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Nothing Petit About the Palais

A few days ago with friends, we joked about how everything in France is “petit” — you have a “petit verre” with a friend, you sign your check with a “petit signature,” you introduce to your parents your “petit ami,” you check a word in a tome called the “Petit Larousse” and now after several years of being closed to the public for a “petit renovation,” you can visit the “Petit Palais.”

This is classic French understatement. The only thing “petit” about the Petit Palais, is that it isn’t quite as “grand” as the “Grand Palais” across the street, but it’s every bit as beautiful. The doors opened officially Thursday night to an adoring crowd by invitation only, and is now open to the public.

Built originally for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, the Petit Palais became home to the Palais des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris (Palace of Fine Arts of the City of Paris) in 1901 and by the early 30’s, the Petit Palais museum was running out of space to house its collection. A 1937 exhibition was a huge success with 44 nations represented and more than 30 million visitors, but nevertheless, the Palais suffered severe financial losses. A year later it closed and remained vacant until 1940 when in 1941, one wing was made available to the association “L’Entreaide des artistes” to hold diverse artistic salons. War time changed the tide again and from late 1942 to the summer of 1943, the Germans requisitioned the basement as repositories for sequestered Jewish property.

The Petit Palais became inadequate to display modern art and substantial improvements were undertaken. After six years of rebuilding, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris was inaugurated there on July 6, 1961. It contained the Petit Palais’ collections of modern art together with the works acquired by the Beaux-Arts purchasing committee and collection of Dr. Maurice Girardin’s. The museum continued to host a great many exhibitions and with the creation of the contemporary department, the Council of Paris launched another rebuilding program. In 1972 the work was completed, but the use of space soon revealed limitations.

Twenty years later, funds were again made available to rehabilitate the building and between 1991 and 1994, a number of the original works were regained and displayed as they should. The museum surfaces now from the last four years of restoration with an additional 65% of exhibition space for its permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and objects dating from antiquity to the early 20th-century.

The queue lengthened in the cold night air awaiting the official opening of the enormous gilded doors at the top of the monumental staircase. We filed into the central reception are, but were immediately struck by the overwhelming sense of space and grandeur of the main hall. I was then drawn immediately to the cool green lights and luscious palms of the interior courtyard that caught my eye, accessible by large doors leading to the semicircular peristyle, even before venturing to visit the collection. In daylight hours, I could imagine it to be an oasis for a reflective repose.

The vast halls house an impressive permanent collection of works along with temporary exhibitions including large photos of the building itself under reconstruction. Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet and Rembrandt are among the artists represented there. At one end of the main hall is a traditional book and gift shop. At the back of the garden is a café and on the lower level, an auditorium.

For a detailed account of the building and the museum’s history, visit


e museum of modern and contemporary art as it appears today reflects the gradual and complete restoration of its original architectural quality, which has been undertaken in an attempt to grant it a privileged role — both in the context of Paris and Europe and in the world of contemporary creation — and provide it with a recognized and specific identity.”

The new identity of the Petit Palais is anything but “petit.” I’d venture to say the undertaking was on a very grand scale and the verdict from the “petit jury” is out…this “Petit Palais” makes an awfully big impression.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris
Email [email protected]

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