Paris has a habit of repurposing old buildings to house artwork. The Louvre, for instance, was once a royal residence; the Musée d'Orsay used to be a train station; and the Musée de L'Orangerie was simply storage space for citrus trees during the cold winter months. However, over in the opulent 8th Arrondissement, home to both the famed Champs-Élysées and and grand Arc de Triomphe, are two neighboring buildings that were constructed purely with exhibition space in mind – the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais.
Both were constructed specifically for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, which was a much-anticipated event throughout the western world, drawing 50 million people to Paris. In fact, these Universal Exhibitions – also known as World Fairs – took place regularly in major cities such as London, Brussels and even in US cities such as New York and Chicago. They were a opportunities for countries to show off their innovations in industry, business and art, and fostered a competitive spirit that often resulted in permanent changes to the landscape of these cities. For instance, the Eiffel Tower owes its existence to the 1889 World Fair.
To this day, the Petit Palais and Grand Palais continue to be the city's prime venue for temporary art exhibitions, but the permanent art collection of the Petit Palais is often overlooked. The Grand Palais tends to overshadow it's smaller partner, but there is some amazing artwork and architecture to see, from the entrance hall's opulent ceilings and masterful mosaic floors, to the idyllic courtyard café and magnificent iron staircase.
The Art Collection
The Petit Palais's permanent collection of artwork is very diverse, spanning from ancient times to 1920. In one room you may find a 19th century painting of a famous Parisian food market, while in another you'll be looking at Medieval illuminated manuscripts or even ancient Greek pottery. Compared to the Louvre, the collection at the Petit Palais is a much more efficient way to get an overview of Art History prior to the 20th century; you can see all of the Petit Palais in one afternoon (for free!), whereas seeing everything in the Louvre would take weeks.
The Incredible Staircases
Another highlight of the Petit Palais are its incredible staircases. Designed by Charles Girault (who also designed the heavenly golden entrance gate), it's one of the finest works of wrought iron anywhere. The floral design is all curves, with no hard angles in sight. Some of the iron tendrils reach out of the 2-dimensional plane of the banister, like real vines would. The overall affect is stunning; it's hard to believe that you can take a material as hard as metal and transform it into something so delicate. You absolutely must take a few moments to examine this masterwork up close!
The Idyllic Courtyard
After wandering through the art-filled halls, pop into the courtyard for some fresh air and perhaps an apéritif at the little café there. You'll find a lovely little garden with two reflecting pools, plus a curved row of columns draped in golden garlands. The mint green garden chairs against the backdrop of gorgeous marble floors and walls – designed by the famous Italian mosaic artists Facchina – is a calm and dreamy place to take a pause.
After your visit to the Petit Palais, head out to see the Grand Palais across the street, then take a promenade over the fanciest bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III. From the bridge, you'll be able to see the golden dome of Invalides, as well as the Eiffel Tower in the distance. From this vantage point, with all the most magnificent sites of Paris surrounding you, it's easy to see why this was the chosen location of the 1900 World Fair!
Le Petit Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris
Metro Champs-Elysées Clemenceau (line 1 & 13)
Admission to permanent collection: Free
Rotating temporary exhibitions: Prices vary
(Image Credits: All images by the Author.)