The frescoes span the hall and illustrate France’s contributions to the colonies. Each of these contributions is represented both by an allegory and scenes of daily life to illustrate it.

Allegories for a Colonialist Message

allegories forum

Allegories de la justice, de la liberté et de la paix. Fresque du Forum, photo Lorenzö © Palais de la Porte Dorée



On the walls surrounding the room: art, peace, work and trade are represented to the right, and to the left, industry, freedom, justice and science. The backdrops, on which we may discern caravels and the doves of peace, lend a unity to the whole.

Various scenes evoke the benefits of colonization through the figures of the missionary, the doctor or the engineer, but nothing is said of the violence, the exactions committed or forced labor, the idea being then to justify and promote colonial policy by giving a smooth, idealized image of France’s actions overseas.

scene science

Scène accompagnant l'allegorie de la science, photo Lorenzö, © Palais de la Porte Dorée

For example in the left-hand corner of the room, two illustrative scenes precede the allegory of science. In the foreground of the largest scene, we see a nun caring for an Asian child, and beside her, medical supplies. Behind this, another settler supervises the transport of a sick native on a stretcher. In the background, a scene of open-air mass vaccination is depicted: settlers are vaccinating Asians one by one. On the section of the wall next to the central fresco, science is represented by the construction of a railroad and a telephone. Here the idea being expressed is that by bringing medicine as well as transport and information technologies to the colonies, France is accomplishing a civilizing mission.

A little further on the same wall, Justice is represented by a blindfolded female figure. This representation fits with traditional iconography and is an expression of impartiality: justice is blind and does not make distinctions among those on trial. Albert Laprade, aware that he would have to answer criticism about the excesses of colonization, unsuccessfully asked the painter Ducos de la Haille to remove the blindfold.

scene liberte

Scène accompagnant l'allegorie de la liberté, photo Lorenzö, ©  Palais de la Porte Dorée

Continuing on the wall, we arrive at the allegory of freedom. In the foreground to the left, a group of Africans harvest fruit and pile it in baskets. To the right, a white missionary frees a young African from his chains with a gesture suggesting baptism. In the background, we see a hunting and fishing scene. Here the message is clear: it is an extremely ideological vision of the abolition of slavery since it is a priest who frees the slaves who give thanks in the manner of religious imagery.

The Central Fresco

At the end of the reception hall, the 8m x 10m central panel represents the influence of France on five continents. Here we are again faced with representations calculated to spread the ideology of the colonial period.

Draped in a red toga lined with ermine, France is personified in the woman placed in the center of the fresco holding Europe in her right hand and a dove, symbol of peace, in her left. Behind her, the oak expresses her force and the laurel her glorious past. The white sails, also found above the central doors of the room, symbolize overseas colonization.

Surrounding France, allegorical figures of the four continents are depicted. It is to be noted that the geography of the fresco is inversed in relation to Alfred-Auguste Janniot’s bas-relief outside. To the left, Asia is represented by the Indian divinity Vishnu on a white elephant; facing each other, Africa is represented by a woman on a grey elephant; at the bottom of the fresco, to the left, two seahorses carry the figures of Oceania, and to the right, America.

fresque central

Fresque centrale du Forum, photo Lorenzö © Palais de la Porte Dorée

By choosing to represent America holding a skyscraper, the painter Ducos de la Haille provoked the fury of the architect Albert Laprade. Indeed, despite what the fresco seems to suggest, that nation is by no means a French colony. Laprade wrote to him: “We do not own the United States. I beg you, avoid topics that could cause an uproar in the press!” 

Pierre-Henri Ducos de la Haille

A French painter who was born in 1889 and died in 1972, Pierre-Henri Ducos de la Haille exhibited at the Salon of French Artists in 1920. Winner of the Grand Prix de Rome award, he became resident artist at the Villa Medici. He later joined, with a great number of other artists from the Academy, in the renewal of mural painting that marked a return to the style of figurative painting between the wars and to the classicism of the themes of antiquity. Most of his work was devoted to the decoration of monuments, among them this fresco measuring 600m2 .

See also : the restauration of the frescoes in 2011