French Art History - A Very Condensed Story
In one way or another, most movements and pieces of art created on European soil in the last three centuries can be associated with some form of French artistic expression. One cannot truly understand the phenomenon of modern art without investigating this country’s past as France has been on the forefront of intellectual and artistic life for hundreds of years. Since the foundations of modern-day Europe were laid down in the times of Charlemagne, France played a pivotal role in all aspects of the Old Continent’s stage, eventually bestowing upon itself a stunning cultural heritage. Starting with the courts and monasteries of the Middle Ages, the French have left their stamp on art, architecture, music and literature. However, as did the rest of their neighboring countries back then, they stayed within the conventional borders of what was acceptable on a global level without venturing too far into experimenting. It was the Renaissance period that allowed the French to emancipate their artistic vocabulary and start defining what we nowadays call western culture.
The aforementioned period of the Renaissance helped France to blossom into a cultural powerhouse. Artists started channeling specifically French traditions into their works whilst schools and universities began dedicating much of their efforts to exploring art, especially architecture. This set in motion the process of self-defining French identity in a cultural sense and the rest of Europe started to take notice. New churches, palaces, châteaux, fortresses, museums and galleries were popping up on a regular basis and painters around Europe started to perceive France as a unique safe haven and a central stage of the civilized society. Since then, in theater and literature, poetry and philosophy, painting and sculpture, architecture and music, some of the greatest names in art have been French and their heritage remains an integral part of European culture to this day.
The focal point of the French scene ever since the Baroque started was focused on fine arts. Fueled and finessed mainly by the individuals representing the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, an art school established in the year of 1648, the national stage invented what today we call exhibitions, a displaying of pieces open to anyone interested in seeing them. Eventually, this kind of exhibition started to be held in the Salon Carré and became known simply as salons. The artworks presented at salons effectively dictated both national and international tastes, dictating the course of Europe’s visual culture. Until that point, pieces of art remained a privilege of the upper echelons of citizenships, reserved for those who have enough spare time and pocket depth to enjoy such commodities. However, this all changed when the national uprising and the fall of Louis XVI occurred in the year of 1793 – the revolution in a social and political sense also had its toll on art as well, marking the beginning of an ultimate reconstruction of the country’s artistic center. Reacting to the overall innovative goals behind the French revolution, artists saw fit to explore further creative territories and experiment with both the modern and conventional, writing out some of the most important pages of art to date. Ironically, as the revolution came to a bloody end in 1799, French art followed the same path and completely altered Europe’s scene forever.
More than thirty years before the occurrences surrounding the French revolution started to take place, ideas began appearing about reviving art and harkening it back to the grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome. Insisting on another Renaissance-like moment can be described as a reaction to the overbred Rococo style or as an alternative of the emotionally overcharged Baroque. Demanding deeply rooted change, artists wanted a more controlled and conventional expression which naturally lead them to the revival of interest in classical thought. Due to the Enlightenment, these tendencies were highly fueled by the increased number of educated individuals who effectively spread theories about philosophy, freedom, social justice, noncensorship within the press, etc. – all of which will play a massive role when the revolution starts. Artists gathered around the ideas of a modern free man and ancient heritage, calling their collective struggles the true art, a novel style, or Risorgimento. The term Neoclassicism was introduced in the nineteenth century and it was intended to be an insult, implying that the works of the genre are too cold and sterile.
Setting the rules for the original style, Jacques-Louis David painted the famous Oath of the Horatii in the year of 1984-85 – this painting served a purpose of a manifest of what we nowadays call Neoclassicism. Radically different from anything Rococo had to offer, The Oath was a unique blend of Enlightenment and antique-like visuals. It was more alike to the pieces of Renaissance than anything created in the last hundred years. Additionally, Neoclassicism managed to finally dethrone Rome as the capital of culture, allowing Paris to wear the crown of the artistic emperor for all of Europe. Neoclassicism’s ultimate demise can be associated with the fact the followers of this genre and the works they produced were eventually used as synonyms for Academism and traditional art. Romanticism and all modern movements after it aimed at getting rid of formal and conventional rules within artistic creation, meaning that Neoclassicism was considered to be the main antagonist of younger genres. It was described as cold, rigid and too traditional for its own good, renounced and frowned upon by generations of French artists despite the rather noble and legitimate goals that characterized the followers of this style.
