The Museum of Fine Arts in Nîmes is centrally located and is a great place to spend a few hours.
The Fine Arts Museum of Nîmes was built between 1902-1904 to hold the city’s art collection which had previously been held in the Maison Carrée but had outgrown its location. Renovated in 1987, the building may be modern but it is adorned with ornamental sculptures, stucco, and ironwork and looks neo-classical, with a light and elegant feel to the place.
Set around a central 17m high atrium, which was designed specifically to house a mosaic, the museum has two floors and a grand, sweeping staircase which is flanked by statues sculpted by Henri Bouchard, a 20th century French sculptor. The mosaic really is the centrepiece of this huge room: at 50m² it eclipses the rest of the artwork hanging on the walls.
This incredible mosaic is the central feature of the atrium and can also be seen from a viewing window on the first floor.
The mosaic shows the wedding of Admetus, a character from Greek mythology who was king of the Pherae in Thessaly. Known as a kind and fair King, he married Alcestis after winning a contest set by her father to find a suitor for her. Admetus won, when he succeeded in yoking a lion and a boar to a chariot, with the help of Apollo. The wedding went ahead and is depicted in the centre panel of this mosaic.
The central panel of the mosaic, which portrays Admetus with the boar and lion, came from Rome, but the rest was created in the local area. Other than the central panel, it is made from thousands of small mosaic tiles in just four colours; red, black, white and yellow. It would have been the centrepiece of a triclinium (dining room), and the guests would have been positioned so that they could admire the central panel while they ate lying on their couches. On the far left of the photograph above you can see the frieze, which portrays strong animals paired with weaker ones, such as a tiger with an antelope, a dog with a rabbit, and was where the slaves and dancing girls would have been during the feasts.
The mosaic was found in 1883 in an area near the Porte August and the Carrée Maison, which was where the wealthy inhabitants of Roman Nîmes lived. A top panel was damaged and was replaced at the time with a plain mosaic saying where it had been found and who had completed the restoration works. This is not something that would happen these days with any archaeological finds, but the restoration does make the mosaic look very fresh and very suitable for a prime spot in this museum dedicated to the fine arts.
The elegant staircase is flanked by sculptures. Photograph © Nimes Tourisme
The museum has approximately 3,600 pieces in its collection. The earliest dates from the end of the 14th century, a predella from an altar in Italy, thought to be by the artist Maître de Penna. There are Italian works of art from the 14th - 18th century, Flemish and Dutch from the 16th and 17th centuries, and French from the 17th to the 20th century.
With uncluttered walls and places to sit and contemplate, the galleries are peaceful places to admire the artworks.
Many pieces come from The Gower Collection. Robert Gower was a 19th century English entrepreneur, who lived in France and spent much of his fortune on works of art. He was dismissed by his contemporaries as not being much of a connoisseur, and when he died, his will listed five British museums to which he wished to leave his collection, but none of them agreed to take it. So it went to the first French city on his list, Nîmes. In recent years, his collection has been re-evaluated, and it seems that Nimes are having the last laugh now, to have acquired such a collection.
Tête du boeuf by Jan Asseljin
Vielle Femme avec une tête de mort by Pietro Bellotti
A highlight of the Dutch collection is a Reubens, Portrait of a Monk, painted around 1630. There are few Reubens in French collections, making this a rare treat. Another painting from their Nordic Collection, and one which really stands out as you enter the gallery, is that of the head of a bull, by Asselijn, another 17th century painter. Lifelike and full of character, it seems to appeal to people, as it is even mentioned in the Trip Advisor reviews of the museum.
Old Woman with a Skull by Bellotti was painted in the late 1600s and can’t help but leave the viewer moved. This thin, heavily wrinkled old woman emerges from the dark background, her fingers lightly holding a faded flower and her arms resting on a human skull. The artist intended the woman to be a mixture of realistic portrait, religious significance and allegory, probably decrepitude. It is the reality of her that really stands out though, the depth of the wrinkles, her red rimmed eyes, the look of resignation and acceptance on her face. It is a wonderful piece and the photograph above really does not do it justice.
The museum has sculptures, ceramics and glassware as well as fine art. These three busts show the fates of woman, from youth, through middle age to old age. The young and old wear theatrical masks on their chests, and with their ornamentation you can see that the artist is showing that they are trying to be something they are not, with the younger version trying to look older and the older trying to look younger. They are beautifully done and really eye catching. In the background behind the old bust, is Old Woman with a Skull as above, a clever juxtaposition by the curator.
Prédication d’un apôtre by Giovanni Paolo Pannini
There are several paintings in the museum of ancient ruins. Preaching of an Apostle by the Italian artist Pannini, was painted in 1739 and stands out as the artist combines various Roman ruins, a familiar sight to the people of Nîmes. Pannini painted several works on the theme of preaching in ancient ruins, and in this one he combined the Temple of Vesta in Rome with an aqueduct like the Pont du Gard near Nîmes. On the left of the painting is a huge vase, sculpted in Greece in the 1st century AD which is known as the Medici Vase, and which can now be found in the Uffizi in Florence.
On the left of this image is one of the museum's masterpieces, La Moissonneuse endormie, or Sleeping Reaper, by Jean François de Troy. This is a scene of country life, with a peasant girl on a sheaf with her bodice open and her skirt raised is one of the rare erotic works from this painter.
The museum has works by more recent French artists. This brightly coloured painting by René Seyssaud was painted in the early 20th century. A prolific painter, he focused on the south of France where he lived, creating intensely vivid images of rural life. His style was a mixture of Expressionism and Fauvism, not fitting neatly into either category, but with a recurrent theme of capturing traditional life, with the mechanisation of the 20th century not appearing in any of his scenes of farm labourers. It catches the attention as soon as you walk in the room, providing a splash of colour against the deep blue wall.
The museum is a fantastic place to spend some time. With its light and airy feel, with rooms that don't overwhelm as everything is so well spaced out, and plenty of resources to help you learn more about what you are looking at, it really should be on everyone's Nîmes visiting list. There are plenty of places to sit and absorb the pictures and listen to your audioguides, and staff are on hand to answer any questions.
The Musée des Beaux Arts de Nîmes is included in the Nîmes City Pass.
Visiting the Musée des Beaux Arts
Every day except Monday: 10h00 - 18h00
Closed on some public holidays
Concessions and children €3
Children aged 6-11 €2.50
Audioguides are available in several languages.
Their website also has printable guides to help children and adults get the most from the paintings.