family’s story and the story of their times is fascinating and imaginatively reconstructed. The book is at once a meditation on and enthralling depiction of the life and times of an extraordinary family.