Besides being responsible for many other things, it should be noted that Romanticism is the first self-proclaimed artistic movement, meaning that the participants of the style were the ones who called themselves the artists of Romanticism. It had a unique relationship with the French revolution, but not in a sense that it supported changes on a social or political level – instead, Romanticism can be better described as a consequence of the revolution and it’s bloody aftermath. The term was coined around the word roman – a name for short novels, implying that this style was first noticed in the pieces of literature. In the French language, this term also stood for descriptions of beautiful manifestation in nature – Romantique (it did not have the romantic connotation like the case is today). A connection can also be made with the old French word for the knight’s tale.
Proving very hard to define from an artistic standpoint, this movement found its home within the fields of literature and visual arts, although it heavily impacted how everyday individuals of the 18th century France used to think and observe the environment around them. Its roots can be traced to the year of 1798 and it was heavily based on the contrasts with the current style of Neoclassicism. Romanticism desired to take a more emotional, intimate approach to its subject matter, preferring personal scenes over the historical or mythological tableaux common to Jacques-Louis David. Followers of this style wanted to explore imagination and inner life of a modern individual whilst also exploring the nature and fantastical views of distant lands. Serving as the main piece much like David’s Oath of the Horatii did for Neoclassicism, Théodore Géricault painted the dramatically devastating Raft of the Medusa (1818-19),a depiction of a tragic shipwreck that occurred two years prior to this piece. Another artist who established himself as an iconic representative of the style was Eugene Delacroix who painted Liberty (1830) – it shows a rumpled Liberty appearing from the violent destruction of revolution while holding the flag. In the year of 1846, French poet Charles Baudelaire stated that not many individuals are ready to use the term Romanticism with positive intentions and this assertion is often used to mark the end of this movement.
Realism’s true beginnings can be traced to the year of 1940 and it was the last style prior to the complete mindset reconstruction of Impressionism. The main goal behind Realism was depicting an honest and objective truth, the authenticity of contemporary life filtered from all the lies and enrichments previous movements and styles utilized on a regular basis. Just by reading the explanation above, one does not need too much knowledge of past art to conclude that such notions are not a novelty in any sense of the word – however, such concepts have reached their highest peak during the mid 19th century. Furthermore, this was the first time that the core of a movement deliberately disregarded all the idealistic notions and fully separated itself from any form of social and political correctness.
Separating their paths from the theatrical and emotionally charged pieces of the past, artists of Realism turned everyday man and women of France into the focal point of their work. Serving the role of an undeclared leader behind Realism, Gustave Courbet mostly painted scenes of regular folk struggling with poverty, although his arguably most famous artwork The Origin of the World strayed a bit from that particular subject and was underlined by a strong note of sexuality. Additionally, Courbet wrote the manifest of Realism, presenting all of his creative decisions and reasons behind the works he paints. Gustave’s demeanor and lifestyle heavily impacted the way the public observed artists and their social role, so Courbet can be credited as one of the first individuals to define the bohemian way of life. A strong opposition to Realism were the followers of the l’art pour l’art concept, another French concept which demanded that art should be made for art’s sake exclusively. Charles Baudelaire was the most prominent representative of l’art pour l’art theory and that made him one of the greatest opponents Realism had to face.
The Breaking Point
There is still a good deal of debate on the exact period in which contemporary art as we know it actually begins and what should be considered the trigger. Some ascribe the big “break” from traditional painting to have happened with the advent of Impressionism while others only tout Post-impressionism as the first big truly modern movement. Be it as it may, the moment most commonly cited as the start of the art revolution would be the rejection of Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) by the Salon jury in Paris. Bold in both theme and manner, the canvas depicted a nude woman nonchalantly sitting next to two fully clad men, all in an obviously contemporary setting. This, of course, would have and eventually indeed did scandalize the deeply bourgeoisie public. The year was 1863 and the number of works rejected by the conservative Salon was uncommonly large. The whole affair was on the verge of turning into a scandal when Napoleon III stepped in and organized the Salon des Refusés, giving the public an opportunity to judge the rejected works themselves. Having attracted an enormous amount of attention, and mostly dividing the general opinion, subsequent Salons des Refusés were mounted in Paris in 1874, 1875, and 1886. These in turn provided an outlet for a fresh movement – Impressionism.
