In 1931, the French government hosted an extraordinary event in Paris called, the International Colonial Exposition. The Exposition featured exhibits and pavilions of eight countries that possessed colonies or protectorates throughout the world, including France, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the United Kingdom, Holland, Portugal, and the United States.
The expo was held on a 270-acre plot of land lying just outside eastern Paris in the Bois de Vincennes park.
Among the pavilions that were constructed for the exhibition, the Colonial Palace remains intact today. Designed by architect Albert Laprade, its tall, slim columns support an overhang that protects a stone façade sculpted in bas-relief on three sides by artist Alfred Janniot.
Janniot’s sculptures are a remarkable sight. They depict France’s colonial subjects industriously engaged in farming, fishing, hunting, and extracting raw materials from which France profits. On the western side of the façade, workers in Martinique cut sugar cane; on the left-hand side of the southern façade, several workers in Africa harvest palm fruit and peanuts. On the right-hand side of the southern façade, workers in Asia gather rice or tap a rubber tree; and on the eastern side, fishermen in Oceana catch an abundance of fish in their nets.
Within the main auditorium of the palace, large frescos painted by Pierre Ducos de la Haille present a complement to the images depicted on the façade’s stone tapestry. The bas reliefs of the façade portray the material benefits that France reaps from its colonies; whereas, the frescos by Ducos de la Haille portray the multiple benefits that the colonies gain in return. Allegorical figures of Peace, Justice, Liberty, Science, Art, Commerce, Industry, and Work are juxtaposed with images of the colonizers performing good works in the colonies. One fresco portrays colonists caring for the sick, while another shows a clergyman freeing two slaves.
The central fresco in the main auditorium is the most telling of the manner in which France wanted to portray itself during the exposition. Entitled France Offering the Dove of Peace to the Five Continents, it depicts a fully-clothed woman holding the hand of a statuesque Europe on her right while extending a dove to a group of naked African women emerging from a jungle on her left. Behind her and to the left are half-nude female Asian figures emerging from another jungle. Below her, to her left and right, recline two nude female figures that represent Oceania and America. Here we see France at the center of the world, distributing the benefits of prosperity and peace to her colonial subjects.
Palais de la Porte Dorée (formerly called Palais des Colonies)
293, avenue Daumesnil
Métro: Porte Dorée (Line 8)
Tramway: Porte Dorée (Line 3a)
Open Tuesday to Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday until 7:00 p.m.
Access into the entry hall and the main auditorium is free.