Like many other talented artists of his generation, Besnard trained under the premier Academic master, Alexandre Cabanel. Following his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, Besnard won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1874 with his dramatic interpretation of The Death of Timophanes. He remained in Rome for four years and between 1879 to 1883, he resided in London; it was here that he enjoyed his first critical success as a portrait painter. It was also in London that he experienced first-hand the work of Turner, being especially impacted by Turner’s innovative use of color. Upon returning to Paris, Besnard continued to receive commissions for portraits; his sitters included members of the Parisian upper class and well-known celebrities. At the same time, he was also awarded numerous commissions to decorate French public buildings. Besnard not only was a painter but excelled as a pastellist and printmaker. Although trained as an Academic painter, Besnard’s early career also coincided with the formative years of Impressionism and when examined as a whole, his work often reflects both aesthetics.
During the last thirty years of his life, he held prestigious positions at the Académie de France in Rome, the École des Beaux-Arts, the Académie française, the Académie de Saint-Luc and the Royal Academy in London. Upon his death in 1934, the French State organized a national funeral in gratitude for all Besnard had done to promote earlier generations of artists. This was the first time such an honor had been bestowed upon a painter.