Many Paris museums work because they adopt a single point of interest and run with it. Le Musée du parfum features nothing but perfume, but it investigates the topic like nowhere else. The good people of Le Musée Clémenceau seem to think nobody on earth has ever mattered as much as Président Georges, but by the end of your visit, you’ll probably agree. Paris museums go to all manner of extremes, favouring the most precise of objects (ahem, Museum of Eyeglasses) and exploring that object, its history and its specificities, with incredible dedication. These extremes of passion are often what make Paris museums so special.
But some Paris museums are beautiful for exactly the opposite reason; for their command of the fine art of balance. Balance between light and dark, between the minute and the momentous, between tradition and modernity. Le Petit Palais is one of those museums.
Located in the regal eighth arrondissement, just off the Champs Elysées, Le Petit Palais seems oddly named: with an impressive stone façade, an elegant stairway and a huge arch framing a gilt entrance, the Petit Palais is far from little. Yet directly across the street lies the explanation for the name: le Grand Palais, an imposing exhibition hall with a lofty glass ceiling visible from any riverside point in Paris. Le Grand Palais is an airy space used for temporary exhibitions and events, and I had always assumed le Petit Palais was merely an offshoot of its big sister. But I was mistaken: le Petit Palais is in fact the home of the Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris (Fine Arts Museum of the City of Paris) and it’s certainly one of those museums to be admired for its mastery of balance.
Indeed, le Petit Palais strikes the perfect harmony in many ways. Its entrance, ceilings and glasswork are decadent, yet its openness and sparse furnishing help the space retain a subtleness and simplicity. The upper rooms, with their monumental 19th-century paintings, are all natural light, white décor and high ceilings, while the lower levels provide the perfect muted lighting, deeply-coloured walls and small rooms to complement the museum’s earlier pieces, such as the delicate icons dripping in gold leaf. The museum is large, yet surprisingly quiet. It is impressive yet humble, comprehensive yet approachable, popular yet peaceful.
But it was when reclining in the museum’s coffee room with a fellow museum-loving friend, the lush, circular garden set out before us, that le Petit Palais’ perfect balance really struck me. In a museum dedicated to Parisian fine arts, priceless artworks strung in every room, one of the key attractions was the museum’s inner courtyard, with its tangle of ferns and its turquoise pond. I liked the Petit Palais for its collection. But I loved it for its balance between interior and exterior, art and nature, order and disorder.