At the heart of the historic city, nestled in the curve of the Doubs, Besançon’s Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology has a long and surprising history.
The oldest public art collection in France
Besançon’s Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology was originally founded in 1694, about a century before the museums that date to the French Revolution (The Louvre opened in 1793).
In 1694, Jean-Baptiste Boisot, abbot of Saint Vincent, left his collection of books, art, and other precious objects to the Benedictines of the city, under the condition that they be displayed for public use and viewing during pre-set days and hours. The collection was to remain under control of the city and the religious order.
The assembled objects and works of art came from some of the prestigious collections belonging to Nicolas Perrenot of the Granvelle family (1486-1550) and his son Antoine. Both men were politicians, patrons, and collectors. (Nicolas was the first advisor to Charles Quint.)
This “private collection” was opened to visitors in the Saint Vincent abbey, where it remained throughout the 18th century. Beginning in 1843, the newly public collections were augmented with new works and displayed in the covered market, a building created by the architect Pierre Marnotte (1797 – 1882). The art collections shared the space with the commercial activities of the market for some time. In 1849, the Archeological Museum was created and joined to the same space.
During the 20th century, George and Adèle Besson’s art collection storehouse (112 paintings, 221 drawings and stamps) served as a blueprint for a restructuring of the museum by architect Louis Miquel (1913-1986). A disciple of Le Corbusier, from 1967 to 1970 he built a structure of untreated concrete, composed of several ramps spiraling towards the heart of the building under the glass that covers the atrium.
The ascending passageways draw the eye upward. Miquel’s architecture produces the illusion of a labyrinth, where the visitor may feel lost.
Louis Miquel’s Concrete Structure
A Corbusian Influence in Besançon
In 1963 George and Adèle Besson donated more than 300 works from their prestigious collection to the Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology. In return, they asked that these works be featured most prominently in the museum. Reconstruction of the museum was now a priority. The first-choice architect was Le Corbusier, known among the Francs-Comtois for his chapel of Notre-Dame-Du-Haut in Ronchamp (1955). He was also one of the few people to have deeply reflected on museums, and from 1929-1930 he dreamed up the principle of museums which expand without limits. Unfortunately, Le Corbusier declined the offer because of previous engagements. The city then decided to engage one of his disciples. After André Wogenscky also refused the offer, Louis Miquel accepted.
Miquel began work on the project after his first visit to Besançon in 1964. The construction began in 1967 and was finished in 1970. The central part, composed entirely in an empty, square space, is technically independent from the old building, which was attached by footbridges. The chosen materials were untreated concrete for the walls and black ceramic for the floors. The lighting, natural in the center part of the building, is artificial elsewhere. The building is conceived as a square, irregular, spiral, with an ascending succession of inclined planes originating at the ground floor. Louis Miquel describes how he dreamt up this idea:
“The problem was that we needed to create new display surfaces, but I also thought we needed to facilitate access to the different levels and even to assure some kind of continuity between them. Stairs would have been too disrupting. This was when I got the idea for the ramps. I realized that in dividing the height of the building between the ground floor and the top floor into three equal parts, I could obtain a height of two meters and a few dozen centimeters. It seems a little close, but it’s enough for the height of a display level. Each level, itself subdivided in two, gives us the length of the flight of the ramp with a ten percent slope. This length made up the basic component for the sort of “visitable sculpture” I was imagining for movement from the central part of the museum. I conceived it as a structure completely independent of the existing building; attached only at necessary points for traffic flow. I will present this pre-project, in the form of a large workbook of perspective sketches and large model of the central part.”
Upstairs, the openings in the facade were concealed, and the surrounding rooms were equipped with aluminum screens to diffuse the light. The basement, protected by a layer of airtight concrete, is used for temporary exhibits and technical conferences. The choice of black for the floor and guardrails contrasts with the concrete, an extremely lively material that takes away all neutrality in the space. The choice of material, along with the total absence of flexible volume, contributes the architecture’s prominent role in the visitors’ perceptions of the interior space. The spiral unfurling from the central part of the ground floor is intended to incite the visitor ascend the ramps. Visitors have the impression they are entering a labyrinth because of the irregular path, permeated space, and the sheer volume of the interior. Despite these impressions, only one pathway is possible – the visitor is directed by the architecture. The perceived pathway from the center of the ground floor suggests the idea of ascending. The closed exterior, compensated by the open interior (i.e. The Guggenheim Museum in New York), allows for different points of view in a certain number of privileged locations, while other locations hardly permit one to stop walking. In this way, the visitor is encouraged to continue the visit.
