Situated close to the Champs-Elysées, opposite the Petit Palais, the 77,000m² Grand Palais is one of the most beautiful buildings in the 8th arrondissement and, indeed, in the entire capital. Today it plays host to international trade fairs and some of the most prestigious events in Paris, but the history of what was then called the ‘Grand Palais des Beaux-Arts’ reaches back to 1897, when building work on this architectural gem commenced so that it would be ready for the opening of the Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition), which ran until November 12th, 1900.
A monument built by many hands
In 1896 a competition open to all the architects of France was launched to find the creative mind with the best ideas for a monument that would be a symbol of French creativity: the future Grand Palais. This would be a supremely prestigious commission, so competition was fierce. After a series of controversial events and intense debates between members of the selection panel, the press and the general public, the contract was awarded to a group of four architects. These were Henri Deglane, Albert Louvet, Albert-Félix-Théophile Thomas and Charles Girault. Each would have a separate area of responsibility, so their respective proposals were brought together and they were instructed to work on the project as a team. On the pediment of the west wing is an inscription informing us that the monument is ‘consecrated by the Republic to the glory of French art’. Thus it can be seen that the building’s primary purpose would be to host the largest official artistic events of the capital.
The Grand Palais is a key part of an extensive architectural complex comprising the Pont Alexandre III, the Avenue Winston Churchill - which connects the Invalides to the Champs-Elysees - and the Petit Palais. By erecting the Grand Palais in the heart of the presidential district, the Third Republic made a strong statement: the building would exemplify the intellectual and cultural influence of the nation. As early as 1901, the Grand Palais was the venue for the largest art fairs and many other cultural, sport and social events. Amongst these was a horse show for which a nave and a sanded track were constructed. From April 1901 to 1957 this equestrian event, with its team competitions, speed events and show jumping, was an eagerly anticipated and much-loved annual aspect of Parisian life.
From elitist exhibitions to popular events
The salons dedicated to the fine arts reached their peak of interest and popularity during the first thirty years of the building’s existence. Nonetheless, such events came to be regarded by many as indicative of a widening schism between the bourgeois elite and the general public, who seemed to be denied easy access to fine art. In the wake of the First World War, Parisians increasingly turned towards the more profitable technical and commercial trade fairs. The Parisian elitist artistic presentations gradually diminished in prestige and saw their frequency reduced considerably with the opening of the Palais de la Découverte (Discovery Palace), a science museum, on the occasion of the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life.
The Palais de la Découverte is situated in the west wing of the Grand Palais, and was originally planned as a temporary exhibition venue. However, it proved so popular that it was decided not to dismantle it, but rather to make it permanent. In 1947, the Grand Palais lost its original function as the Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Nonetheless, the Grand Palais still welcomes more than 2 million visitors and 40 events each year.