Paris Exhibits: Silks, Celebrity, Statuary, and Uncalled-for Extravagance

There is never a shortage of captivating expositions in Paris. Last week, I wrote about some spectacular shows that I visited in April 2023. I’ve continued my recent itinerary here. All of these shows are still underway. However, when they have closed, the off-the-beaten-path spaces that housed them are likely to have new offerings that are equally inviting.

Institut du Monde Arab

Many Paris museums are devoted to subjects that are decidedly not French. Last summer, I visited the permanent collection of the Institut du Monde Arab and in April I returned to take in a dazzling exhibit of textiles from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, titled Sur les routes de Samarcande, Merveilles de soie et d’or.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Samarkand is the second largest city in Uzbekistan and one of the oldest in Central Asia. Despite being located in a country with only 9% arable land, Samarkand prospered over the centuries due to its strategic location along the Silk Road trading route between Asia and Europe. Settled by nomads between the 11th and 15th centuries, Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union in 1924 and didn’t regain its independence until 1991.

The exhibit in Paris features a variety of spectacular works of craftmanship, seen for the first time outside of Uzbek museums: silk robes embroidered with gold thread; painted wooden saddles and harnesses decorated with gems and precious metals; intricately woven linens, rugs, and nomadic costumes; jewelry; and, oriental paintings.

Most of the works were produced in the 19th or early part of the 20th century. It’s mind-boggling to consider the labor, skill, and devotion that went into producing such sophisticated, intricate, and precise pieces by hand. Only men were allowed to perform embroidery—a task that was so physically demanding that women were assumed to be too weak for the job. I had to wonder about the long hours these men spent bent over their creations—straining their eyes while clutching their fine needles—and the toll that it took on their health.

It was striking to ponder the contrast between the vibrant and ornate textiles and the arid and nearly monochrome environment in which they were produced. These treasures from Uzbekistan transported me for a few hours to a time and place I’d barely ever considered. It was a journey I’ll not soon forget.

Sur les routes de Samarcande, Merveilles de soie et d’or runs through June 4, 2023. Ticket price: 12 euros.

Sarah Bernhardt

I’ve written before about Le Petit Palais. It’s one of several free museums in Paris that have laudable collections and the building’s architecture is breathtaking. This is a regular stop for me, even if only to browse their museum store or grab a café crème in the tranquil interior courtyard. In April, I noticed that they were featuring a special exposition on Sarah Bernhardt. Perhaps, you’ve not heard of this Madonna-sized celebrity of France’s Belle Époque. Bernhardt was a force to be reckoned with—a multi-talented artist who also had a keen knack for self-promotion.

Petit Palais Courtyard
Courtyard of the Petit Palais, Paris

I wasn’t sure if I’d appreciate an exhibit dedicated to a turn-of-the-20th-century actress, titled Sarah Bernhardt, Et la femme créa la star. However, after reading a few glowing reviews, I scheduled a visit via the Petit Palais’ online billetterie.

Upon entering the vibrantly painted exhibition space, my doubts about Bernhardt’s life story holding my attention were quickly dispelled. The daughter of a high-society courtesan, Bernhardt came close to following in her mother’s (and her aunt’s) footsteps and becoming a well-paid prostitute. She attracted the attention, however, of Napoleon III’s half-brother, the Duc de Morny, who believed that Bernhardt’s vivacious energy foretold a promising career in theater. After her prominent benefactor pulled a few strings, Bernhardt began studying acting at the Paris Conservatory.

