Born in Paris in 1849, Besnard entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1866 where he studied under Jean-Francois Bremond and Alexandre Cabanel. His official success began in 1868 after his first exhibition at the Salon. In 1874 he won the Prix de Rome which gave him the opportunity to spend four years in Villa Medici.
Besnard lived in London from 1879-1881 where he enjoyed success as a portraitist. Upon returning to Paris years later, he received numerous commissions from figures of the Third Republic.