An Introduction to French Art Shamelessly Copied from Wikipedia

French art consists of the visual and plastic arts (including architecture, woodwork, textiles, and ceramics) originating from the geographical area of France. (See Luncheon, note 5) Modern France was the main centre for the European art of the Upper Paleolithic, then left many megalithic monuments, and in the Iron Age many of the most impressive finds of early Celtic art. (See fig 1.4)The Gallo-Roman period left a distinctive provincial style of sculpture, and the region around the modern Franco-German border led the empire in the mass production of finely decorated Ancient Roman pottery, which was exported to Italy and elsewhere on a large scale. With Merovingian art the story of French styles as a distinct and influential element in the wider development of the art of Christian Europe begins. (Citation: Faure 1909, 54Faure, Élie. Histoire de l’Art. Vol. 1, L’Art antique. Paris: Gallimard, 1909)

France can fairly be said to have been a leader in the development of Romanesque art and Gothic art, before the Italian Renaissance led to Italy replacing France as the main source of stylistic developments until the age of Louis XIV, when France largely regained this role, holding it until the mid-20th century.

France can fairly be said to have been a leader in the development of Romanesque art and Gothic art, before the Italian Renaissance led to Italy replacing France as the main source of stylistic developments until the age of Louis XIV, when France largely regained this role, holding it until the mid-20th century.


Early Modern Period

In the late fifteenth century, the French invasion of Italy and the proximity of the vibrant Burgundy court, with its Flemish connections, brought the French into contact with the goods, paintings, and the creative spirit of the Northern and Italian Renaissance. Initial artistic changes at that time in France were executed by Italian and Flemish artists, such as Jean Clouet and his son François Clouet, along with the Italians, Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Niccolò dell’Abbate of what is often called the first School of Fontainebleau from 1531. Leonardo da Vinci also was invited to France by François I, but other than the paintings which he brought with him, he produced little for the French king. (Citation: Rosenblum 1967, 103Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.)

The art of the period from François I through Henri IV often is heavily inspired by late Italian pictorial and sculptural developments commonly referred to as Mannerism, which is associated with Michelangelo and Parmigianino, among others. It is characterized by figures which are elongated and graceful that rely upon visual rhetoric, including the elaborate use of allegory and mythology. (Citation: Rosen and Zerner 1984Rosen, Charles, and Henry Zerner. Romanticism and Realism. The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art. New York: Viking, 1984.) Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the French Renaissance was the construction of the Châteaux of the Loire Valley. No longer conceived of as fortresses, such pleasure palaces took advantage of the richness of the rivers and lands of the Loire region and they show remarkable architectural skill.

Baroque and Classicism

The seventeenth century marked a golden age for French art in all fields. In the early part of the seventeenth century, late mannerist and early Baroque tendencies continued to flourish in the court of Marie de Medici and Louis XIII. Art from this period shows influences from both the north of Europe, namely the Dutch and Flemish schools, and from Roman painters of the Counter-Reformation. Artists in France frequently debated the contrasting merits of Peter Paul Rubens with his the Flemish baroque, voluptuous lines and colors to Nicolas Poussin with his rational control, proportion, Roman classicism. Another proponent of classicism working in Rome was Claude Gellée, known as Le Lorrain, who defined the form of classical landscape.

Figure 1.4. Et in Arcadia ego, by Nicolas Poussin. Public domain image

Many young French painters of the beginning of the century went to Rome to train themselves and soon assimilated Caravaggio’s influence like Valentin de Boulogne and Simon Vouet. The later is credited with bringing the baroque in France and at his return in Paris in 1627 he was named first painter of the king. But French painting soon departed from the extravagance and naturalism of the Italian baroque and painters like Eustache Le Sueur and Laurent de La Hyre, following Poussin example developed a classicist way known as “Parisian atticism”, inspired by Antiquity, and focusing on proportion, harmony and the importance of drawing. Even Vouet, after his return from Italy, changed his manner to a more measured but still highly decorative and elegant style.

