Besnard studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1874, giving him four years at the Villa Medici in Rome. From 1879 to 1881 he took up commissions in London where he befriended Alphonse Legros, painted a number of portraits, decorated a church in Staffordshire for his own pleasure and came into contact with English painting. Returning to Paris he became a pillar of the secessionist camp and a specialist painter of decorative schemes for many of the civic buildings under construction. His best known such projects are the entrance hall of the Ecole de Pharmacie (1883-87), the wedding rooms in the mairie of the 1st arrondeissement (1886), the cupola of the Petit Palais (1907-10), and the ceiling of the Comedie Francaise (1905-13).
Never a revolutionary artist, Besnard avoided the -isms of modern art, prefering instead to pursue an independent path. He was an accomplished portraitist and and painter of genre scenes, working in vivid colour and masterly linear arabesques. His portraits were nearly always of sitters he knew, and in familiar surroundings. He was a frequent Salon exhibitor, and in 1890 was a founder member of the Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
In 1912 Professor Dr Hans W Singer says about Besnard in his foreword to Meister der Zeichnung(1):
… (Besnard’s) second quality though is for eternity: his knowledge and pleasure in a spirited, masterly technique. The material content in not his main interest. He lives and thinks like his average viewers – reaches out to them – with the alpha and omega of his art – his refined handling of the brush, his composing of light on canvas. He makes the public know that this is how he wanted it to look. His will is
obvious in every inch of his works. Nowhere one finds flat, lifeless surfaces. Of course, when he paints a table, a face – we should be delighted about the accuracy and sharpness which gives the idea of the real thing – but even more delightful it is to see the means he uses to give this impression. That it was those brush strokes, those colour treatments, that human soul which charm us into observation – it is this observation which give the basis to our appreciation of Besnard’s art.
In 1874 he won his first medal which opened the doors to the Paris world of art for him. At the same time he won a grant for three years in Rome at the Villa Medici. But in this period he gained more in his development as a person than as an artist. The most important experience of his time in Rome was that he met a young French sculptress who was to become Madame Besnard. They moved to London as she had commissions there, and Paris in 1879 had no particular incentive for him as he was not interested in following either the Manet nor the Puvis-de-Chavanne movements.
And despite the fact that he was neither impressed with the English aesthetic preferences, as ridiculed in Gilbert and Sullivan’s burlesque Patience he had some remarkable commissions. One yearning Rome left in him was to work on a monumental scale, and so, between earning a living with his commissions, he decorated a little church in Staffordshire at his own expense for his own pleasure.
As all ex-patriots – they find each other and seek each others company. So he met Alphonse Legros which may have been the greatest influence during this period. He introduced him to the art of the needle. He became a master of etching techniques.
On his return to Paris three years later he received a commission of his dreams – to decorate the ante-room of the Pharmaceutical Academy on behalf of the Ministry of Fine Arts. He took great care to depict the scientific approach of healing, using what nature has to offer. There is no sentimentality but open interest and this interpretation raptured Paris into admiration and success came hand in hand. Of course he continued to also paint on less monumental scales – always creating of magic of light and shadows which never left him.
(1) Dr Hans Singer, Albert Besnard, Meister der Zeichnung, A Schumann’s Verlag, Leipzig 1912
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