Arriving at the foot of the spiral, visitors are encouraged to stop and contemplate the displays: limited artificial light, the obligatory pathway, the severity of the concrete and the floor, and the apparent mystery of the visitor’s circuit all contribute to the mood. One can suppose that Louis Miquel’s theatre experience helped him imagine this way of thinking about the relationship between the visitor and the space. The ramps, alternating with flat landings, force us to abandon the traditional conception that convergence points must be in horizontal reference to the ground. A visit Besançon’s Museum of Fine Arts is a completely new experience. Relieved of the problem of where to orient one’s self in the building, each visitor can focus on the varied architectural rhythms and the works on display. Each space stimulates a new discovery.
The use of the spiral invokes a connection with Le Corbusier’s “Musée à Croissance Illimitée.” This was, without doubt, the inspiration for Miquel’s visitor’s circuit. However, in the museum, this idea produced a different result: the architecture here is not neutral; its function takes on a sacred and astonishing character, made concrete by the suggested ascent.
The material impossibility of an ulterior architectural extension prevented Louis Miquel from applying Le Corbusier’s ideas in their totality and instead forced him to push his ideas in a different direction. He substituted the concept of “croissance illimitée” for the abstract notion of elevation, made clear to the visitor by the central pathway inside the building.
This original architecture-sculpture makes its presence known and gives the whole building personality. The project established the architect’s reputation, and he was afterward solicited for comparable work.
Donations for the first collections
Pierre-Adrien Paris (1745 – 1819)
A neoclassical architect, Pierre-Adrien Paris was born in Besançon’s Battant neighborhood on October 25, 1745. He grew up playing in the Arch-bishop of Basel’s garden, where his father served as groundskeeper. In 1760, he went to Paris to study architecture. After three unsuccessful attempts for the Prix de Rome, he finally received a generous grant that allowed him to go to Rome in 1769. There he tutored his professor’s son and attended the Académie de France. Between 1772 and 1774, Paris drew the Roman countryside with painters such as François-André Vincent, who first introduced him to Landscape. He also studied monuments of antiquity (Pompei, Paestum, Herulanum, etc.) in great depth and began a small collection of drawings and critiques of his comrades’ paintings.
Upon returning to France, his celebrated architectural sketches helped him find work. Louis XVI named him a royal designer in 1778 and asked him to design the decor for the court’s entertainment.
In 1780, he joined the prestigious Académie Royale and went back to Rome to direct the excavation of the Coliseum.
After the excavation he went into a long period of retirement, from July 1793 to June 1806, during which he stayed in Normandy. He consecrated those thirteen years to writing about antique monuments, gardening, and cataloging of his collections.
In April 1817, he went back to France for the last time, and came to Besançon the 30 of April. He stayed at 8 Rue Charles Nodier where he set up his “petit museum.” In 1818, he wrote a will in which he left his collections to the municipal library of Besançon. He died on August 1st, 1819, and is laid to rest in the Saint-Ferjeux cemetery. As for his collection, it has been part of the municipal library since 1819. A part was eventually given to Besançon’s Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology when it moved into the covered market at the Place du Marché in 1843.
The Paris collection includes seven hundred and seventeen volumes, a considerable ensemble of several thousand drawings, one hundred and eighty-three of which were given to the museum in 1843 and then in 1919 (including works by Berthélemy, Boucher, Durameau, Fragonard, La Traverse, Perignon, Robert, and Vincent), a series of objects brought from Italy, archeological vestiges from the Roman and Etruscan times (brought to the museum in 1863), and a small ensemble of thirty-eight paintings (on display at the museum since 1843). This little series of paintings is particularly interesting because of the quality of the works: intimate pieces reunited by the delicate sensibility of their owner, such as Boucher’s nine knicknacks, items from the collection of financial officer Bergeret de Grancourt bought after his death 1786, and Barbault’s extravagant procession, unique in its elongated unfolding, that must have aroused interest in the artist’s curious pictorial prowess. But we can also detect a preference for works produced by the artist’s friends, including Hubert Robert’s canvasses, Fragonard and Maruerite Gérad’s little pannels, Durameau and Deshay’s sketches, Verstappen’s “miniatures,” and the Saint-Non optical illusion.
Jean Gigoux (1806 – 1894)
Jean Gigoux was born in Besançon on January 8th 1806. He studied at the Académie de Besançon and later at Beaux-Arts Paris in 1829. He began a job as a lithographer and produced thumbnail illustrations and portraits of contemporary thinkers he admired. A refugee in England during the 1830 revolution, he went directly back to Paris afterward to show his canvasses at the Salon: his Mort de Léonard de Vinci (housed in Besançon), displayed in 1835 and received the first ever medal for painting. It is acclaimed by the romantics who admire both the force of the subject and its historical inspiration.
He was well-known for his work as an illustrator (completing six illustrations for Gil Blas), and due to his ever-increasing number of commissions, he became quite wealthy.
