Until the late nineteenth century the City of Paris had no museums of its own: since 1797, the vast majority of the national collections had been housed at the Louvre, with other works distributed among museums and galleries in major French cities.
During the Second Empire, at a time when the work overseen by Baron Haussmann was dramatically changing the face of the city, the municipal authorities came up with the idea of a museum dedicated to the history of Paris. And so the Musée Carnavalet was born. Inaugurated in 1880, it became the capital’s first municipal museum. Until then the museum’s collection of sculptures, paintings and murals had been on display at the Hôtel de Ville and in various institutions and churches across the city. With a view to supporting artistic creation, the City of Paris also purchased paintings, sculptures, prints, medals and other works from Salons and art fairs. These works were often transferred directly to the archives, off-limits to the public.
The Universal Exhibition of 1900 provided an opportunity to put a selection of works from the municipal collections on show at the Petit Palais, built especially for this purpose. After the exhibition the city authorities decided to transform this new gallery into a permanent museum, the ‘Palais des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris’. The donation made by the Dutuit brothers in 1902 allowed the museum to expand its collections into the field of ancient art. The collections were subsequently enriched by the generosity of donors such as Tuck in 1930, Zoubaloff in 1935 and contemporary art collector Maurice Girardin in 1953.
In 1896, Henri Cernuschi had bequeathed his collections of Chinese and Japanese art to the City of Paris, along with the grand hôtel he had built to house them (7 Avenue Vélasquez, Paris 8th). In the early twentieth century the City of Paris thus found itself in possession of three museums: a museum of local history (Carnavalet), a museum of fine art (Petit Palais) and a specialist museum (Cernuschi).
In 1901 Paul Meurice, a faithful friend of Victor Hugo, donated to the city the house formerly occupied by the writer on the Place des Vosges. This donation was soon followed by the emotionally-resonant bequest of the house where Hugo spent his years of exile on Guernsey, left to the City by Hugo’s family in 1927.
In 1929, Ernest Cognacq bequeathed his collection of eighteenth-century art, housed at La Samaritaine department store on the Boulevard des Capucines. These bequests marked the emergence of two new types of museum: the collection museum (Cognacq-Jay) and the museum-residence (Victor Hugo).
Creation of the Museum of Modern Art
The city had long been planning to split the collections held at the Petit Palais to create a museum of modern art, dedicated to the major artistic movements of the twentieth century. The national government had taken a similar route with the Musée de Luxembourg. The result was the Palais de Tokyo, constructed in 1937. The national Museum of Modern Art was established here in 1947 (before being transferred to the Pompidou Centre in 1977), while the City of Paris’ counterpart opened its doors in 1961.
Later on, the Musée Carnavalet’s textile collections were transferred to the Palais Galliera in 1985 to form the basis of a new museum, this new facility having been bequeathed to the city by the Duchesse Galliera and previously enjoying a short spell as a museum of decorative arts.
The acquisition of Balzac’s home in 1949, and the Museum of Romantic Life thanks to the Renan-Scheffer donation – as part of a deal with the national government – further expanded the City of Paris’ stable of museums.
The Antoinette Sasse bequest was combined with the Museum of Maréchal Leclerc de Hauteclocque and the Liberation of Paris in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation, forming the new Musée Jean Moulin.
Two of the twentieth century’s greatest sculptors left their studios and all or most of their collections to the City of Paris: Bourdelle (1949) and Zadkine.
Nowadays, all of the municipal museums continue to enrich their collections via the market and thanks to new donations and bequests.