One of France’s top provincial collections, the Fabre was founded in 1825 and re-opened in 2007 after a superb four-year restoration. There are some fine Dutch and Flemish Grand Masters, Veronese’s richly coloured Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, Zurbarán’s St Agatha and several works by Nicolas Poussin, including a poetic Venus and Adonis (1624) – or half of it. Recently, the rest of the painting was discovered in a private American collection and the museum is currently raising funds to buy it.
The Fabre is best known, however, for its 19th-century French art, donated by local benefactor Alfred Bruyas, who had his portrait painted by Delacroix, Courbet and every other artist he ever met. He also co-stars in the museum’s best-known work: Gustav Courbet’s jaunty The Meeting, celebrating the artist’s arrival in Montpellier, but better known as Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet for the artist’s prominent self portrait. Another featured canvas by Courbet, Les Baigneuses, caused such a scandal at the Paris Art Salon of 1853 that Napoleon III ordered it removed. Bruyas, who knew more about painting than the emperor, bought it. Soon artists were making pilgrimages to Montpellier to study what is now recognized as a pivotal work in the history of art.
Other highlights of the museum include luminous paintings by Montpelliérain Frédéric Bazille (a proto-Impressionist who died young) and works by Géricault, Ingres, Fragonard, David, Morisot, Sisley and Matisse. A new wing holds 20 paintings by contemporary artist Pierre Soulages, while just around the corner at 6 bis rue Montpellieret, the Hôtel de Cabrières-Sabatier d’Espeyran opened in 2010 with a collection of furniture and decorative arts.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls