Paul-Albert Besnard followed in the footsteps both of his father, the painter Louis Adolphe Besnard, and of his mother, Louise Pauline Vaillant who was a successful miniaturist and a pupil of Lizinska de Mirbel.
Besnard enrolled at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris at the age of 17, where he studied under Alexandre Cabanel, before making his own début at the Paris Salon two years later. He won the Prix de Rome in 1874 with a picture entitled The Death of Timophanes, Tyrant of Corinth and proceeded to spend five years in Italy. He married the sculptress Charlotte Dubray, the daughter of sculptor Gabriel-Vital Dubray, in 1879 and moved to England with her in 1881 for three years, even showing his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, before returning to France in 1884.
His Portrait of Madame Roger Jourdain (now in the Musée d'Orsay) was shown at the Paris Salon in 1886, revealing the features that were to become the true hallmark of his style based on a highly personal handling of light and shade influenced by the Impressionists. Besnard went on to paint numerous portraits and contributed to the decoration of such illustrious Paris monuments as the ceiling of the Comédie Française or the dome of the Petit Palais. The corpus of his engraving work comprises over two hundred etchings, some of them in the form of series that are still famous today such as La Femme, Elle, L'Affaire Clémenceau, L'Île Heureuse and Les Petites Voluptés.
He became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1912 and was appointed to succeed Carolus-Duran as Director of the Académie de France à Rome (Villa Médicis) in 1913. He was offered the post of Director of the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris on his return to France in 1922 and was elected a member of the Académie Française on 27 November 1924, becoming the first painter to join that distinguished institution since 1760.
Paul Albert Besnard died in Paris in 1934. His state funeral was celebrated in the church of Saint-Ferdinand des Ternes and he was buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse.
Y. Tan Bunzl, Master drawings, London 1984, entry no. 31;
Colnaghi, An Exhibition of Master Drawings, 7–30 May 1998, New York; 10 June–11 July 1998, London, entry nos. 48-49.