French Art

French art, the artistic production of the region that constitutes the historic nation of France. See also French architecture.

Early History

Artistic remains in France date back to the Paleolithic age (see Paleolithic art), and abundant examples attest to the art of the periods of Roman and barbarian occupation as well as to the Christian art of the subsequent periods (see Merovingian art and architecture; Carolingian architecture and art).

The Romanesque Period

During the Middle Ages artistic production centered about the church and the feudal court. In the Romanesque period (11th–12th cent.) the church encouraged the development of manuscript illumination and the minor arts at several monastic centers including Reims, Tours, St. Gall, Paris, and Metz (see Romanesque architecture and art). Important schools of sculpture centered in the regions of Languedoc and Burgundy.

The Gothic Period

The hierarchic austerity characteristic of many Romanesque figures was modified in the period of Gothic architecture and art (12th–15th cent.) by tendencies toward idealization and naturalism. These tendencies are manifest in the sculpture of Reims and Amiens cathedrals, where the figures show greater variety of pose and articulation and are less severely architectonic than those of the preceding Romanesque period. Cathedral architecture gave impetus in the 13th cent. to the development of the art of stained glass, which reached its height in such windows as those of the cathedral at Chartres.

At the same time Paris became a center of miniature painting, in which Italian and Netherlandish innovations were adopted and the observation of natural detail became highly developed. Great patrons of art emerged, and Charles V transformed the Louvre into a treasure house for the government art collections. Toward the end of the Gothic period these influences began to be harmonized in terms of a style marked by a taste for formal simplicity and elegance, such as is revealed in the works of Jean Fouquet.

The Renaissance

In the 16th cent. there was a strong new wave of Italian influence. Francis I employed Francesco Primaticcio of Bologna as artistic director, and a school of French painters worked in an Italianate manner at the palace of Fontainebleau (see Fontainebleau, school of). The French sculptors Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon contributed classical grace and expressiveness to the work of the time. Elegant portraits were painted by Jean Cousin and Jean and François Clouet. French engraving gained significance in the works of the mannerists Jacques Bellange and Jacques Callot.

The Baroque Period

During the baroque era (17th and early 18th cent.) enthusiasm for classical antiquity, combined with a cult of rationalism, encouraged the development of a monumental and formalized art. The most important painters were the landscape artists Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who worked in Italy. Other major painters of the period include Simon Vouet, Philippe de Champaigne, George de la Tour, and the Le Nain brothers.

The movement toward political centralization, culminating in the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV, was attended by aesthetic authoritarianism marked by a consolidation and control of artistic production in the service of the state and the founding of art institutions. The French Academy was chartered in 1635, and the Gobelins tapestry factory was established in 1662. Typical of the decorative magnificence of the age was the painting of Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard and the sculpture of François Girardon, Pierre Puget, and Antoine Coysevox.

The Eighteenth Century

The 18th-century aesthetic styles were named after the political periods of these turbulent eras. They include the régence style, the Louis period styles, and the Directoire style. After the ascension of Louis XV baroque monumentality was replaced by the lighter, more animated spirit of the rococo, which had early manifestation in the art of J. A. Watteau. François Boucher and J. H. Fragonard succeeded Le Brun as official painters; their decorative, sensuous style was favored by the court but not adopted generally. The genre and still-life painter J. B. Chardin and the sculptor J. A. Houdon exhibited independent tendencies.

Characteristic gracefulness and delicacy prevailed in the minor arts, exemplified in the bronze work of Jacques Caffieri and in Sèvres porcelains, produced at the royal potteries established in 1745 at Vincennes and moved to Sèvres in 1753. A self-important manner in portraiture flourished in the work of Nicolas de Largillière and Jean-Marc Nattier.

Toward the end of the 18th cent. reaction against the frivolity of court art and interest in new archaeological excavations encouraged the rise of the neoclassical style, which found government favor under the Directory, Consulate, and Empire. Its principal exponent was J. L. David, at first the king's and later Napoleon's official painter. David wielded authoritarian influence over the national taste (see Empire style).

The Nineteenth Century

After neoclassicism, no single style predominated in the early part of the century. Rather, individual artists gave definition to a variety of movements. J. A. D. Ingres succeeded David as leading academician and favored an essentially linear and meticulously finished style, in part inspired by a new enthusiasm for the art of the Italian Renaissance. Opposed to the academic discipline manifest in yearly Salon exhibitions were the romantic painters led by Delacroix and Géricault. At the same time that romanticism championed subjective emotion, the artist's independence from social purpose, and the taste for exotic subject matter, various currents of realism had notable exponents in Honoré Daumier, J. B. C. Corot, and Gustave Courbet. Revived interest in landscape painting was revealed in the works of the Barbizon school.

