7 French Art Terms You Should Know
Paris was the cultural capital of the Western world for much of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, the home to revolutionary art-historical movements such as Neoclassicism, Impressionism, and Cubism. Each of these developments in artistic practice required a new vocabulary to describe it, and much of that language remains in our lexicon today. Below, you’ll find the some of the most significant French art terms, from the widely used to the relatively obscure.
(advance guard or vanguard)
Originally a militaristic phrase, the avant-garde or “advance guard” describes the specialized soldiers whose job was to survey the land and seek out the enemy before the arrival of other troops. In the 19th century, the social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon expanded the term to include experimental artists at the frontlines of cultural evolution. “We artists will serve you as an avant-garde,” he wrote in his book Opinions Litteraires, Philosophiques et Industrielles (1825). “For amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious.”
Today, the avant-garde includes artists, musicians, and politicians who push boundaries and stir up controversy, often in support of utopian ideals. While the term is generally tied to modernist movements like Dada and Cubism, the avant-garde is said to have begun half a century earlier with the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, whose stark depictions of rural poverty and human sexuality reflected his anti-bourgeois politics.
One of the most frequently used art-historical terms by academics in the field, oeuvre refers to an artist’s entire body of work. The term—which derives from opus, the Latin word for a piece of music or art—is often used to indicate the most pervasive tendencies in an artist’s output. Scholars might describe individual works as either representations of or departures from an artist’s oeuvre, for instance.
The term is also hidden in another French-to-English crossover: hors-d’oeuvre. The French term for an appetizer, hors-d’oeuvre literally translates to “outside the work” because these pre-meal snacks are not a part of the main serving—similar to how an artwork might exist outside of the artist’s main practice.
(to deceive the eye)
While the French phrase trompe l’oeil, or “to deceive the eye,” once referred more narrowly to the hyperrealistic still lifes of the 17th century, the term is now used to describe all paintings that fool viewers into believing that what is depicted is actually real.
Ever since the ancient Greeks plastered their walls with illusionistic depictions of windows and columns, artists have sought to trick the eye into perceiving a two-dimensional surface as a three-dimensional space. This characteristic reached the height of popularity during the Renaissance, when the discovery of linear perspective enabled artists to convey depth more convincingly than ever before. Today, artists like Lauren Seiden and Yrjo Edelmann continue this tradition by creating close-up, illusionistic depictions of creases, crinkles, and wrinkles.
(in the open air)
French for “in the open air,” en plein air refers to painting completed outdoors rather than in a studio. In the 19th century, the invention of portable paint tubes and field easels enabled artists to create their compositions outside, and spurred one of the most famous art-historical movements, Impressionism.
The Impressionists were early advocates for working en plein air, as it allowed them to study first-hand the effects of light and atmosphere on landscapes and city scenes. More recently, plein air painting associations have cropped up across the United States, spurring a national debate about what percentage of a painting must be completed outdoors to earn the title en plein air.
A catalogue raisonné is a descriptive catalog of every work made by an artist, though some focus on an artist’s use of a specific medium like painting or drawing. Viewed as the authoritative resource on that artist’s oeuvre, catalogue raisonnés are most often created by a museum or artist foundation and can take decades to complete.
In the last 10 years, the rise of artist forgeries and “discoveries” of unknown artworks by well-known artists has led to an increased investment in catalogue raisonnés, which scholars and collectors rely upon in the authentication process, even though these volumes can often fall out of date.
During the 19th century, artists would apply varnish to their works on the day before the public opening of an exhibition. As early as 1809, patrons and other members of the art-world elite began a tradition of viewing the show on varnishing day, known to the French as vernissage.
Today, artists seldom apply varnish the night before a show, but the term vernissage is still used to refer to an early preview of an art exhibition. Most often private or invitation-only events, the vernissage is an opportunity for collectors and members of the press to view the works before the doors open to the general public.
(placing on stage)
This French compound, which literally translates to “placing on stage,” or “putting on stage,” is one of the most misunderstood of all art terms. First used in theater around the year 1833, the phrase originally referred to all of the visual effects overseen by a theater director—including compositional design, lighting, and the placement of actors. In other words, the mise-en-scène encompassed all of the visual features on the stage that gave a performance its look and feel.
Nowadays, mise-en-scène is a term used by art critics and historians to describe the setting of a film, performance, or photograph, especially those with cinematic qualities. For example, in her “Kitchen Table” series of photographs, Carrie Mae Weems takes as her mise-en-scène a family kitchen table, staging scenes of everyday life that examine racial and gender stereotypes and calling attention to the constructed nature of photography.