The Petit Palais

The Petit Palais charmed visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universelle with its elegant design and compact space.

The Petit Palais was built as the smaller companion to the Grand Palais, but it received much more favorable reviews than its big brother (Jullian 43). When the two buildings debuted at the 1900 Exposition, many strongly preferred the Petit Palais for its compact elegance. The building was designed by Charles Girault, an architect who favored the École des Beaux-Arts style (Drexler 455). In fact, the building is described as the “last Beaux-Arts expression of elegant planning and classicizing detail” by one history of the Beaux-Arts architectural movement (Drexler 455). The Petit Palais might have been viewed so favorably because of the extremely negative opinions about the Grand Palais. Compared to the large and complicated Grand Palais, the Petit Palais stood, in one contemporary critic's mind, as the epitome of French grace (Jullian 43). For many, the Petit Palais encompassed French aesthetics and met the goal of the Expositions to show off French artistry and culture. The public saw the Petit Palais as a brilliant model of the country’s artistic history. This pride reflects the Expositions’s greater goal of showcasing national pride through grandeur and artistry. The Petit Palais may be small, but it was received by the public as a beacon of French elegance.
Today, the Petit Palais is still an active exhibition space, with both a permanent collection and temporary exhibits. The permanent collection is free of charge, which makes the space more inviting than the Grand Palais across the road. The first rooms of the Petit Palais makes a marked first impression. Elaborate white carvings frame classical murals across the ceilings in the entryway and the front rooms. In the entryway, windows with scalloped ironwork pour light onto the front doors and desks. To the left of the entryway, a hall of statues precedes the permanent collection halls. The statues vary in style, era, and subject, ranging from a woman in Victorian dress to Greek wrestlers. Inside the collection halls, an eclectic range of portraits, paintings, and artifacts all coexist. Murals of circus performers and beggars look across to portraits of young, fashionable women in sweeping gowns. The side galleries house furniture and knick knacks. One glass case inshrined an orchestra of painted monkeys in 1700s French aristocratic dress stationed underneath an ornate clock. This piece captures both the opulence and oddity within the Petit Palais' collection. An early painting of Monet's is hung in one of these side galleries, almost as though it is a quiet part of the permanent collection. The next room? A garishly yellow hall of nude statues and portraiture. The Petit Palais' permanent collection is larger and odder than expected, with a wide variety of arts and styles occupying the same spaces.
The Petit Palais may have been more liked by visitors of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, but now it is the quieter building of the pair. Its interiors are far more elaborate than the Grand Palais, but it houses an eclectic and at times, overwhelming, array of exhibit halls. For such a small space, the Petit Palais holds an astounding amount of interior details, oddities, artworks, and at least three spiraling staircases. The Petit Palais is a surprising space in the series of buildings for the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

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