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Paris really went all-out for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, constructing several buildings which are now considered Paris landmarks, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Gare de Lyon, and the Grand Palais. Another such project was the Petit Palais, a light-filled, “Beaux-Arts” structure overlooking the Champs-Elysées.
Nowadays the building houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts (with free admission!) and an intriguing mix of temporary exhibits that won’t break the bank.
A Palace of Fine Arts
The soaring structure with its vast, columned entryway was designed by architect Charles Girault, who also directed work on the Grand Palais across the way. Huge windows bathe every room in natural light, even on the lower levels.
The Petit Palais was inaugurated in 1900 and opened to the public as a museum in 1902. A renovation project closed the museum from 2001-2005, but the building reopened with a restored sense of the original architecture and larger spaces for exhibitions.
Crazy poet conquers the Palais
Currently (May 2009), an exhibit well worth checking out is “William Blake, the Genius Visionary of English Romanticism,” a collection of the poet’s art and engravings. Let’s stop and think about that one for a second – a tribute to Blake in Paris, focusing on his work as an artist and engraver. Who knew the French would be interested in such a thing?
Still, Parisians have been coming out in droves to see the haunting, bizarre and sometimes disturbing works of Blake. The images center on themes like the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy, with a healthy dose of Blake’s “visions” and dreams thrown in. None of the art sold very well during his lifetime, and Blake relied on wealthy friends and patrons to continue painting and engraving.
The expo runs through June 28, 2009. Admission is €8.
From Greek mountains to the streets of Paris
Another current exhibit is “Mount Athos and the Byzantine Empire,” which brings Orthodox art from northern Greece outside of its native land for the first time. The monastic communities of Mount Athos, where no woman has ever stepped foot, have been collecting religious treasures for more than 1,000 years.
The exhibition ends July 3, 2009. Tickets for this expo are €9, or go for the two-is-better-than-one deal of Mount Athos and William Blake for €13. To avoid waiting in line (entrance to all sections of the museum is through one long, snaking line), reserve tickets online at least two days in advance for the Mount Athos exhibit.
In late 2009 the Petit Palais will host “Fernand Pelez, la parade des humbles.” This artist drew inspiration from the ordinary people he encountered in late 19th-century Paris, from women and children to clowns and young Opera dancers. The expo is planned to run Sept. 24, 2009 to Jan. 17, 2010.
Did somebody say “free”?
To still enjoy the rich history and architecture of the Petit Palais and save some money for a café and pâtisserie afterward, stop by for the free permanent collection. The visit won’t take nearly as long as a trip to the Louvre, and the art and artifacts encompass pretty much the same period (from antiquity to the early 20th century).
While the artwork isn’t necessarily well-known, you’ll certainly be familiar with the artists on display, including Delacroix, Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Monet (although let’s be honest, what Paris museum doesn’t have a Monet?).
Unfortunately the Greek and Roman section is not particularly noteworthy, but the Medieval Christian art is worth a look. Also be sure to step out to the garden in the center.
The Petit Palais is open every day from 10 AM to 6 PM, except Mondays and holiday. Temporary exhibits stay open until 8 PM on Thursdays.
If you’re looking for more free museums, check out our list of free and discounted museums in Parist.