Gigoux was very enthusiastic about the much awaited announcement of a museum opening in Besançon. A generous patron, he had worked tirelessly since 1843 to complete a collection of works he planned to give to his home city. He frequented Parisian art sales and bought sketches and paintings. His home began to attract curious artists and intellectuals who wanted to see his accumulated works of art that now covered the walls. His collecting activities did not prevent him from producing his own art. He showed his work at the Salon in Paris until his death on December 19th, 1894.
Gigoux’s collection was bestowed on the museum in several stages: the main part was donated in 1894 (definitively accepted in 1896) and ten successive donations had preceded this from 1860 to 1887. Little by little, the “Gigoux Museum” moved into the Granvelle Palace, and the painter/collector’s correspondent, the artist Antonin Fanart (1831 – 1903) organized the new exhibits.
The collection totals almost three thousand sketches and four hundred and sixty paintings. In this impressive assembly, what strikes a visitor, besides the quality of the works, is the diversity of the ensemble he created. An admirer of English and Spanish painting, the Nordic primitives, and particularly the Germans; Gigoux knew how to develop the separate tendencies of his time into a rather eclectic whole.
George (1882 -1971) and Adèle Besson (1884 -1964)
George and Adèle Besson were both born in Saint-Claude, where they knew one another as children. They were married on January 11th 1906. The couple shared the same convictions, the same love of art that led to the gift of their art collection to the musées nationaux, at the end of their lives. The donation was to be shared between the Museum at Bagnols-sur-Cèze and the museum in Besançon.
George Besson left school at the age of fourteen. He took night courses for the following six to eight years, and he assiduously frequented a library founded by the League of Education. In addition to exposing him to literature, the books he read there contributed to his progressive political and social ideas. He called this period of his life “progressive pictorial intoxication.”
Besson discovered Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton through the Revue blanche. He moved to Paris in 1905 as the representative of a pipe-makers’ cooperative. Besson befriended socialist Marcel Sembat, an art collector who would later go on to help found the museum in Grenoble. His new friendships with Félix Fénéon, Pierre Bonnard, Francis Jourdain, and Albert André opened the doors to several artists like Rodin, Matisse, Marquet, Signac, and Renoir. From 1925 to 1932, Besson served as artistic director of the Editions Crés then from 1932 to 1957 of the Editions Braun. At the same time, he collaborated on numerous periodicals, was the author of monographies about Daumier, Zola, Renoir, and Monet. He founded Les Cahiers d’aujourd’hui (1912 to 1914 and 1920 to 1926) for which he secured texts by Rodin, Renoir, Matisse, Marquet, and Bonnard.
In keeping with their political beliefs, George and Adèle Besson decided to make their art collection accessible to everyone by giving it to the State. One hundred and twelve paintings, two hundred and twenty-one graphic works (sketches and prints), and one sculpture are found today at the Museum of Fine Arts in Besançon. A number of important artists were represented in the collection, such as Bonnard, Dufy, Dunoyer de Segonzac, Lhote, Marquet, Matisse, Rodin, Signac, Valloton ou Picasso. The choice of works often conveys a certain audacity as well as appreciation. The works from after World War II demonstrate the same criteria as the first works that were acquired: the quality of the Besson’s relationship with the artists who shared their ideas mingles with an attachment to pictorial, figurative research, indifferent to changing tastes and fashions.
Thanks to the generosity of donor Norbert Ducrot-Granderye, both the Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology and Besançon’s municipal library are home to exceptional collections of works by Charles Lapicque (1898-1988).
Born in Pontarlier, Norbert Ducrot-Granderye is the son of Pierre Ducrot, director of Pierre Dantry’s office at the Libération. Today he lives in Paris and continues to promote Charles Lapicque’s work
Ducrot-Granderye is responsible for a succession of gifts spread from 1994 to 2010, which made the Besançon collection one of the richest public collections after the National Museum of Modern Art Georges Pompidou Center. This impressive donation furthered his goals of completing and diversifying Charles Lapicque’s presence in French museums. He made Besançon’s Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology an institution for reference and study of the artist thanks to his 192 sketches and 63 prints. Nine paintings, including Calvaire I (1947), Les Mouettes (1959), La Naissance d’Aphrodite (1964), Le Golgotha (1968), and La Visitation (1971), a tapistry by Aubusson called Rivière bretonne, as well as some illustrated books, wood carvings, and lithographs were later added to the collection and are stored at the municipal library.
The municipal library, the Musée du Temps, as well as our Musée Comtois all equally benefited from Norbert Ducrot-Granderye’s gifts. Some paintings by Jacques-Emile Blanche and Stanislas Lépine, a bronze statue by Jules Dalou, some of Victor Hugo’s works, and even a letter from Louis XIV announcing the conquest of Besançon have been added to the incredible donation of Charles Lapicque’s works.