Impressionism and Post-impressionism
First exhibited in 1872, Claude Monet’s loosely painted Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) was by some critics viewed as a mere sketch – others hailed it as a breakthrough. It rejected the smooth finish of academic works, instead showing a rough surface, visible brushstrokes and an effect of immediacy, sincerity, of a quickly captured impression. Mostly done outdoors, en plein air, it took the experience of the Barbizon school to a whole other level. The paintings of Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, Degas, Morisot soon followed, all in the same vein, with their spontaneous brushwork, broken color, vibrant light effects, and contemporary themes. They attracted a lot of criticism but also paved the way for future generations of artists that were to innove and break the rules.
Post-impressionism was soon to follow, not as one coherent style, but a movement made up of multiple borderline opposite views. Seurat’s Pointilism for one was painstakingly scientific, analytical and monumental. Toulouse-Lautrec’s realistic yet highly stylized depictions of fin-de-siecle decadence presented viewers with poignancy and insight into the world that was, until then, kept behind the curtains. Cezanne on the other hand intensely studied his often mundane subjects (still lifes, landscapes and nudes form the majority of his ouvre), using characteristic brushstrokes and planes of color, building up to form complex fields, thus creating an other way of looking at reality. Gauguin practically ran away from the “civilized” society, looking for (and finding plenty of) inspiration for his proto-primitivist works in remote Tahiti. He strongly influenced Les Nabis, as well as the self-taught Henri Rousseau’s “naive” canvases.
Deconstructing Reality – 20th Century Developments
Early 20th century was the time of Paris as the center of the global art scene (and art market). This drew to it artists from all over, especially those from the Low Countries (Van Gogh being the most notable example), the US and beyond. It was a veritable melting pot, a place where one could get a good academic education (Academie des Beaux-Arts and Academie Julian still offered excellent technical training) but also rub elbows with the avant-garde of the day and see a novel style, a fresh way of expression arise almost on a daily basis. This also meant that the biggest names on the French art scene were not always necessarily French by birth.
Fauvism (the style of the group Les Fauves, French for “the wild beasts”) developed as an offshot of Impressionism but, instead of more representational qualities of its predecessors, focused on painterly qualities and strong color. With Henri Matisse and Andre Derain as the main exponents, it marked the first decade of the 20th century. It coincided with German Expressionism and discreetly heralded the influx of foreign influence into French art. Still, Matisse in particular remained a monumental figure in the art world for half a century, ever changing his style and cementing his status as one of the greatest masters of his period.
Cubism came next, leaning on the representation of three-dimensional form in the late works of Cezanne. In Cubism, objects were analyzed, broken up so to speak, then reassembled in an abstracted form. This allowed the artist to depict the subject from a multitude of viewpoints thus offering the viewer more than he could normally see. It was also the first important movement in which the single leading figure was not French – Pablo Picasso was a Spaniard. Georges Braque was an important representative, keeping a cubist outlook much longer than Picasso did, but his public presence was eclipsed by that of his more flamboyant colegue.
Dada arose in the war years (the Great War, WWI, that is), an anti-art movement that reached Paris via Zurich. Marcel Duchamp‘s Fountain (a porcelain urinal) was to be the work with the most far-reaching influence, both ushering in “readymade” artworks and heavily relying on provokation and shock as a part of the viewing experience. Immediately after the war, the French art scene split into two directions. One continued the experimentation of previous generations, soon giving birth to surrealism (with Dali, again a Spaniard, and Magritte, a Belgian, as its seminal figures) and intimism (a toned-down version of fauvism, exemplified by Bonnard). The other soaked up influences from across the pond, from the US, with Abstract expressionism and Action painting, creating their French counterparts – tachisme and l’art informel respectively. After a stint with New Realism, Yves Klein adopted pop art in the 60’s, Victor Vasarely invented op-art soon after, while representatives of the Fluxus movement incorporated found objects into their creations.
The Time is Now – Contemporary French Art
With immigration, creative cross-polination, the media and the internet, the society has indeed become a global village. It is next to impossible to speak of a national school, yet certain centers are still the creative hubs they always were. As much as the innovation is nowadays often to be found eslewhere – in The Big Apple, London or Berlin – Paris still remains the capital of the art world, as strong as ever. Many artists reach for the theme of war in their work, like Christian Boltanski, while feminist ideas and issues of personal identity figure prominently in the work of Annette Messager. Installations and conceptual art of Sophie Calle examines feelings of vulenrability and intimacy, while those of Pierre Huyghe often incorporate living beings into the concept. Figuration Libre and Art brut (a variant of so-called outsider art) remain quite influental and Performance art rivals that of the Big Apple scene, showing that French art is still alive and well, and that it will have a lot more to show in the years to come.
