The Architectural Gem of Le Musée du Petit-Palais

Travellers visiting Paris are eager to visit the capital’s great museums, such as the famous Louvre Museum and the renowned Orsay Museum. There are, however, some two hundred and fifty museums in Paris which are superlative ‘hidden gems’. In these times of restricted travel, cultural historian Dr. Michael Adcock invites you to join him on a virtual tour of some of the most surprising and beautiful of them. This article introduces Academy Travellers to just one of these less well-known museums, Le Musée du Petit-Palais (The Museum of the Small Palace), which  – despite the diminutive in its title – actually has a collection as large as that of the Orsay itself.

The less well-known museums of Paris have another advantage: many are small, and are rarely crowded. In the Museum of the Petit-Palais, we will find an exquisite selection of art housed in a building which is very much on a human scale and, for most of the time, almost bereft of crowds. For the exhausted traveller, battered by the mind-numbing crowds in the Louvre, this museum offers a haven of calm delight and contemplation.

The beauty of cultural tourism is that our knowledge of history allows us to appreciate the buildings that we can still see, but also to envisage those that have long since disappeared. As we stand outside the Petit Palais and the massive Grand Palais opposite, we envision the time, in 1900, when they were part of a vast international exhibition, featuring hundreds of exhibition buildings, most of them temporary.

This photograph shows the imposing mass of the Grand Palais, left, (1900) now used for temporary exhibitions, and the Petit Palais, right, close to the Champs-Élysées

Context: The Universal Exposition of 1900

One of the best-kept secrets of Paris is this clutch of buildings created for the Universal Exposition of 1900. They are the Paris equivalent of the same sorts of structures – the Exhibition Buildings (Melbourne), and the Queen Victoria Building (Sydney) – that covered acres of ground on the left bank and right bank of Paris in 1900. In many cases, these iron and steel structures were temporary, and were demolished after the expo, but the city of Paris decided that the Grand Palais should be retained for general use, while the Little Palace would become a permanent art museum for the City of Paris, which already owned a considerable art collection. Architecturally, these buildings are also an expression of the modernist aesthetic that created the great glass-and-metal structures of the century, such as Les Halles, the great railway stations and the Eiffel Tower.

This engraving is a bird’s eye view of the vast space of the International Exposition of 1900. The Petit Palais and the Grand Palais are visible in the right foreground. Most of these buildings subsequently disappeared, and it is only by viewing the souvenirs of the exposition, like this one, that we may see the tow buildings in their original context

The Grand Palais and the Petit Palais are remnants of that peculiarly 19th century institution, the international exposition. These were the ‘shop fronts of western colonialism, imperialism and militarism’. Here, the European nations displayed their industries, arts and crafts … and their new military hardware. A viewer in 1900 might look at displays of the mighty Krupp cannon, and predict that the next war would be a completely new sort of conflict.

Subsequently, the Petit Palais evolved into a member of the important network of the Museums of the City of Paris.

The political significance of a successful exposition

The French Third Republic (1870-1940) had been reinforced by the success of its spectacular Universal Exposition of 1889, of which the Eiffel Tower is a remnant. It proudly announced a great turn-of-the-century exhibition for 1900. The government opened a competition for the design for two palaces of fine arts (April 1896). The smaller palace would house a vast retrospective of French art to 1900, and then remain a permanent fine arts museum. Fifty-nine projects were submitted, some for both buildings, and ten for the Petit Palais alone.

The Exposition attracted thousands of Parisians, provincials and foreigners. The planners of these expositions boasted that the site was like a gigantic encyclopaedia, where the world’s cultures and technologies were spread out for people to ‘read’. One of the greatest fads and attractions was the “moving footpath”, or escalator. Another attraction was projection of an early film, viewed by an astonished Monsieur President of the Republic. Another sensation was the opening of the Metropolitan Underground Railway System (now the metro). Another event was the opening of the new Orleans Railway Station on the Quai d’Orsay, now familiar to us as the Orsay Museum.

The Petit-Palais

The winner of the competition was Charles Girault, who designed the Palace of Hygiene for the Exposition Universelle (1889). Girault designed a museum of trapezoidal form, with an area of 7,000 square metres. The façade of 122 metres gave onto the Avenue Nicholas II (now the Avenue Winston Churchill). The building is articulated around a semi-circular garden fringed by columned porticoes and richly decorated with mosaic floors. Work began in October 1897, and was completed by 1898.

A view of the Petit Palais building, built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 to Charles Girault’s designs, Paris. Photo taken 01 January, 1910 (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The exterior is impressive. The exuberant neo-baroque stone façade is enlivened by massive wrought-iron doors whose gilding has been superbly restored. There is further animation by sculptures in bas-relief. The decorations are unusual for their ‘municipal’ iconography: for example, observe the bas-reliefs above the entry doors, such as The City of Paris Protects and Fosters the Arts.