Bernhardt by Félix Nadar
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Félix Nadar, 1865

To summarize what happened next would require a much longer post. But, in a nutshell:

  • the woman had countless lovers (both male and female);
  • she appeared in well over 100 stage productions written by the likes of Hugo, Dumas, Racine, and Shakespeare;
  • her acts toured the world on numerous occasions including 10 tours in the United States;
  • she starred in 11 silent films;
  • she was admired by hundreds of her creative peers who attempted to capture her essence via paintings, film, sculptures, writings, stained glass, and caricature;
  • she used her voice to back various political causes;
  • she was a gifted painter and sculptor;
  • and, she shamelessly lent her name to hawk everything from face powder to Absinthe.
Sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt
Après la tempête, (After the Storm), by Sarah Bernhardt, 1876

Suffice it to say, Bernhardt was a tireless creative who put everything she had into her many endeavors. In 1906, while traveling in Latin America, she injured her knee in a performance of La Tosca. Over the next 8 years, as her leg pain worsened, she walked with an increasingly debilitating limp. In 1914, when doctors discovered gangrene, they chose to amputate her leg at the hip. Yet, Bernhardt continued to appear onstage, now in roles where she remained seated. An exacting eccentric, she refused to use a prosthesis or crutches or even a wheelchair. Instead, she insisted on being carried about in rickshaw fashion, transported in a palanquin of her design.

Bernhardt by Georges Clairin
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin, 1876

The Grand Palais exhibit contains more than 400 works that recall not only Bernhardt’s myriad theatrical personas but also her personal relationships, artistic talents, and instincts for publicity.

Sarah Bernhardt, Et la femme créa la star runs through August 27, 2023. Ticket price: 15 euros.

Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine

If you’ve ever visited Paris, you’ve likely gazed upon Le Palais Chaillot, situated above the Trocadero Fountains, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. In April, I headed to one of three museums that are located within its walls, La Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine. What drew me in was a special exhibit on the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral which was ravaged by fire in April 2019.

Post-fire photo of Notre Dame
Post-fire photograph of Notre Dame

I was somewhat disappointed to find that much of the information included in the exposition was old news that I’d studied previously while writing a post on Notre Dame’s reconstruction. However, my ticket included access to the museum’s entire collection and I found the exhibit space to be well worth the entrance fee.

I hadn’t stopped to consider what building a museum dedicated to architecture might entail. Once inside the massive halls, however, I was impressed by the vision of the design team that planned the building for the 1937 World’s Fair.

The museum covers 9,000 square meters of gallery space and the ceilings are 8 meters tall. There are 3 permanent collections divided into 3 categories:

  • Galerie des moulages: casts of monumental French architecture from the 12th to the 18th centuries.
  • Galerie des peintures murales et des vitraux: copies of murals and stained glasses from French Romanesque and Gothic churches.
  • Galerie moderne et contemporaine: models of French and international architecture from 1850 to the present day.

By the time I’d thoroughly combed through the exhibit on Notre Dame, I only had another hour to see the rest of the collection. Hence, I look forward to a return trip.

Notre-Dame de Paris. Des bâtisseurs aux restaurateurs runs through April 29, 2024. Ticket price: 9 euros.

Hair and Whiskers

The Musée des arts decoratifs, located in an isolated wing of the Louvre, boasts a stellar collection of decorative arts, fashion, and graphics that includes altarpieces from the Middle Ages and furnishings from the Italian Renaissance to the present day. It’s been on my bucket list for years but in April, a special exhibit titled Des Cheveux et des poils finally drew me in.

Once again, the permanent collection was amazing and too big to digest in a single visit. One of my favorite rooms restores a 1750s Parisian boudoir lifted from the home of one Madame Dangé. I don’t know who this woman was but I wholeheartedly embrace her appreciation for the fables of La Fontaine. Before becoming a museum piece, Madame Dangé’s boudoir, which overlooked the Place Vendôme, was paneled with scenes from the classic fables.

However, the main attraction that day was an “exploration of the relationship between the body and fashion with an exhibition on hairstyles and body hair grooming.” That’s perhaps an erudite description for what might also be promoted with “hang onto your hats, you’re about to see a lot of alarming scenes of human hair growth.” The exhibition contains over 600 works, from the 15th century to today, relating to hairstyles on all parts of the human body. I’m not sure I learned much but this show was a lot of fun.

Des Cheveux et des poils runs through September 17, 2023. Ticket price: 14 euros.

