Things to See at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris

Things to See at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris

Central Paris is a canvas colored by centuries of artistic development and cultural revolution. Time has etched its mark on the center of the French capital. This shows that Paris is as substantial as it is flamboyant, as refined as it is functional.

Where better to learn about that interplay than at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts)? You can find it in the north-west tip of the Louvre Palace in the Pavillon de Marsan (Marsan Pavilion). (It is a separate entity from the famous Louvre Museum.)

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is managed by Les Arts Décoratifs (Decorative Arts), a private, state-supported, not-for-profit organization set up in 1882. It remains committed to its original objective: “to keep alive the culture of the arts in France which seek to make useful things beautiful.”

The exhibit La Naissance des Grands Magasins. Mode, Design, Jouets, Publicité, 1852–1925 (The Birth of Department Stores: Fashion, Design, Toys, Advertising, 1852–1925) runs until October 13, 2024, and is being hosted with Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. This exhibition is worth seeing, because it resembles a greatest-hits tour, with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs sharing many of its favorite exhibits.

The exhibition explores how department stores mirrored societal changes during the period, particularly within architecture, consumerism, and urban planning. The Birth of Department Stores exhibit shows the transformation of French retail and Parisian society during a span of nearly three-quarters of a century, during the period from the beginning of the Second French Empire of Napoleon III in 1852 to the International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925.

Chief Curator Amélie Gastaut of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs tells the story with exhibits that make up 80% of the 800 items on display.

Chasing Status

At The Birth of Department Stores, you’ll learn about the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century. The opulent paintings depict the era’s nouveau riche, with the men wearing black tailcoats and top hats to show their place in the top echelons of society.

Various paintings and early photographs convey the aspiration that lay at the heart of the bourgeoisie, the new upper class replacing the aristocracy after the French Revolution of 1789. Showy full-length portraits display the stiff, formal codes they adopted from their predecessors, but with a relaxation shown in flouncy sleeves and racy lingerie depicted in illustrated form within catalogs.

Two paintings depict Aristide Boucicaut and his wife, Marguerite, who in 1852 established Le Bon Marché, the first big department store in Paris. Another painting displays Alfred Chauchard, who founded Les Grands Magasins du Louvre in 1855. Les Grands Magasins du Louvre is no longer a shop, but the building remains today.

Paris Rivals London

Paris underwent structural shifts to accommodate these retail palaces. New avenues sprang up, and broad boulevards replaced narrow alleys. Such urban overhaul simplified traffic and allowed the flow of consumers into the heart of Paris’s new commercial hubs. This metamorphosis was essential to house the grandeur that the new department stores symbolized.

The work of city official Baron Haussmann, under the direction of Napoleon III, is integral. He sought to create a modern Paris like a modern London.

Paris created as much as it imitated, and Napoleon III officially opened the world’s first circus, the Cirque d’Hiver, in 1852. The concept of leisure continued to be established with the Théâtre des Variétés in 1807. Later, the Alcazar d’Été would become another popular nocturnal venue. Colorful posters that marketed these establishments line the walls of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Consumerism Becomes All the Rage

At the same time, striking advertisements democratized shopping. Displays of gowns, adornments, and placards from the bigger establishments catered to more sectors of society than the exclusive smaller shops that had preceded the department store.

The department store became a place of leisure by including restaurants in their design, a new idea for many. Visitors were encouraged to linger, so they would spend more time (and money) in the store. Le Bon Marché even had its very own Black Friday. Magazines showed well-known personalities, who shared with readers where they bought their clothes–much like the influencers of today.

You can even see the first bank check in the exhibition. Bank checks allowed Parisians to enjoy greater purchasing power and acquire more consumer items, such as toys. Retailer Georges Dufayel pioneered the use of credit in his department store, where customers could order from catalogs.

Toys’ Story

Toy manufacturing grew during this era. They were no mere playthings but were designed to help to advance children’s development. Many thought pieces emphasized the importance of toys in education. Mothers and children would visit the department stores together while the father was at work. Toy catalogs, such as the one from Le Bon Marché in 1869, included advertisements for small history books and promotional items.

The modern image of Santa Claus appeared during this period as an avuncular old man dressed in red. This figure rewards well-behaved children, and parents are no longer seen in the eyes of the children to make the purchases.

Clothes began to be designed especially for children, and children’s fashion became a consumer item. A painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter depicts Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, who popularized the trend of miniature sailor’s outfits.

You’ll also see the works of James Tissot in the exhibit.

Cultural Footprints Made by French Department Stores

One of France’s most famous authors, Émile Zola, based his 1882 Au Bonheur des Dames on Le Bon Marché. A social realist like Charles Dickens, Zola uses his narrative to critique big stores, which helped drive smaller retailers out of business, while applauding them for the way they empowered women.

The Birth of Department Stores features a poster of the department store Aux Buttes Chaumont, which caught the attention of eagle-eyed Friends viewers over a century after its Parisian heyday. A poster of an advertisement for its toys section appears in Monica’s apartment, but it is not the one featured.

Where Past Meets Present

The display continues by showcasing the way department stores mimicked the architecture of buildings constructed for international fairs such as London’s famous Crystal Palace. Iron and glass were popular materials. The parallels between past innovations and contemporary retail practices are clear, as are the economic ramifications of the department store boom.

Department stores were the engines of modernity, driving not just retail but also banking, transportation, and manufacturing sectors. This economic progress was instrumental in redefining Paris’s role on the world stage.

Many of the famous stores launched in the 19th century survive in the 21st century, and the influence of the retail giants that have fallen remain. The iconic Le Bon Marché, alongside others like Galeries Lafayette and Samaritaine, caused ripple effects in Parisian society. Their early marketing approaches shaped how we shop today.

The Art of Paris

No visit to Paris is complete without experiencing an art museum. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM.

The Birth of Department Stores is the first course of a two-part series that is as gratifying as a bowl of French onion soup. The time travel through retail history continues with the second exhibit. This will commence in October at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine and will offer a global outlook on department store architecture.

Don’t miss the next installment of this tale in October, which promises to further highlight the vital role these stores played in modernizing not only Paris but cities around the world.

Are you interested in guides that take you to the soul of a city? We suggest you read our Week in Paris Itinerary. As we continue our adventures around the world, we invite you to join us through our first-hand experiences.

5 thoughts on “Things to See at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris

  1. I’ve always been fascinated with the arts as they extend into all aspects of life such as fashion, so I’m so excited to see this museum is more than just painting and sculptures.

  2. Paris is such a dreamy place to visit fashion museums. I feel like there’s no better place in Europe to see gorgeous exhibits like this one!

  3. Thank you for the introduction to this Paris museum. I thought I had seen most of the museums in this city but clearly I missed this one. Looks like a place I could spend several hours.

  4. My sister just came back from Paris and mentioned how she enjoyed seeing their museums. I’ve had Paris on my list for years I guess its time to see some of these fashion museums. Great post!

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