Off the Beaten Path Museum: Paris

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs

On a recent business trip to Paris, I found myself next to the Tuileries gardens after a meeting. As much as I wanted to head to the Louvre, my hour-long lunch break was not enough time. After wandering around for a few minutes, I decided to head into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a midsized museum dedicated to the history of French decorative arts. The permanent exhibit is a tour through the history of French interior design and techniques from the fourteenth century through the present day.

The Pros

 The museum has a few great period rooms and artifacts. I particularly appreciated the drawing room from the Hotel de Talairic because it is a prime example of best practices for period rooms. While historic spaces should ideally be preserved in their original context, this was not possible for the drawing room from the Hotel de Talairic. The Hotel de Talairic was built in 1783 in Chausée d’Autin, the fashionable district for Parisian elite. During the nineteenth century, the district was remodeled and the drawing room’s paneling was removed from the hotel and installed in a private apartment. The apartment’s owner bequeathed the paneling to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs after the First World War. By accepting the donation, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs ensured a beautiful piece of eighteenth century Parisian history was not lost.

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Wood paneling from the drawing room of the Hôtel Talairac
Paris, c. 1790
Painted and gilt oak and resinous wood, fireplace in red griotte marble and gilt bronze; mirror
Bequest of Adèle Denouille, 1923
Inv. 21246 A-M et 21247
© MAD

In addition to the beautiful wood paneling, the drawing room from the Hotel de Talairic has an awesome clock. The clock displays the day and month according to the French Revolutionary calendar. When I looked at the clock, I really felt like I had stepped back into revolutionary France!

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Clock with decimal and duodecimal hours, days of the week and the Revolutionary ten-day week, dates and phases of the moon
Philippe-Jacques Corniquet, master clockmaker in 1785
Paris, c. 1794
Gilt bronze; enamel clock face
Gift of Jules Audéoud, 1885
Inv. 3130
© MAD

The coolest item in the museum is definitely Napoleon I’s throne. I bet this wasn’t his only throne, but it was still really fun to have it all to myself for five minutes. The museum was pretty empty, even though it was late June.

 

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Throne of Napoleon I at the Legislative Body
Bernard Poyet (1742-1824), designer
François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter (1770-1841), cabinetmaker
Augustin-François-André Picot (1786-1868), embroiderer
1805
Carved and gilt wood, red velvet decorated with silver embroidery
Gift of the Questeurs, Chambre des Députés, 1907
Inv. 14421.A
© MAD / photo: Jean Tholance

 

The Cons

A warning for the #woke museum-goer, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is not a progressive or innovative museum. It focuses solely on the design aesthetics of the rich and powerful, completely ignoring the design tradition of Paris’ poor and middle class. Even more troubling, it fails to seriously engage with French colonialism, orientalism, imperialism, and racism

The most glaring problem with the museum’s interpretation of non-western culture is the Japonism section. The exhibit’s main label begins, “as a result of the commercial treaty between France and Japan, established in 1858, and participation in the Paris World’s Fair of 1867, artists discovered decorative objects that questioned the foundation of the Western aesthetic.” The text does not allude to the fact that the treaty of 1858 was forced upon the Japanese. If a visitor does not know the history of the 1858 treaty, the word “treaty” will suggest to the visitor that it was a mutualistic agreement. Therefore, the exhibit label suggests that the influx of Japanese artifacts into the European market was a simple matter of supply and demand, not compulsion. The word “participation” implies that the French use of Japanese artistic techniques was an amiable cultural exchange. The phrase, “artists discovered decorative objects,” makes French artists into subjects with volition with whom the visitor can identify, while removing Japanese artisans from the picture entirely. It also implies that the Japanese make a lower form of decoration, “objects” than the French, who make art.

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Furniture for Charles Gillot and his daughter Marcelle Seure
Eugène Grasset (1845-1917), designer
Fulgraff, cabinetmaker and sculptor
Paris, c. 1880-1905
Gift of Gabrielle Richard, 1959, 1968, 2004
Gift of Marcel and Gabrielle Richard, 1977
Inv. 38190, 41689-41694, 45713-45714, 2004.24.1-2
© MAD

TLDR

If you’ve already hit the major sites in Paris, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a great place to spend an hour or two. Don’t expect a life changing or eye opening museum experience. Socially conscious visitors should prepare to be a little frustrated. However, you’ll get to see some truly incredible craftsmanship and learn some interesting insights about French decorative arts.

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Me dorking out with Napoleon I’s throne

 

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