Welcome to our chronicle of the very best in French art and art history. We are deeply devoted to the appreciation of all types of art, most especially painting and sculpture. Through our site, we hope to share some of the joys and mysteries of art, from the early cave paintings at Lascaux through the revolutionary art of the late 18th century and on into the modern world. Join us for a journey through French art and culture, all tangled up in history in the very best way.
The history of art in France is a long one – nearly 20,000 years old. The first known artwork in France was the paintings in the caves at Lascaux some 17,300 years ago. These paintings are among the earliest remaining pieces of art in human history. Over the following millennia, artistic culture would grow and flourish in the region.
Fine art in France developed throughout the period of Roman influence, through the middle ages and into the early Renaissance. As it did so, the artists became more adept at rendering realistic images using new artistic techniques such as perspective. Painters like Jean Fouquet and Francois Clouet lead the way in developing new styles during the high Renaissance.
By the mid-1600s, French artistic culture had become increasingly more formal and regulated, which resulted in the formation of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648. The Academie set the standards for technique and good taste for generations to come through the baroque and rococo periods.
But with the French revolution and the fall of the monarchy, French art changed again. No longer content to paint portraits of nobility and pastoral idylls, French artists began to paint scenes of everyday life and revolutionary activity. The Academie was dissolved, along with the royal court, and artistic life once again became decentralized.
The ringleader of the new neo-classical school was Jacques-Louis David, whose hyper-realistic depictions of revolutionary events and classical scenes became almost synonymous with late 18th-century and early 19th-century French artistic achievement. In his later years, he would become the official court painter for Napoleon, painting portraits of the Emperor and his courtiers that were key parts of the regime’s propaganda machine. Among his most famous paintings are the Death of Marat, depicting the murder of the Revolutionary leader that famously occurred while he was in the bathtub, and the Oath of the Horatii, a reimagining of a classical Roman tale centered on maculine virtue and self-sacrifice for the good of one’s country.
Alongside the neoclassicism of David came the more exuberant and emotional romanticism. Where neoclassicism focused on grand themes and epics, romanticism preferred intimacy and everyday life, where it could explore human emotions on a human scale. Romantic painters such as Theodore Gericault painted dramatic moments and natural vistas that left room for the viewer to explore their own feelings in relation to the artwork. Some romantic painters, such as Eugene Delacroix, also painted political events and figures, but their stylistic choices put them squarely in line with the romantic school rather than the neoclassical school.
Realism took hold in the mid-19th century as a direct result of further revolution taking place in France and across Europe. Anti-monarchical sentiment was high, and so painters and consumers of art alike were in the mood for a more egalitarian artwork. They followed the path laid down by the romantic movement a generation earlier and went even farther, focusing their work on the everyday lives of peasants, millers, factory workers, and so forth. They depicted harsh conditions and frank sexuality alike.
As often happens, though, the pendulum swung the other way, away from the hyper-realism of the mid-19th century and toward the hyper-dreamy world of the impressionists. Impressionist paintings used soft colors, blurred lines, and abstract shapes to evoke a sense of misty otherworldliness. France was the epicenter of this movement, which was spreading throughout Europe, and master impressionists like Monet, Manet, Degas, Pisarro, Renoir, and others were all located within French artistic communities.
Post-impressionism followed on the heels of impressionism, with artists experimenting with symbolism and pointillism to convey complex ideas through seemingly simple shapes and techniques. Seurat, Gaugin, and Sezanne led the way in this new movement, which was to be shaped drastically by the events of the early 20th century.
The first and second World Wars would dramatically change French artistic life, and indeed, artistic life and life more generally for much of Europe and many other parts of the world. The large-scale destruction, death, and disease, including the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed right on the heels of WWI, caused unprecedented upheaval. This pushed French art out of the realm of post-impressionism and into modernism.
Modernists began to experiment even more dramatically with shapes and colors, to the point that their art sometimes seemed hardly representative of anything. Masters like Picasso and Braque became the godfathers of cubism, which helped drive French art into new realms of abstraction and opened the door for following generations of painters to experiment wildly with form, color, texture, and other artistic markers. In the 1920s and 1930s, French artists used surrealism and the wholly absurd dadaism to make sharp, scathing points about the futility and worthlessness of a world that could be so easily destroyed by war and disease.
In the years following WWII, French artists in dialogue with the abstract expressionism taking hold in the United States created the genre of art informal, a genre of art focused on the artist’s own experiences and increasingly impenetrable layers of abstraction.
Now, during the current era, French art is informed by this rich artistic history while exploring new media that have become available thanks to electronic and digital technology. Conceptual and performance artists have joined the conversation, using large-scale installations and multi-media presentations to communicate ideas and emotions in new, startling ways.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief overview of French art history. There is so much more to learn, so if you are curious to know more, you can use the keywords and phrases in this piece as the starting point for further research. We wish you luck on your journey.