A Fabre-lous Gallery: Smitten with the Fabre Collection in Montpellier

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The Fabre Museum, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France

Montpellier doesn’t have many museums, but it does have what is said to be one of the finest art collections in France.  The Fabre Museum is home to a good collection of paintings that not only shows off some of the country’s best known artists but specifically highlights some local boys, like Frédéric Bazille.

The grand exterior of the Fabre Museum, Montpellier, France

In fact, the museum was basically founded thanks to François-Xavier Fabre, a Montpellier painter, who donated a large number of his works to the town in 1824.  From 1802 the city of Montpellier had a collection of 20 paintings which had formed the basis of a municipal museum that had no permanent home of its own.  With Fabre’s donation, and with Fabre’s donation inspiring others to donate their collections, a proper museum was needed, and the Hôtel de Massillian opened as a museum in December 1828.  Fabre himself oversaw the renovation of the Hôtel and was actively involved in adding to the collection until his death in 1837.

Further donations by local art collectors helped swell the collection – Antoine-Louis-Joseph-Pascal Valedau donated his excellent collection of Dutch and Flemish art (along with the works of some French and English painters).  The third significant collector that helped swell the coffers, as it were, was Alfred Bruyas.

Today Bruyas is best known, apparently, as a friend and patron of Gustave Courbet, but he was intensely involved in the art world of the mid-19th century.  Being the heir of a wealthy banking family gave him the money to buy – and he did.  He amassed a great collection and in 1868 donated it to the Fabre Museum.  Not that he lost control of it when it entered these halls – Bruyas retained control over the hanging, as a curator, and continued to buy artwork for his own gallery.

The museum underwent major (61 million euros worth) renovation and reopened in 2007.  Just over ten years on, it doesn’t feel too dated, and is a thoughtfully (and chronologically) arranged art gallery.  There are some areas where the ‘modern’ design feels like it should be in an underground carpark, but that’s something I choose to ignore.

As usual, my selection of images is a very personal skim of what is on display.  They have a quite a collection of Italian 17th century paintings, French neo-classical, 19th century academic art and 20th century contributions.  There are also an awful lot of portraits of Bruyas, which – except for one example – I have also chosen to ignore.

There are numerous history paintings by local boy – and museum patron – François-Xavier Fabre.  He trained under Jacques-Louis David, then spent the years of the French Revolution in Florence, where he taught painting and became a popular portraitist.  His success also meant that he could collect Italian art – particularly 17th century works.

Some interesting portraits were on show in the next section – but I’d like to draw your attention to the self-portrait of Cabanel.  It is very striking, and the picture makes an appearance in the portrait of Bruyas…


The works of Frédéric Bazille were quite a revelation to me.  Sister-Chickpea was already familiar with his work and was delighted to see his paintings.  Bazille was born in Montpellier, the eldest son of a distinguished family.  He father was Deputy Mayor of Montpellier, and later became a Republican Senator for the Hérault Département and president of the Agricultural Society.  With such a background, it’s not surprising that Bazille was encouraged to pursue an honourable career in medicine, but there was a problem.  He had Bruyas as a neighbour.  This was when Bruyas still kept his art collection in his own house, and Bazille used to visit and view some of the paintings that we can view in the Fabre today.

Bazille’s family agreed that their son could study painting if he also studied medicine.  He moved to Paris in 1862 and joined a studio run by the Swiss painter Charles Gleyre and met Renoir and Sisley and Monet.  Wonder what happened to them.  Anyway, clearly Bazille spent more time with his new buddies than studying because he failed his medical exam in 1864, and took up painting full-time.

Bazille was evidently a great guy.  One of the reasons I say this is because he had many friends in the art world and thanks to his family’s money, he supported fellow artists who were struggling financially by giving them a place in his studio and providing them with materials.

The other reason is that despite the fact that he could have continued living a comfortable life in Paris, he had patriotic principles.  He joined the army a month after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and died leading an assault.  He was 28.  Just to put this into context – Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne fled when they were called up, Degas and Manet joined the National Guard in Paris, and Renoir served with a cavalry training centre in the Pyrenees and saw no action.

The death of Bazille deprived French art of a great talent.  Even in the paintings on display in the Fabre, you get the strong impression that he was still finding himself as an artist, experimenting and learning his craft.  His talent is so evident that it is a tragedy that he didn’t have the chance to fully join the ranks of the great Impressionists, most of whom had the good fortune to live long lives and refine their own particular styles and techniques.  Personally, I think he was the best painter of the lot – he uses colour beautifully and he seems to capture people’s character in sincere portraits.

So In Summary

The extent and depth of the collection of art on display in the Fabre goes some way towards ensuring that there’s something here for everyone.  I spent much more time looking at the works of artists that I’ve never previously liked – Monsieur Courbet, I’m really talking to you – and found myself admiring them.  Maybe it helps being the south of France, looking at paintings that were sometimes painted in this southern light.  I don’t know – but I found that I had my eyes opened to a number of artists, which to me makes for a super-successful trip and has – especially in hindsight – made me very fond of this special museum.

Further Information

The museum has an entry-fee system that is dependent on whether you also want to visit their current exhibition and if you want to go to the sister-museum, the small and ridiculously named Hôtel de Cabrières-Sabatier d’Espeyran.

They have a pretty good website – naturally only in French – but it’s easy to navigate if you have school-French: www.museefabre.montpellier3m.fr

They also have an extremely good gift-shop, although sadly most of the wonderful looking books were only in French.  Even their children’s section was good.

How To Get There

The Fabre Museum is very centrally located in the old area of Montpellier, so you can walk there from most points.  For local transport information, check out the local transport site (French only) – the link will take you to a map which shows the lines and bus stops: www.tam.cartographie.pro

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