The Most Famous French Artworks
Turbulent and violent period after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s Wars saw a silent, subtle revolution in domain of culture and arts. It was a social revolution after all. The birth of the contemporary art was a product of vivid and brave experiments French artists were conducting during the 19th Century. Almost all of the masterpieces that are presented here were created in what many historians call “the long nineteenth century”. These artworks inspired generations of fresh artists, they opened the doors for the emergence of latest art movements, and finally they reshaped the concept of art itself. Even those who are not so interested in art have heard for Masters such as Monet, Gauguin, Seurat and Manet. Finally, the glory of French art did not fade away in the 20th Century, with many masterpieces moving the boundaries of contemporary art.
Jacques-Louis David – The Death of Marat, 1793
The most famous image of the French revolution is The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. The painting is about the murder of prominent French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. It depicts the radical journalist lying dead in his bath on 13 July 1793 after his murder by Charlotte Corday. David was also an active participant of the Revolution, and is regarded as one of the most significant figures of Neo-Classicism. This painting is considered to be one of the first modernist paintings. This masterpiece can be seen at Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
Theodore Gericault – The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819
The masterpiece of the 19th Century French art is The Raft of the Medusa created by Theodore Gericault in 1818-1819. Gericault was a member of the French Romantic movement. This painting depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse. Once it was exhibited, soon after it was painted, it received international acclaim, and is considered as one of the most important artworks that led to the break with the prevailing neoclassical school. Those who want to see this masterpiece should visit Louvre in Paris.
Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People, 1830
Located in Louvre, this painting is perceived as one of the symbols of contemporary France and French nation. Executed in 1830, by Eugene Delacroix, it commemorated the July Revolution of 1830, referencing to the famous motto of the French revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The painting depicts fight on a barricade, with the Goddess of Liberty as a central figure, who leads the characters forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution. The figure of liberty is one of the most important symbols of French Republic and is known under the name of Marianne.
Gustave Courbet – The Origin of the World, 1866
The Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde) was the most provocative masterpiece created in the 19th Century. It was executed by Gustave Courbet, one of the leaders of the Realist movement in 19th-century French painting. By rejecting academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists, Courbet wanted to emphasize the importance of realistic representation in art. Since its creation, the painting caused a lot of controversies, and it rises even today. The original painting can be seen at Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Claude Monet – Impression, Sunrise, 1872
Did Monet’s Impression, Sunrise change the course of art? Many argue it did, but this painting for sure gave rise to the name of the Impressionist movement. This painting depicts the port of the artist’s hometown – Le Havre, and it is, without any doubts, his most famous painting of the harbor. This artwork also contains a political statement, since this town was exemplified as the French regeneration after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.The original painting can be seen at Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Bal du moulin de la Galette, 1876
One of the Impressionism’s most celebrated masterpieces is Bal du moulin de la Galette or Dance at Le moulin de la Galette, executed by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1876. The painting depicts a typical Sunday afternoon at Moulin de la Galette in the district of Montmartre in Paris. Like many Impressionists’ paintings, Dance at Le moulin de la Galette is a typically snapshot of real life. The painting can be seen at Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Georges Seurat – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886
The most famous piece by Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is considered to be one of the most renowned examples of Pointillism.Serat spent two years working on this artwork, focusing meticulously on the landscape of the park. He concentrated on issues of color, light, and form, and contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. The piece is located at Art Institute Chicago.
Paul Gauguin – Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-1898
Paul Gauguin was one of the leading figures of the Post-Impressionism movement. His oeuvre hugely influenced the French avant-garde and many contemporary painters. He spent six years living on the island of Tahiti where he created some of his most notable paintings. One of them is Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. The artwork is an accentuation of Gauguin’s trailblazing post-impressionistic style; his art stressed the vivid use of colors and thick brushstrokes. The original piece is located at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Auguste Rodin – The Thinker, 1904
One of the most renowned pieces of sculpture is Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. The work shows a nude male figure of over life-size sitting on a rock with his chin resting on one hand as though deep in thought and is often used as an image to represent philosophy. Today, there are about 28 full size castings, in which the figure is about 186 centimetres (73 in) high, although many of them were not created during Rodin’s lifetime or under his supervision.
