A museum with a history of reflecting the art of its time

The Musée des beaux-arts was established in 1801 by Napoleon Bonaparte, in parallel with 14 other museums in France. It received a donation of approximately forty paintings from the State, which came from the store of the Museum Central (the current Musée du Louvre), and formed the first group of works in the collection.

Continuously enhanced collections

This first group of works was supplemented in 1810 by the acquisition of 1,155 paintings, 64 sculptures and 10,000 prints from the collection of Nantes-born diplomat François Cacault. This municipal purchase added quality and breadth to the museum. For 25 years, the works were dispersed between offices in the town hall, prefecture, and civil court, and also in the city’s churches. They were finally placed on public display in 1830, on the first floor of the former Cloth Hall on the rue du Calvaire.

During this period, Nantes City council continued to enhance its collections, notably by purchasing works by living artists, including Delacroix, Ingres, and Courbet. These purchases and a variety of donations meant that the building very quickly became inadequate and unsuitable.


A museum worthy of its diverse collection

In 1891, the city council decided to build a venue to house and display the collection in the best possible environment. Work began two years later, based on plans drawn up by Nantes architect Clément-Marie Josso. The Palais des beaux-arts, inaugurated in 1900 is located in the heart of the city between the Cathedral, castle of the Dukes of Brittany and the Jardin des Plantes botanical gardens. The glass roof over the Patio, the exterior facade of the museum and its grand staircase are listed on the French national register of historic monuments.

Since 1900, the collections have continued to expand significantly, with masterpieces including Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, The Lighthouse at Antibes by Paul Signac, and The Port of Le Havre by Raoul Dufy, to name but a few. The museum’s open-minded approach and its interest in contemporary art mean that it can offer visitors a broad vista of 20th century art.


Creating a 21st century museum

Since the Musée des beaux-arts was suffering from a shortage of exhibition space and lacked the facilities expected of a modern museum (auditorium, education rooms), a major restoration and extension project was awarded to the British architectural practice Stanton Williams in 2009. A six-year closure has resulted in the metamorphosis of the Musée des beaux-arts into an outward-facing, modern, welcoming art museum. This new gem, combining the architecture of the past and present, truly reflects the museum’s collections in which old and new interact subtly across the galleries. It now provides an additional 30% of exhibition space and invites visitors to discover the Cube, a new building totally devoted to contemporary art.

The old hall "aux toiles", Clarke Museum of Feltre, 1898
Facade of the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts, around 1900
Nantes Museum of Fine Arts, Patio around 1900
Facade of the Nantes Art Museum, 2017

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