The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, like its neighbour the Grand Palais, on avenue Winston Churchill. It became a museum in 1902. Designed by Charles Girault, it is based on a trapezium shape and is made up of four wings around a semi-circular garden bordered by a richly decorated peristyle. The architect achieved a successful blend of traditional and modern architecture which is evident in the natural flow of visitors around the building and in the bold openings he created onto the Champs-Elysées gardens and inner courtyard garden.
The building and its decors
The Petit Palais houses a significant collection of decorative murals and sculptures created between 1903 and 1925. The architect Charles Girault wanted to lend his building the grandeur and dignity of an official palace and created a programme of work designed to glorify the City of Paris and to celebrate the benefits of art. The locations for the areas to be decorated were carefully chosen with this aim in mind. They are mainly in areas through which people need to pass – entrance lobbies, the garden peristyle and the staircase under the cupola. Only the two large exhibition galleries also have decorative murals. This decoration took over twenty years to complete.
Decorative murals by Albert Besnard
Between 1903 and 1910, Albert Besnard painted four decorative murals in the Symbolist style for the museum’s entrance lobby: Matter, Thought, Formal Beauty and Mysticism.
Decorative murals by Cormon and Roll
Cormon and Roll were both given the task of decorating galleries which are 15 meters long. From 1906 to 1911, Cormon retold the story of Paris through history, from the battle of Lutetia up to the French Revolution. Roll, by contrast, was given the job of illustrating modern Paris.
Directly above the main galleries, there are sixteen plaster busts set into the wall representing famous artists including Eugène Delacroix, Pierre Lescot and François Mansart.
In the North pavilion, Ferdinand Humbert painted two ceilings between 1909 and 1924 celebrating The Intellectual Triumph of Paris. Humbert introduced a contemporary character into his composition in the form of an ordinary pedestrian in a hat and overcoat going down some steps. In the South pavilion, Georges Picard depicted The Triumph of Woman (1906-1920).
The garden peristyle
To decorate the vaulted ceiling of the garden portico, Paul Baudoüin, who had studied under Puvis de Chavannes, reinvented the art of fresco painting which had been neglected since the Renaissance. He painted a huge vista of vines interspersed with medallions featuring The Months of the Year and The Hours of the Day and Night. The three large sections of the vaulted ceiling are punctuated by the feminine allegories of the Seasons.
The Dutuit cupola
The last phase of work took place just after World War One. Work on the cupola above the staircase providing access at the South East of the museum was entrusted to Maurice Denis, who created a composition retracing the history of French art, illustrated by portraits of artists along with their most famous works.
Wrought iron work
The main entrance gate, designed by Girault himself, was immediately praised for its elegance and the virtuosity of its craftsmanship. He also created the banisters for the staircases in rotundas and the garlands and swags of wrought iron decorating the peristyle and balconies.
The entrance rotunda is the only space in the Petit Palais which is lit by stained glass. There are four round openings (oculi) with stained-glass windows featuring interlocking designs in clear and opal glass in the American style, manufactured in the Champigneulle’s workshops, a stainedglass artist from Lorraine.
The Petit Palais has a large area paved with mosaics covering the fl oors of the galleries, wings and first floor rotunda. The garden peristyle and the edges of the three ponds have also been decorated with little blocks of marble. This luxurious fl oor surface was created by Facchina (1826-1923), the famous Italian mosaic artist.