This Lille art gallery was founded by an act of parliament passed by Bonaparte on 1 September 1801. At that time, when the art pieces seized during the Revolution and the works of art stolen from Flanders, Italy and Germany were filling up the Louvre (soon to be called the Musée Napoléon), the First Consul decided to create fourteen new so-called 'provincial' museums in
order to provide a worthy home for these treasures. Of the total of 1058 works destined for these new museums, Lille received a donation of 46 paintings designed to be the starting point of the collection. As a result of an intelligent acquisitions policy, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, the museum amassed a collection which even for the time was of considerable value in terms of the quality of the drawings, paintings and sculptures. Between 1889 and 1892, the Lille gallery was installed in a building designed and built by the architects Bérard and Delmas, and this was later greatly enlarged in the five years period between 1992 and 1997. The present 22,000 m2 of exhibition space makes the Palais des Beaux-Arts one of France's largest and most prestigious museums.
The renovation made it possible to have two completely new deparments and to re-arrange the existing rooms. On the lower-ground floor, the visitor is presented with 19 models of the towns fortified by Vauban. These works originally purely for military purposes provide valuable evidence for the arrangement of the towns of the Ancien Régime in northern France and Belgium. On the ground floor there is a new room dedicated entirely to French sculpture of the 19th century. There are 135 works which provide a sculptural panorama, ranging from Houdon to Bourdelle. A marble bust of Napoleon I by Chaudet rubs shoulders with works by Chinard (a medallion representing the painter Boilly) and David d'Angers (bas-reliefs for the tomb of general Bonchamp and for the Guttenberg monument), and neoclassical sculpture is present in the form of works by Bra, Foyatier and Pradier. Further in there are sculptural works of the Second Empire, notably by Carrier-Belleuse and Cavelier, and an excellent painted plaster cast by Carpeaux of the princess Mathilde. This bust, a perfect example of the court portrait, skilfuly shows the subject's rank as cousin of the Empress not only through the symbolism of the decoration – ermine, bees embroidered onto the lace, eagle on the tiara – but also through the majestic pose of the model. And it was this portrait which when done in marble won for Carpeaux his first success, at the Salon of 1863.
Before going on to the paintings, it is worth taking time to visit the ceramics gallery. There is, amongst other items, a monumental bronze statue of Napoleon I in imperial costume. This work by Henri Lemaire (1798-1880) was commissioned by the Lille Chamber of Commerce and was erected in the city in 1854 in the courtyard of the old stock exchange. This figure of Napoleon is five metres tall and it represents the emperor as protector of industry, holding as he does in one hand a sceptre and pointing with the other at the attributes of local production, a beet for the sugar industry and a bale of linen for the textile industry.
The paintings are housed on the first floor. Here in addition to a prestigious collection of works of the Flemish and Dutch schools there is a representative collection of French painting of the 19th century from David to Toulouse Lautrec. Futhermore, some of the paintings are pivotal works of art history, as for example Bélisaire demandant l'aumône by David.
Seen by the exponents of the enlightenment as a criticism of the royalty when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1781, this work is held to be the first manifestation of European Neoclassicist painting. The museum has cleverly placed opposite this piece a sculpted group by Chaudet (see inset) showing the same subject.
Also by David is the painting entitled Apelle peignant Campaspe en présence de Alexandre, an ancient subject transposed into a background where the furniture seems to have been made by cabinet maker Jacob, and a sketch of Napoleon I in Imperial costume, a study for a portrait (now lost) commissioned for the lawcourts in Genoa. The sketch is dated 1805 and it constitutes the first representation of the Emperor in his coronation robes. A companion piece to this is the painting by J.B. Wicar of Murat in his Division General of the Grenadiers de la Garde uniform. Boilly, the sharp-eyed observor of Parisian moeurs during the Revolution and the First Empire, is represented by a fine series of portraits of artists, preparatory studies for the the work L'Atelier d'Isabey. Also worthy of note is a trompe d'oeil painting by the same artist on a mahogany table which was once part of the furniture at Saint-Cloud and a painting dated 1794 entitled Le Triomphe de Marat which (legend has it) was painted in a single night in order to counter certain accusations brought against the artist by Wicar. The latter artist, a pupil of David's, born in Lille, and one of the Directory's army's principal experts during the pillage of works of art during the Italian campaigns, created for himself a remarkable collection of Italian drawings which he bequeathed to the Musée de Lille on his death. This collection, which contains numerous drawings by Raphael, is today one of the gallery's most prestigious departments and it has the second most important ensemble of drawings in France after the Louvre. The collection is also enhanced by some other 19th century masterpieces, notably: La course de chevaux libres à Rome by Géricault, Médée by Delacroix, L'Après-dînée à Ornans by Courbet, Le sommeil by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, La débâcle by Monet, etc. Finally the visitor is presented with French painting of the 20th century and, in the gallery dominating the atrium, Italian and Spanish paintings. The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille can be rightfully proud of possessing two extraordinary Goyas, The Old Women and The Young Women, painted between 1818 and 1819.