Telling the story of René Cassin’s life is more than an essay in the art of portraiture. His profile matters, to be sure, but to do justice to him we must enter into many other lives, for any biographical study has a socio-logical and cultural dimension. In history as in painting, the character of a man, in his individuality, always emerges from a particular milieu to which he belongs, and from his family, his friends and his schooling. To introduce you to René Cassin requires us to explore late nineteenth-century French society, in all its complexity and diversity.
René Cassin came from a family of prosperous middle-class Jews, whose fortune in mid-nineteenth-century France had been made, apparently, on a whim. Before becoming very wealthy, the Dreyfus family, on his mother’s side, enjoyed a degree of prosperity in their family home in Bayonne, near the Spanish border in the south-west of France. They traced their lineage to René Cassin’s great-grandfather, Samuel Dreyfus. He was an Ashkenazi Jew, born in Alsace in 1790, but drawn to Bayonne as a soldier. He had fought the British at Bayonne and was wounded in action in 1814. While recovering there from his wounds, Dreyfus met and married Félicie Gomès, the daughter of a local Jewish family of Spanish origin. The couple eventually settled in Bayonne, and had one son, Simone Léonce. He became a textile merchant of modest means and frail health. And then his world turned upside down, when he hit the jackpot in 1856. He won the pools, or more precisely the Lottery of the Congo, which made him a very rich man in one fell swoop. With this money – 150,000 francs, then a considerable sum – the family came up in the Jewish world of southern France, adding a residence in Nice to their properties in and around Bayonne. His wife, Egle Nuñes, gave birth to twin girls, Cécile and Gabrielle, in 1860.