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The Evolution of French Art & Where to See It background image

The Evolution of French Art & Where to See It

It’s more than Monet!

There is an awful lot more to French art than Monet’s lilies. And, for that matter, the daubings of some would-be Neolithic artist who decided 17,000 years ago that the caves of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne needed a little brightening up with a lick of paint. 

French art has a long and rich history, dating back to the primitive but exquisite prehistoric cave paintings of the DordogneAuvergne and Ardèche. But it took centuries before the first signs of true maturity and style emerged in medieval times.

The Gothic tradition took over, with particular examples being the stained glass works of Chartres, Bourges and Laon cathedrals (architecturally, the cathedrals of Paris, Amiens and Reims are still a testament to this tradition).

Les Bergers d’Arcadie by Nicolas Poussin, 1637-38
Les Bergers d’Arcadie by Nicolas Poussin, 1637-38

The Renaissance had its heyday between the 15th and 17th centuries, a period of rebirth that signified the end of the Middle Ages and the arrival of a time of enlightenment, exploration, invention and a new aesthetic.

From this point, there was a constant evolution of artistic trends and movements through to the present day.

When did it all start?

Indeed, the founding in 1648 of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was a pivotal moment, both formalising the perception and appreciation of art and influencing European tastes for centuries to come. The framework for the understanding of art had been established.

A century later, The French Revolution of 1789 was a critical turning point, heralding centuries of restless tumult and social upheaval that became reflected in the innovation of artistic output.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1786
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1786

Neoclassicism (1760s - mid 1800s)

Ancient Greece and Rome's idealised forms and mythology were alluring subject matter in the late 18th to the mid-19th century. The uncertainty and the growing sense of political vacuum as revolution simmered meant that sophisticated paintings with a message of order and stability proved popular. Some proponents, like David, went on to paint Napoleon, thus creating key components of the regime's propaganda.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life Childhood, 1842
Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life Childhood, 1842

Romanticism (1800 - 1860s)

Romanticism was more emotional, more personal than Neoclassicism and was rooted in the literature of the time. Less epic and less deferential to the formalities of classical civilisation, it prompted some searingly influential works. Perhaps none more so than Delacroix's 'La Liberté guidant le peuple' (1830), an iconic post-Revolution image close to many a Frenchman's heart.

Jules Breton, Fin du travail (The End of the Working Day), 1886-1887
Jules Breton, Fin du travail (The End of the Working Day), 1886-1887

Realism (1850 - Early 1900s)

The notion of egalitarianism inspired many in the aftermath of the revolution, and Realism was born out of a desire for something less grandiose and less dramatic. This movement was about the humdrum, the routine, and the life of ordinary men and women. The artistic output depicted mundane daily activities, perhaps manual labour or prayer, as well as the human form in a realistic style, neither heroic nor idealised.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876

Impressionism (1870s - 1890s)

Conveying an 'impression' of a scene, the Impressionists were viewed as rather radical with their disregard for accurately recording it in minute detail. Their soft brushwork and experimental approach to colour and light were initially scorned but gradually gained popularity.

Principal artists were Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Monet and Renoir, who painted the developing modern world, from bucolic landscapes to ethereal seascapes and colourful city life. There are few better places to see their work than the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

Post-Impressionism (mid 1880s - 1910)

Running into the 20th century, Post-Impressionism sparked a flurry of satellite styles, from Pointillism (detailed images comprised of myriad dots of colour), Symbolism (exemplified by Gauguin's Tahitian paintings) and Fauvism (paving the way for modern art and championed by the Belgian Matisse).

Some paintings by Cézanne, Rousseau, Gauguin, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were initially viewed with scepticism by critics and the public alike: the bright, clashing colours and almost graphic design-led techniques were deeply challenging at the time.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964

Modern Art (early 1900s - late 1970s)

In the 20th century, French art exploded in different directions. Cubism, pioneered by Picasso, with its shattered geometric shards of colour, paved the way for Dadaism and then Surrealism and the challenging, topsy-turvy perspectives of Tanguy, Chagall, Masson and Duchamp (not to mention Belgian Magritte and the Spanish Dali and Miró).

There was Art Brut – attainable by anyone, even those without artistic training, then Art Informel and Nouveau Réalisme with recognisable elements of Pop Art. 

Contemporary (1980s - present)

As the turn of the century approached, new and defining styles emerged. Figuration Libre, which translates to 'Free Style', popped up in the 1980s, as did postmodernism - a style that, unlike modernism, took inspiration from scepticism, cynicism and antiauthoritarianism. The '90s brought about more global movements, such as Performance Art and Culture Jamming. 

French art is still evolving and reinventing itself - France has always been at the centre of world art and will no doubt continue to be so.

Notable artists

Eugène Delacroix (Liberty Leading the People, 1830 - Louvre)

Jacques-Louis David (The Death of Marat, 1793 - replica at Louvre)
Théodore Géricault
(The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819 - Louvre)
Claude Monet
(Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1897–1899 - variation at Musée d'Orsay)
Jacques-Louis David
(Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807 - Louvre)
Edgar Degas (L'Absinthe, 1875-1876 - Louvre)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Dance at Le moulin de la Galette, 1876 - Musée d'Orsay)
Paul Gauguin
(Arearea, 1892 - Musée d'Orsay)

Marcel Duchamp (Fountain, 1917 - Musée National d'Art Moderne)
Henri Matisse
(Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904 - Musée d'Orsay)
Jean Metzinger
(Paysage coloré aux oiseaux aquatiques, 1907 - Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris)
Robert & Sonia Delaunay
(Tour Eiffel, 1926 - Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris)
André Derain (Pinède à Cassis, 1907 - Musée Cantini, Marseille)
Albert Gleizes (Les Baigneuses (The Bathers), 1912 - Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris)

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