The beautiful golden ornate metal doors and bas-reliefs over them. Photo June 5, 2020. (Credit legna69/Getty Images)

The restoration

Monsieur the Mayor of Paris ordered the museum be renovated and, when it re-opened in 2006, be free to all. Visitors returned to it as to a monument reborn: the great halls at the front entry are now luminous and clear, their ornate work in stucco and their ceiling paintings restored to pristine order.

The main halls of the Petit-Palais

In particular, the sweeping marble stairways, with their ornate wrought iron work, are works of art in themselves, and are a joy to walk on.

The ornate stairways of the Petit-Palais

The main galleries on the ground level are now of modern museum standards. Even visitor amenities – cloakroom, washrooms, bookroom – are beautifully modernised. Most beautiful is the restored garden contained within the two semi-circular arms of the museum. It is enfolded by the curving colonnade with exquisite mosaics inspired by Roman villas, and leads to one of the most peaceful little cafes in Paris. One enters the museum, from the maelstrom of Paris traffic outside, into an oasis of calm and luminous delight.

The renovated garden within the Petit-Palais
The external colonnade around the garden offers one of the most peaceful little cafes in Paris

The Collection

The visitor is so charmed and beguiled by this beautiful interior that it requires some effort to remember to look at art works. The collection is a heady mix of old masters, modern masters and applied arts. It is a ‘mini-Louvre’, offering a superb collection ranging from ancient Greek vases to Russian icons.

The interior of the Petit Palais

There are extensive collections of Old Masters, especially the Dutch masters of the Golden Age; such is Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in Oriental Attire, of c.1631.

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in Oriental Attire, 1631, on show at the Petit-Palais

Most modern art movements are well-represented by unusual examples of their work. The French Neo-Classical Movement (1780s-1790s) is represented by J. L. David’s early masterpiece The Death of Seneca (1773). The French Romantic movement (1820s-1840s) is represented by the master, Eugène Delacroix, with his violently dramatic orientalist work The Fight of the Giaour and the Pasha, (1835). French Realism (1850s-1860s) is represented by Gustave Courbet, who was the headstrong, belligerent leader of the movement, battling the art establishment of the Second Empire during the 1850s and 1860s. He was also fascinated by female sexuality, as seen in the remarkable canvases, the erotically suggestive Young Women by the Banks of the Seine (1857) and The Sleepers, the latter showing a lesbian couple blissfully intertwined. Here, the Petit-Palais has provocatively placed them in relation to Clésinger’s erotic Woman bitten by a snake, whose titular snake-bite is a transparent excuse for the frank depiction of sexual ecstasy.

Courbet’s The Sleepers, 1866, on show at the Petit-Palais

Unusual insights into the Impressionist movement

The Petit-Palais collections offers unusual examples of Impressionist works. Sisley’s The Wood Sawyers is a rare depiction of proletarian labour in an art movement focused more on bourgeois recreation. Monet is represented by the powerful Setting Sun at Lavacourt, (1879-1880). The collection includes fascinating but neglected Impressionists, such as Luigi Loir, whose monumental canvas, Bercy During the Floods (1879), captures an aspect of Paris not commonly shown by his more famous peers. The French Post-Impressionist Movement is also well-represented by works such as Paul Cézanne’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1899 and Paul Gauguin’s The Old Peasant.

Monet’s Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, 1880, on show at the Petit-Palais

Insights into the Naturalist movement in literature and art

Modern viewers will be less familiar with an interesting strand of 19th-century art, Naturalism, and the Petit-Palais has a great deal to teach us. The term ‘Naturalism’ is problematic for the visual arts, because it is properly applied to the literary movement led by Emile Zola. Pictorial Naturalism corresponds closely to the gritty vision of modern society found in the novels of Zola. It focused on contemporary life, especially the lives of working people, depicting them with real respect and sympathy. Stylistically, it is almost photographic, conscientious in its description of reality.

The great age of Naturalism was the 1880s, when the Third Republic was trying to signal its sympathy for working people and to win them to democracy. It commissioned democratic artists such as Alexandre Steinlen to show workers carousing on the new national holiday, 14 July. André Gill visualised work scenes familiar to the public from Zola’s novels, as we see in his beautiful The Newborn (1881). Naturalist painting and literature interacted: Zola often observed paintings to get in the mood to write his gritty descriptions of modern life, while the painters, in their turn, read a few pages of Zola before picking up their brushes to paint.

These, and many other breathtaking treasures await us in Paris, when circumstances allow us to travel again.

Image top of page – May 12, 2020: Panoramic view of closed Petit-Palais museum during COVID-19 Lockdown in Paris (Credit UlyssePixel/Getty Images)

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock is a social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.

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