French Art History in a Nutshell
French art in the popular imagination is often characterized by the dreamy, dauby landscapes of the Impressionists and the bolder, more vibrant work of 20th-century greats living la vie bohème in Paris. But still more of the genres that we associate with the art historical canon were pioneered in France. Pinpointing the very beginning of “French” art may prove an impossible task, but the region has been rich in creative expression since cave paintings were rendered at Lascaux an estimated 17,300 years ago, making them some of the earliest artistic traces in human history.
Fine art was finessed by the artists of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, an art school established in 1648 as an accessory of the French court. In 1699, the Academy mounted its first exhibition at the Louvre, where it continued to show for 100 years. From 1725 onwards, exhibitions were held in the Salon Carré, and became known simply as “salons.” The art presented in the salons dictated national and international tastes and formed the basis of what we have come to know today as traditional European art.
France’s story following the fall of Louis XVI in 1793 is one of revolution, and its art runs along that same axis. The Academy’s suspension, along with the dissolution of the court and its ultimate restructuring, destabilized the country’s artistic center. French artists responded to the atmosphere of social upheaval and growth with ceaseless innovation. Beginning with the undisputed master of Neoclassicism,
Obsession with the idealized forms and mythology of ancient Greek and Roman cultures made a comeback in fine art from the late-18th to the mid-19th century. As the Enlightenment took hold and revolution stirred, an emphasis on order and balance reigned supreme in the refined compositions produced by the artists of the Academy. The most prominent artist of the time was
Also of the era,
Developing around the same period as Neoclassicism and stemming from the literature of the time, Romanticism took a more emotional, intimate approach to its subject matter, favoring contemporary and personal scenes over the historical or mythological tableaux of Neoclassicism. Imagination and the interior life of the self were guiding forces in works that often focused on nature and fantastical views of faraway lands.
A contemporary of Géricault,
As the Revolution overturned France in the mid-19th century, a desire for egalitarianism began to inform artists’ work. Breaking away from the grandiose and emotionally charged subject matter of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, they focused their attention on everyday life and the common working men and women of France. Paintings of peasants toiling in the field, townspeople worshipping at church, or crowded city streets proliferated. In this climate,
The late 19th century in French art belongs to the Impressionists, who were deemed radical for their loose brushwork and experimental approach to light and color that veered firmly away from realistic representation. Industry was booming across Western Europe, with technological advancements infiltrating daily life and increasing its pace. Characterized by loose “impressions” of scenes, this art explored the vagaries of visual perception and captured the new conditions of urban life. Impressionism in France was led by
Focused more on expressing subjective experience, Post-Impressionism emerged towards the close of the 19th century and carried into the 20th, with French painters
Inspired by Cézanne’s strong palette and style (as well as that of other Post-Impressionists),
After Matisse and Derain helped fuel the modernist fires, French art expanded in a variety of directions. A cornerstone of the country’s avant-garde,
French contemporary art is marked by traces of the past; while mediums and styles have evolved, a keen interest in the psychology of the self and the nature of existence and the world remain at its core. Notable artists of the later half of the 20th century and today include