Don’t miss France’s second museum after the Paris Louvre with Flemish, Renaissance and Impressionist galleries.
For years, in a modest office tucked away behind the magnificent splendour of the museum, the original curator (now retired) Arnaud Brejon de Lavergnée pondered over the Palais des Beaux-Arts’s many treasures. France’s second museum after the Louvre has Goyas and Rubens, Picassos, Lautrecs and Monets, but the greatest treasure of them all was Arnaud Brejon de Lavergnée himself, self-effacing overlord of the museum’s reinvention. The passions of this modest and unassuming art lover are as much a part of this fabulous palace as the rich red walls, the floppy chairs, and the catalogue of some of the world’s greatest artworks.
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During the renovations, Monsieur Brejon de Lavergnée could be seen at the station platform, clutching bubble-wrapped masterpieces to his chest as he personally escorted the Palais’s jewels to be restored at the National Gallery in London. Until the day in 1997 that President Chirac inaugurated the new museum, every picture, every frame and every detail came under his exacting scrutiny. Monsieur Brejon has since handed over the reins to Alain Tapié, who in turn passed on the responsibility to current curator Bruno Girveau, but he long continued leading privileged visitors around the museum. On the eve of a legendary Rubens exhibition, I left my allotted tour group to tag along behind the master as Monsieur Brejon laid bare the genius of the artist to a privileged party including Prince Jean of France aka Duke of Orleans, banker, philosopher, MBA, erstwhile footballer and current Dauphin and pretender to the throne.
The breathtaking art collection was brought to Lille on the orders of Napoleon, who stripped the walls of palaces and private galleries throughout his European empire, from Italy to the Low Countries. The plan paid off: what had been a pleasure for the cultured few is now a cherished symbol of civic pride, and was the triumph that awoke the world to the news that Lille had achieved greatness.
Today’s visitors take one of the twin grand staircases adorned with leaded windows heralding the arts et métiers of Lille to the first floor, where room after room offers French, Flemish and European masterpieces from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Highlights include Rubens’s Descente de la Croix, an entire room devoted to Jordaens, and a succession of highceilinged galleries housing the works of Van Dyck, Corot and Delacroix with Watteau, père et fils, the collection’s first curators. Best of all is the celebrated pair of Goyas, Les Jeunes and Les Vieilles, the former a timeless portrayal of a teenage crush, as relevant to the SMS texting generation as to its own time, and the latter a cruelly satirical dissection of old age: crones at one with their malevolence. With so many riches, it is easy to overlook the corridor devoted to the Impressionists. Make time for Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir and Sisley, not to mention Lautrec and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.