It is well known, Paris is world renowned for it’s architecture. But beyond the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe, there are countless other architectural wonders, big and small, to be found. One of the often overlooked hidden treasures among the magnificent buildings of Paris is the Petit Palais. Even Parisians themselves seldom really know what it is like inside.
In 1900, Paris hosted the “Exposition Universelle” also known as the “World Expo”. It was one of the most memorable world fairs of the 20th century. During this huge exhibition, the art of motion picture: cinema, was first put into the public spotlight. The escalator was also first unveiled at this international event. One of the buildings constructed for the event was the “Grand Palais” which still holds today some of the world’s most important art exhibitions.
There is however a little brother that was built during the same period, also for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the Petit Palais (literally the little palace in English). The Petit Palais stands right in front of the Grand Palais, opposite side of Winston-Churchill avenue. It is obviously overshadowed by the sheer size of it’s bigger brother. This is why most tourists never get to actually entering the place. Actually, Parisians themselves very rarely go to this building. The ones who do, are usually art affictionados, for the Petit Palais is an art museum. It is actually the fine arts museum of the city of Paris.
When admiring the bulding from outside, we can see that it is adorned with an endless amount of details and sculptures. These are all, of course, hand made. Moreover, the major sculptures on the bulding all have a specific meaning and have names. They are actually works of art made by illustrious sculptors. The sculpture seen in the picture above, for example, represents the Seine river, and all of it’s affluent bodies of water. Each is personified in human form.
Countless sculptures can be admired on the bulding itself. Each one was worked by the hand of craftsmen. All were meant to express some idea or another. This makes the bulding itself be somewhat of the content as well as the container of it’s own museum. Aesthetic paradox that is delightful to see and understand. This is true for the outside of the bulding, but even inside, works of art are ingrained in the walls, columns, as well as the ceilings. Frescoes adorn the ceilings of certain passageways, but alot of bare white space is left, so the focus can still be on the elements showcased in the museum. The museum is a long length built in a kind of trapezoid, All along it’s way, there is transparent-opaque openings letting the natural light in but filtering it as well, in the tradition of many art museums of that period. All of this lets the visitor concentrate on the art exhibited for the viewer.
Many works by Cézanne, Rembrandt, Rubens and other famous masters can be found in the museum. Amazing sculptures can be seen, but cannot be aptly described, so this is an invitation to visit the museum yourself, let’s concentrate on the Petit Palais as a monument in of itself. We can follow the mosaic patterns on the floor towards a door which brings us outside. It is here that we discover the secret that the busy people walking outside would never suspect if they didn’t enter. The trapezoid museum’s corridors are actually built around a half circle shaped garden.
Here lies the quiet oasis at the center of the Petit Palais. We are in the heart of Paris, and we can admire the calm and tranquility of a garden with trees from the surrounding column lined walkway. It is time to pause, be it only for a few seconds , to look at the contrast of the vegetation and the surrounding stone, marble and blacksmithed railings. Time also to listen to the silence, punctuated by the slow steps of the others who are walking in the same excercise of admiration, the conversation of some contented people who have stopped there, as well as some occasional birds, stopping by.
At this occasion, some may choose foolishly to look at their phone while others will more wisely listen to music on their headphones or read a book. It is then that it is easy to start noticing some of the intricate details that surround us. Standing on top of the main window peering into the hallway of the museum, a sculpture , part of the wall, begs the question. One sees a boat resting upon a stern mythological face peering at the generations of onlookers. Taking the boat as a sample of the many other riddles that exist in almost all of the ornementations of classic French buildings, we can come up with an explanation. As this building was built during the 1900 world fair, Paris is at it’s best efforts to diffuse culture. The boat above the mythical face is in fact Paris. Yes, the city of lights is there, personified or objectified as a ship. The city as a ship floating on the seas of civilization.
It is actually a good thing that the Petit Palais is the lesser known counterpart to it’s bigger brother, the Grand Palais. It is a very good thing that not too many people line up to go see it, and that it isn’t on the to do list of most parisians and visitors. Such a simple joy to access the splendor of this bulding. While not being the oldest or the biggest one of Paris, the Petit Palais fills it’s mission of being an oasis of art and of calm. It fulfills the meaning of the French idiom that stipulates: “it is in the smaller jars that the best medicines are found”. Now that you know that it exists, I can only encourage you to go see for yourself, beyond the most trodden paths. But while you’re at it, ton’t tell too many people, help keep it a lesser known, simple beauty of Paris.Please follow us here and subscribe: