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The Petit Palais is home to the Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris – the Paris Fine Arts Museum. It is less visited than the “Big Name” city break museums, such as the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay. In fact, it barely registers on the bucket lists of most first-time visitors. Yet it is one of my favourite places not only for the enjoyable collection but for the insight into Parisian culture.
Becoming the Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris
Like the Grand Palais across the road, the Petit Palais was built for the Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition) in 1900 – the greatest lasting contribution of this event to the city. The earlier, more profitable 1887 exhibition brought us the Eiffel Tower and the first buildings on the Chaillot hill, while 1937 saw the Trocadero buildings replace their predecessors. In contrast, the Universal Exhibition of 1900 was a financial disaster, but it did bring French art nouveau into prominence and, in 1902, the Petit Palais opened as a museum.
The building was designed by architect Charles Girault. It comprises four wings around the central garden, which allows light from all sides. Consequently, the Petit Palais feels bright and airy in all weathers. It took twenty years to complete the planned decoration, with murals and ceiling art in every wing.
Visiting the Permanent Collection
The Petit Palais scored highly in my estimation immediately. Not only do they have an accessibility plan, but the staff are clearly well-trained in this policy and are quick to offer appropriate guidance. A member of staff noticed me with my stick as I was preparing to tackle the steps (hey, nothing gets between me and my art nouveau) and took the trouble to come outside to call down to me that there was level access to the side. So I was impressed!
The only downside is that you do not get to enter through the gorgeous gates designed by Girault himself!
The permanent collection is varied but manageable. You won’t be bored, but nor will you need to sit down and nap to restore your energy. There are representative collections of mediaeval art, still life (if you’re a fan of dead rabbits as props you’ll feel right at home) and impressionists. However, to me, the most exciting exhibits are Parisian and provide a snapshot of life in late Nineteenth- and early Twentieth-Century Paris.
Take, for example, the sensitive portrait of Baron Haussman’s collaborator, Adolphe Alphand, by Alfred Roll. M. Alphand stands amid the ruins and building site of the Grand Boulevards.
There are also insights into the artists’ life. One display shows how the Impressionists set themselves up for plein air painting.
Another set of fascinating canvases is the anonymous work of art students who used to practice portraiture in any available space.
Ferdinand Humbert painted my favourite murals, in the north pavilion. The mural The Intellectual Triumph of Paris juxtaposes typically fantastical motifs with an ordinary Parisian man, reading a book in a raincoat.
The beautiful mosaic floor is by Italian mosaic artist Facchina (1826-1923) and is a level surface underfoot or wheels. I was fascinated by the decision not to inlay large portions of marble but to use them as mosaic tiles. It’s not something I recall seeing elsewhere, and I do spend a lot of time watching where I put my feet.
The garden is a lush, restful place to recover from pavement pounding. There are benches in the shade around the smoothly surfaced collonade as well as moveable metal chairs at the cafe tables.
Accessibility at the Petit Palais
Disabled access to the museum is provided from ground level to the right of the main entrance. Enter via the marked door for a brief security check, on the lower exhibition level with lift access to the upper level.
This lift is around the centre of the museum, with other lifts at either end (although these on the upper level have quite a tight turn at the exit, so those using larger wheelchairs may wish to stick to the middle one).
On the lower level, where there are a few steps (around four or five at either end of the shop) there are wheelchair lifts. There are also alternate routes around the shop via the area with the accessible (and non-accessible) toilets.
On the upper level, the main exhibition spaces are spacious with smooth flooring. The entrance has nine steps up to the exhibitions on either side. Even though there is lift access, this will bring you out on one side of these steps, though on the same level as the exhibitions. I decided to negotiate the steps down and up rather than detouring, but there is an alternative route.
You will find level access to all galleries via the garden collonade where there are ramps.
All surfaces are level and there is ample room to manoeuvre around the exhibits. Most display cases are low enough to allow clear sightlines and all permanent exhibition areas provide seating at regular intervals throughout.
Visiting the Petit Palais
Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm (closed public holidays), until 9pm Friday for temporary exhibitions.
Permanent collection free. Audio guides are available for €5 (French, English, German, Spanish, Italian), while each gallery has a sheet with information specific to the exhibits in that room.
Address: Petit Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 75008.
Tel: + 33 (0)1 53 43 40 00
Métro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau
RER (stations are all accessible): Invalides
Bus stops: Grand Palais (directly opposite) or Champs-Elysées Clemenceau (lines 28, 42, 72, 73, 83, 93).
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