Born into an artistic family, Paul Albert Besnard became a painter, graver and writer.
Besnard studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Jean François Brémond and Alexandre Cabanel. He made his Salon début in 1868 and in 1874 won the Prix de Rome. He stayed in Italy for five years, his work of this period showing the influence of Pietro da Cortona and Michelangelo.
Besnard arrived in London in 1879, staying until 1881. There he studied the work of Turner and the British eighteenth century portraitists, and began to experiment with colour and brushwork. He received a number of important portrait commissions during this time from aristocratic patrons such as Garnet Joseph, 1st Viscount Wolseley (1880; National Portrait Gallery, London). Back in Paris, Besnard became known for the heightened colour of his atmospheric portraits, e.g. Mme Roger Jourdain (1885; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which were admired in Symbolist circles. He also undertook various state commissions for mural decorations in Paris, e.g. the Ecole de Pharmacie (1884–7).
Besnard also worked in pastel, etching and stained glass. He was a regular contributor to the Paris Salons. In 1887 he was on the committee of the Annual International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture held at the Galerie Georges Petit, an exhibition to which JW contributed fifty oils, watercolours and pastels. The exhibition constituted JW's largest and most important show in France. In May 1898 Besnard contributed some of his etchings to the first exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in Knightsbridge, London, a society which had elected JW its President in April 1898.
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908 Marx, R., The Painter Albert Besnard, Paris, 1893; Coppier, A.-C., Les Eaux-fortes de Besnard, Paris, 1920; Mauclair, C., Albert Besnard, Paris, 1924; Lecomte, G., Albert Besnard, Paris, 1925; Greenspan, Taube G., 'Albert Besnard', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, http://www.groveart.com (accessed 24 July 2002).