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About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. I love your enthusiasm, Carol! So curious and open-minded.

  2. Thanks for this second listing of Paris exhibitions. I have bookmarked this post (along with your previous one) and will try to see some of these during my next visit in June.
    Here’s my take on the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine:

  3. Well, well, you’ve been busy… Nice selection. Sarah Bernhardt was indeed a character. and very talented. I’d forgotten about the Duc de Morny…
    Petit Palais is now a favourite of mine. I haven’t gone to the others…
    Bon week-end.

    • When in the Bernhardt exhibit, I read about a book by Dumas fils called La Dame aux camélias which is based on his own affair with a Parisian courtesan. Bernhardt played this character onstage. A few days later, I walked into a used bookstore. After rifling through a rack of unsorted books, I came across a copy–totally by chance, I wasn’t looking for it. Picked it up for 2.3 euros. Serendipity in Paris is not hard to come by.

      • La dame aux camélias is a classic of French lit. Probably read/studied it in Junior High. (By correspondence LOL)
        It will be good reading. Both literary and historical, of the life of those times…

  4. It’s a bit curious that Samarkand would fall under the purview of the Institut du Monde Arabe — the city was Persian in language and culture during its golden age, and is Turkish-speaking today. Registan place certainly looks very Persian — at first glance I thought it was a photo from Iran.

    The amount of work involved in doing such embroidery by hand is indeed mind-boggling.

    Bernhardt was certainly a multi-talented and energetic individual. I’m not surprised she was a celebrity in her day. Nevertheless, I indeed had not heard of her. One wonders how many of our household names of today will still be widely know a century from now.

    Obviously an architecture museum needs to be on a massive scale. I’m glad there are places where one can see details of architecture (such as the three stone figures on red backgrounds shown) which would be impossible to look at close up in their original locations. The sculptors who created cathedral gargoyles were occasionally mischievous, believing that their work would only ever be seen from a distance due to its height on the building.

    In every era, hair seems to provoke more imagination than is probably good for it. One wonders if the aristocratic extravagances of centuries past evoked the same kind of reactions from the peasants as today’s occasional blue or rainbow coiffures do in the more staid parts of the US. In any case, that’s a most arresting depiction of the Eiffel Tower.

    • Your right that Samarkind is not part of the Arab world. I guess the Institute sees part of its mission as promoting Muslim cultures? Not sure. In any case, I was glad to have seen this.

      Yes. Some of those gargoyles and statuary–even in plain view–are quite shocking. Ha!

      “hair seems to provoke more imagination than is probably good for it” I wholeheartedly agree. The anti-conformist in me couldn’t resist holding my camera in front of that Eiffel wax and taking my time getting the best shot I could. Most people averted their eyes. 🙂

  5. Paris seems like a city which has so much to offer, you’ll never be bored. Thanks for taking us along with you virtually. Really enjoyed reading this post.

  6. Sarah Bernhardt’s name was a staple in my parents’ gentle chiding vocabulary when they felt my sister or I was being too histrionic: “Don’t be such a Sarah Bernhardt!” I’d never heard about the gangrene and amputation, however. Strong woman, with admirable toughness.

    • Wow! I’m impressed Annie. Your parents were right about the histrionics. They had some video clips of silent movies that Bernhardt was in at the exhibit. Horribly melodramatic! Even worse were audio recordings. Mon dieu! Acting has come a long way.

      I remained impressed, however, with all she accomplished. Her sculptures were quite remarkable and I have to respect a woman who was willing to be fairly open about her female lovers way back then. You’re right, she was very strong and tough.

  7. great post! Sara B not to be confused with Sarah B 🙂

  8. Hi Carol. I had noticed I got no new posts of yours in my mail. Then went north to New York and Canada. Great time.
    I am now getting concerned… Is everything all right? Anything I can do?
    My mail is in my Gravatar, but if you like, here it is:
    Do drop a line if only to say: all fine, just busy…

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