Marcel Duchamp – Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is regarded, by many art historians, as a major landmark in 20th-century art. The piece was a porcelain urinal, which was signed “R.Mutt” and titled Fountain. This piece of art is a subject of many controversies. However, Fountainis widely regarded as one of the most influential pieces of art in the 20th Century, and the first work of conceptual art.
Yves Klein – International Klein Blue
One of the most influential French contemporary artists was Yves Klein. He was the leading member of the French artistic movement of Nouveau réalisme founded in 1960, and a pioneer in the development of performance art, and is seen as an inspiration to, and as a forerunner of, Minimal art, as well as Pop art. International Klein Blue (IKB) is a deep blue hue first mixed by this famous artist, while IKB’s visual impact comes from its heavy reliance on Ultramarine, as well as Klein’s often thick and textured application of paint to canvas. Klein made dozens of IKBs, while the one presented here is IKB Godet from 1958.
Still Steering the Course
If we were able to somehow ask the likes of Matisse, Jacques-Louis David or Duchamp what they believe the art scene would look like in the 21st century, we would certainly be granted a sea of fascinating answers and theories. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to interview them in this fashion, but one predicament can be considered to be a valid fact – they would certainly agree that all artistic roads of the world would still be leading to Paris. And they would be right. The values and focus of the 21st-century art are still finding their footing at this moment, but one can rest assured that France is doing its fair share of conceptual heavy lifting. Between the echoes of the postmodern tradition, emphasized method over form, the supremacy of originality over technicality, growing artistic importance of sociopolitical consciousness and the effects of globalization on art – France has its say in all of these fields. What’s even more impressive, this nation is able to both dictate the contemporary course and honor the rich past which made it such a crucial country in the first place – without compromising either of the two.
It’s interesting that to this day, the artistic situation surrounding France and Paris has not changed that much when compared to the circumstances over one hundred years ago. Despite the actual contemporary pieces looking rather different than their older predecessors, The City of Light is still the elite location for many artists around the world who see it as an idyllic creative place and a dream destination. This nation is the proud home of the most esteemed Academies, greatly respected festivals and leading galleries, whilst the genuine bohemian way of life managed to survive and allow contemporary painters to set the stage for the scene which is responsible for dictating the further course of contemporary art. Since France has been the leading country of art-making for centuries now, it is an enigma how some other nation would be able to depose it off its creative throne. Furthermore, it is highly questionable if such a de-crowning endeavor is even possible at all. As it was stated above, what makes modern French art so impressive is the fact that this nation is able to both lead the way and honor the past. Whether one seeks to witness street art or desires to investigate formal and academic forms, France remains the unquestionable go-to place for all such needs. Sure, some metropolises like New York City, London and Berlin carry a lot of creative weight of the current scene on their shoulders as well, but Paris’ leading status in the contemporary art is as secure as ever. The City of Light beams with 21st-century galleries and museums, persisting in its role as a defining leader of the art stage. And we simply do not see them falling second to anyone in that regard.
Early 20th century was the period when Paris reigned supreme as the cultural capital of the world. After the waves impressionism and post-impressionism had sent through the art universe, fresh styles, ideas and points of view were emerging – from cubism, to fauvism and expressionism. The revolutionary spirit of the avant-garde of the period could only be encapsulated by someone who had seen it first hand, who was there, who was friends with luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinare, Max Jacob, and Georges Braque. In his book (first published in 1912), Salmon offers insight into the world, the thoughts, the ideas, and even the inside jokes of this small coterie of man and women who shaped modernism and paved the way for generations of visual artists to come.
- Irwin, D., Neoclassicism A&I (Art and Ideas), Phaidon Press, 1997
- Vaughn, W., Romanticism and Art, Thames & Hudson, 1994
- Malpas, J., Realism, Cambridge University Press, 1997
- Pischel-Fraschini, Gina – A world history of art: painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts ; Golden Press, 1968
- House, John – Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting ; Weidenfeld Nicolson Illustrated, 1979
- Wilkin, Karen – Georges Braque ; Abbeville Press Inc. 1992
- Ottman, Klaus – Yves Klein: Works, Writings, Interviews ; Ediciones Poligrafa, 2009
- Lavigne, Emma – Pierre Huyghe ; Hirmer, 2014
Featured images: Eugène Delacroix – Liberty Leading, detail ; Jacques Louis David – The Death of Socrates ; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – In the Salon of Rue des Moulins ; Georges Braque – The Viaduct at L’Estaque