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A Brief History of the Petit Palais in Paris

Updated: Nov 9

What is the Petit Palais?


Petit Palais is a grand palace in Paris that was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 that houses Paris’ Museum of Fine Arts.


Petit Palais

Petit Palais History


Before this elegant municipal palace, there stood an older exhibition venue, the Palais de l’Industrie, a hall built for the 1855 edition of the Exposition Universelle, the international exhibition held here in Paris. By the late 19th century the building was considered unfit for the next world exhibition due to be hosted in the capital, and a design competition was subsequently held for the new exhibition site. Applicants were invited to submit entries for either – or both, if they so wished – of the two new palatial buildings that would flank the street now known as Avenue Winston Churchill. From over 50 entries, experienced architect Charles Girault was entrusted with the design and construction of the Petit Palais, and also coordinating the construction of the Grand Palais just across the street.


Girault built the Petit Palais with a Neoclassical front that disguised the modern aspects of its interior (formed from cast iron and large quantities of glass), and designed the building in a trapezium shape which enclosed a semi-circular garden courtyard. The name Petit Palais, or Small Palace, is somewhat of a misnomer, labelled as such since it’s marginally smaller than the Grand Palais across the avenue. Don’t be fooled: it’s still a large space with plenty to see.


The main building was finished in time for the exhibition, but the decorative murals and artwork would take another 25 years to complete. In the foyer are four beautiful murals by painter and printmaker Albert Besnard, each done in the Symbolist style, whilst in the galleries are two 15-metre-long murals by Fernand Cormon and Alfred Philippe Roll depicting the history of Paris. Cormon tells the story of the ancient city from the Battle of Lutetia in 52 BC to the French Revolution, whilst Roll illustrates modern-day Paris.


Some of the highlights of the building are the winding marble staircases with wrought-iron railings designed by Girault, impressively constructed with no hard angles. The floral designs are all realised in swoops and curves that make the metal appear like delicate lace.


Two years after the exhibition, the Petit Palais became the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, displaying works from antiquity all the way through to the 20th century. The collection is particularly diverse, owing to the fact that its works were partly purchased or commissioned from the Salons (the city’s annual art exhibition) and partly donated from personal collections.


One of the most famous paintings among the collection is Le Sommeil or ‘The Sleepers’ by Gustav Courbet. The painting depicts two lesbian lovers naked and entwined, and is a fine example of the erotic realism that features in many of the artist’s later works and which caused great scandal amongst French society. The painting was the subject of a police report when a collector attempted to exhibit it in 1872, and the work was banned from public display until as late as 1988.


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