The little palace with the big name (officially, it’s le Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris) is definitely something à aimer.
The first and crudest reason to love it is: it’s free.
It is also under the tourist radar, despite its sumptuous Belle Époque architecture and stunning location (in the eighth arrondissement, just off the cherub- and nymph-bedecked Pont Alexandre III and right across the street from its big-sister palace, le Grand Palais). On weekday mornings it is practically empty, and even on Sunday afternoons it is never mobbed.
The reason for this, I think, is that it received only minimal publicity when it reopened in 2006 after a five-year restoration. Le Petit Palais falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Paris, which has a daunting number of museums, parks and programs to run, so, although “the little palace” has been expensively rehabbed, stocked and manned, it has otherwise been forgotten (it doesn’t even have it’s own web site; instead it gets a mere page listing on the Mairie de Paris site).
Tant mieux I think, every time I stroll up Avenue Winston Churchill, past the life-size bronze of Churchill that decorates the palace’s front lawn. (“We shall never surrender,” his plaque reminds me.)
As I head up the palace’s marble steps, I marvel at the flamboyant Art Nouveau entry constructed of gilded wrought iron and glass, the absence of others admiring it with me, and the fact that I must go to le guichet (the ticket counter) to request un billet for the permanent collection, even though the ticket costs nothing. I suppose this system serves to count the number of patrons, but I can’t help but think that a turnstile would suffice. I do acknowledge that such a contraption would put the ticket collectors, who congregate in a group at the top of the staircase that leads to the permanent collection, out of work. It would also mar the beauty of the building, which — and this is no exaggeration — is magnificent.
Mosaic tile floors; soaring, elegantly curved windows overlooking a verdant park; dizzying painted ceilings; marble circular staircases with fanciful, wrought-iron balusters — architect Charles Girault went all out when he designed this building for the Universal Exposition of 1900 (in his spare time, he also dreamt up le Grand Palais and Pont Alexandre III).
Equally impressive is the museum’s permanent collection. Although there are none of those “important works” that we are all supposed to see before we die (another reason for the absence of the masses), there are numerous gems, including some pieces that are downright saucy.
Jean-Baptiste Clésinger’s Bacchante, for example. This 1848 marble sculpture is of a woman who, according to its corresponding description, has been “terrassé par le désir autant que par l’ivresse.” Overcome by desire as much as by drunkenness. Hey, wasn’t that me last Saturday night?
In addition to “Bacchante,” there is Gustave Courbet’s 1866 oil painting “Le Sommeil,” or “The Sleep,” which usually hangs in the Courbet and Realism gallery but is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of a traveling retrospective of the artist’s work.
If you’re in New York, go see it; you might get to experience my favorite Petit Palais pastime: watching people react to “Le Sommeil.”
Let me explain. Le Sommeil is a gorgeous, rather large (four by six feet) oil painting of two women lying naked in a rumpled bed in what appears to be an exhausted, post-coital embrace. Their cheeks are flushed, their hair is mussed, and a strand of pearls lies broken at the edge of the bed. Because “Le Sommeil” is the only painting like it in the gallery, visitors to le Petit Palais are often caught off guard by it.
And this I love to watch. I sit on a bench in the center of the room, pretending to admire the artworks around me while instead monitoring the reactions of my fellow visitors to "Le Sommeil."
The last time I did this, a granny strolled into the gallery, did a double take when she saw the painting, blushed to the roots of her silver hair, and hurried quickly out of the room. A couple of minutes later she was back, moving tentatively closer for a better view. Next came a young guy, who grinned and took a picture of the painting with his cell phone. After him came a middle-aged couple, the man bounding toward les filles like a bloodhound while his wife trailed reluctantly behind. After he had seen enough, though, it was she who kept looking back.
I doubt if viewers will have the same reactions in New York because the show will be crowded, and also because “Le Sommeil” isn’t the only racy work in the exhibit (in his day, Courbet liked to raise an eyebrow or two; for proof, check out his L'Origine du Monde). Visitors to the Met show will have to let me know.
“Le Sommeil” won't come home to Paris until fall, so I will have to wait until then to continue my Petit Palais social game. In the meantime, I will occupy myself with the museum’s other delights — sober funerary urns from Ancient Greece; exuberant Art Nouveau vases; a series of creepy masks by French artist Jean Carriès; and lilting Impressionist landscapes by Pissarro, Sisley, and Monet. All of that plus one of the most pleasing gardens in Paris.
It’s a courtyard garden, hidden within the palace’s walls but open to the sky. The plants are Mediterranean and spiky, which lends a southern air to the space, and the whole thing is surrounded by an airy, columned arcade that is often deserted. A few bistro tables are set out under the arches, and it is here that I usually take my pause-café (coffee break). I buy a cup in the museum cafeteria and bring it outside, where I survey the palms and the mosaics, the stone carvings and the marble walls, and think, I'll take it.