After the middle of the 19th cent. interest in rendering purely visual effects and in expressing transient and accidental aspects of nature resulted in the emergence of impressionism, an enormously influential movement that was formally launched with the exposition of 1874. This movement drew allegiance from a variety of highly individual artists including Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro. Cézanne drew inspiration from the impressionist group, but he rejected their emphasis on transient effects and evolved an independent approach based on the expression of the fundamental characteristics of shapes and spatial effects. Toward the end of the 19th cent. a postimpressionist reaction arose in the work of Seurat, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin.

In comparison with painting, 19th-century sculpture on the whole maintained more conservative trends. In the first half of the century, François Rude infused his works with an animation that marked a break with the neoclassic conventions. A. L. Barye, notable for his animal sculptures, and J. B. Carpeaux, the leading sculptor of the Second Empire, exemplify tendencies toward naturalism and an interest in rendering effects of movement that reached their culmination in the second half of the century in the powerful sculpture of Auguste Rodin.

The break with the 18th-century tradition effected by the Revolution, combined with increasing substitution of machine for hand labor, resulted in a marked decline in quality of design and craftsmanship in the decorative arts of 19th-century France. On the whole a heavy-handed eclecticism prevailed. Various elements from the styles of the Louis XIV and Louis XV periods were combined with surviving neoclassic forms.

The Twentieth Century

The innovations of postimpressionism, combined with the influence of Cézanne and a new current of interest in the art of Africa, to give rise to the early 20th-century movements of fauvism, led by Matisse and Rouault, and cubism, created by Picasso and Braque. Picasso's work, spanning seven decades, provided in its enormous variety of styles a working vocabulary for many of the major art movements of the 20th cent. After World War I a further reaction against the decorative and formal emphasis of prewar art resulted in the emergence of surrealism and Dada. Paris had become the artistic center of Europe in the 19th cent. and the school of Paris continued as a source of aesthetic inspiration in the 20th cent.

In sculpture, a new emphasis on relatively static, simplified forms was shown in the works of Aristide Maillol and the Romanian Constanin Brancusi, who worked in Paris and whose strong, exquisite style had a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture. Other major sculptors of the modern era include Charles Despiau, Henri Laurens, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon.

After 1945 the leading painters, including Nicholas de Staël, Jean Fautrier, Georges Mathieu, and Pierre Soulages worked in the idiom of abstract expressionism, while Jean Dubuffet emerged as the initiator of l'art brut, with strikingly grotesque images constructed of almost any conceivable sort of material.

In the decorative arts, the 20th cent. saw an attempt to revive the craft tradition and to introduce nonderivative designs. Leading artists such as Maillol, Matisse, and Lurç furnished tapestry and textile designs. In addition, new tendencies toward simplification and functionalism were manifest in the furniture of the modern style. More recently, postmodernism has had a strong effect on the decorative arts.


See G. Muehsam, ed., French Painters and Paintings from the Fourteenth Century to Post-Impressionism (1970); S. Lövgren, The Genesis of Modernism (rev. ed. 1971); L. Dennison, Angles of Vision: French Art Today (1986); J. Perl, Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I (1988); A. Chastel, French Art: The Renaissance 1430–1620 (1995).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

French Art: Selected full-text books and articles

French Art of the Eighteenth Century By Stéphane Faniel Simon and Schuster, 1957
An Account of French Painting By Clive Bell Harcourt Brace, 1932
FREE! Art in France By Louis Hourticq Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911
Great French Painting in the Hermitage By Charles Sterling Harry N. Abrams, 1958 (2nd edition)
The Splendid Century: French Art: 1600-1715 By The Art National Gallery Of; The Art Toledo Museum Of; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1960
A Catalogue of French Paintings By Charles Sterling Harvard University Press, vol.1, 1955
In Sickness and in Health: Disease as Metaphor in Art and Popular Wisdom By Laurinda S. Dixon; Gabriel P. Weisberg University of Delaware Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: "Curing Degeneration: Health and the Neoclassical Body in Early Twentieth-Century France" begins on p. 166
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