Tracing a grand family’s aspirations through its art

By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

“Be careful of the unwarranted gesture,’’ the distinguished ceramicist Edmund de Waal was told by Bernard Leach, his master and mentor. The art of throwing a pot is an action both exercised and curtailed; and in this rich and chastened family memoir de Waal questions his project even as he glowingly carries it out.

“The Hare with Amber Eyes’’ covers five generations of the Ephrussi family, of which de Waal is a descendant. It starts with Charles Joachim Ephrussi, who founded a vast grain trading enterprise in Odessa, in southern Russia, in the early 19th century, and sent a son to Paris and another to Vienna to expand operations into the financing of railroads, bridges, banks and, like the Rothschilds, the governments of Europe. What de Waal is after, though, is not the rise and fall of enterprise but of time, memory, and art, not as what is permanent but as what recedes.

It is not the Ephrussi empires he focuses on, not the making of great fortunes, but on their spending. At one level he writes in vivid detail of how the fortunes were used to establish the Ephrussis’ lavish lives and high positions in Paris and Vienna society. And, as Jews, of their vulnerability: the Paris family shaken by turn-of-the century anti-Semitism surging out of the Dreyfus affair; the Vienna branch utterly destroyed in Hitler’s 1937 Anschluss.

At a deeper level, though, “Hare’’ is about something more, just as Marcel Proust’s masterpiece was about something more than the trappings of high society. As with “Remembrance of Things Past,’’ it uses the grandeur to light up interior matters: aspirations, passions, their passing; all in a duel, and a duet, of elegy and irony.

For de Waal, art is the purest expression of these interiors. As a ceramicist, his art has lodged in the making of objects to be collected. So to say that de Waal explores the collections of three of his forebears — his great-great-uncle Viktor in Vienna, Viktor’s son Iggie, a wanderer who settled in Japan, and Viktor’s cousin Charles in Paris — is to speak of something besides things; rather, of Virgil’s the tears in things.

De Waal’s is search more than research, though he does indeed ransack libraries, family diaries, and collections of letters. The two years he spent have the quality of a pilgrimage. And he is possessed of a talisman resembling the scallop shells borne by the medieval religious processions to Santiago de Compostela: 264 ancient netsuke, tiny figurines exquisitely carved by Japanese artists. They were originally purchased by Charles Ephrussi in the 1860s, then presented as a wedding present from him to Viktor in 1899, and then left to Iggie, who shortly before his death gave them to Edmund.

Carrying a figurine in his pocket, the writer begins in Paris, with an evocation of Charles. (Evocation is more apt than portrait; de Waal is bent upon becoming those he writes about.) A writer, dandy, social figure, and celebrated collector whose purchase of the netsuke fitted the Japanese vogue of the day, he published Paris’s leading art journal.

He was a generous patron of the Impressionists and collector of their works; when Manet asked 800 francs for a painting of a bunch of asparagus, Charles paid 1,000; Degas then painted a single stalk and sent it to him, saying it had fallen out. Proust used him as one of the models for Swann: an intimate in the best salons and, as a Jew, an outsider.

From Paris, the writer travels to Vienna, tracing and imagining the Ephrussis’ life there: equally luxurious but much stiffer. They built an enormous, pompously adorned palace in the heart of the city; and de Waal nicely suggests the difference between Austrian and French notions of luxury at the time: Enjoyment versus pleasure.

Viktor, however, reluctantly placed at the head of the family business, found his true passion in collecting a splendid library. When the Nazis stripped him of his money and treasures, he arrived in England as a refugee, possessed only of a suitcase and the keys to the library, now emptied and sent to Germany.

Among the many other Ephrussis whom de Waal brings to life, the most distinctive is his grandmother, Elisabeth, Viktor’s daughter. A scholar and poet — she had a long correspondence with Rilke — she was a figure of redoubtable will and intelligence. Her memory was an essential source for the writer. Eventually, though, she becomes reluctant to avail herself of it; she burns her letters.

And de Waal, who several times raises doubts about the purpose of his own rich reconstructions, writes, as if recalling the master-potter’s caution about the unwarranted gesture:

“I stumble to a halt. I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.’’ He adds: “There is something about that burning of [Elisabeth’s] letters that gives me pause: why should everything be made clear and be brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies?”

To question your art is a supreme art; and de Waal’s questioning is one more reason for the reader to find his pilgrimage beyond doubt warranted.

Richard Eder can be reached at

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss
By Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
354 pp., illustrated, $26