But at the same time there was still a strong Caravaggisti school represented in the period by the amazing candle-lit paintings of Georges de La Tour. The wretched and the poor were featured in a quasi-Dutch manner in the paintings by the three Le Nain brothers. In the paintings of Philippe de Champaigne there are both propagandistic portraits of Louis XIII’ s minister Cardinal Richelieu and other more contemplative portraits of people in the Catholic Jansenist sect. In architecture, architects like Salomon de Brosse, François Mansart and Jacques Lemercier helped define the French form of the baroque, developing the formula of the urban hôtel particulier that was to influence all of Europe and strongly departed from the Italian equivalent, the palazzo. Many aristocratic castles were rebuilt in the new classic- baroque style, some of the most famous being Maisons and Cheverny, characterized by high roofs “à la française” and a form that retained the medieval model of the castle adorned with prominent towers.

From the mid to late seventeenth century, French art is more often referred to by the term “Classicism” which implies an adherence to certain rules of proportion and sobriety uncharacteristic of the Baroque, as it was practiced in southern and eastern Europe during the same period. Under Louis XIV, the Baroque as it was practiced in Italy, was not in French taste, for instance, as Bernini’s famous proposal for redesigning the Louvre was rejected by Louis XIV. Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1640. (Citation: Berson 1996, 233Berson, Ruth, ed. The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886; Documentation. 2 vols. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996.)

From the mid to late seventeenth century, French art is more often referred to by the term “Classicism” which implies an adherence to certain rules of proportion and sobriety uncharacteristic of the Baroque, as it was practiced in southern and eastern Europe during the same period. Public domain images

Through propaganda, wars, and great architectural works, Louis XIV launched a vast program designed for the glorification of France and his name. The Palace of Versailles, initially a tiny hunting lodge built by his father, was transformed by Louis XIV into a marvelous palace for fêtes and parties, under the direction of architects Louis Le Vau (who had also built the château de Vaux-le-Vicomte) and Jules Hardouin Mansart (who built the church of the Invalides in Paris), painter and designer Charles Le Brun, and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre who perfected the rational form of the French garden that from Versailles spread in all of Europe.

For sculpture Louis XIV’s reign also proved an important moment thanks to the King’s protection of artists like Pierre Puget, François Girardon and Charles-Antoine Coysevox. In Rome, Pierre Legros, working in a more baroque manner, was one of the most influential sculptors of the end of the century.

Rococo and Neoclassicism

Rococo and Neoclassicism are terms used to describe the visual and plastic arts and architecture in Europe from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. In France, the death ofLouis XIV in 1715 lead to a period of freedom commonly called the Régence. Versailles was abandoned from 1715 to 1722, the young king Louis XV and the government led by the duke of Orléans residing in Paris. There a new style emerged in the decorative arts, known as rocaille : the asymmetry and dynamism of the baroque was kept but renewed in a style that is less rhetoric and with less pompous effects, a deeper research of artificiality and use of motifs inspired by nature. This manner used to decorate rooms and furniture also existed in painting. Rocaillle painting turned toward lighters subjects, like the “fêtes galantes”, theater settings, pleasant mythological narratives and the female nude. Most of the times the moralizing sides of myths or history paintings are omitted and the accent is put on the decorative and pleasant aspect of the scenes depicted. Paintings from the period show an emphasis more on color than drawing, with apparent brush strokes and very colorful scenes. Important painters from this period include Antoine Watteau, considered the inventor of the fête galante, Nicolas Lancret and François Boucher.

Inspiration, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Public domain image

The Louis XV style of decoration, although already apparent at the end of the last reign, was lighter with pastel colors, wood panels, smaller rooms, less gilding, and fewer brocades; shells, garlands, and occasional Chinese subjects predominated. The Chantilly, Vincennes and then Sèvres manufactures produced some of the finest porcelain of the time. The highly skilled ébénistes, cabinet-makers mostly based in Paris, created elaborate pieces of furniture with precious wood and bronze ornaments that were to be highly praised and imitated in all of Europe. The most famous are Jean-François Oeben, who created the work desk of king Louis XV in Versailles, and Bernard II van Risamburgh. Rooms in châteaux and hôtels particuliers were more intimate than during the reign of Louis XIV and were decorated with rocaille style boiseries (carved wood panels covering the walls of a room) conceived by architects like Germain Boffrand or ornemanistes (designers of decorative objects) like Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier.

The most prominent architects of the first half of the century were, apart Boffrand, Robert de Cotte and Ange-Jacques Gabriel, who designed public squares like the place de la Concorde in Paris and the place de la Bourse in Bordeaux in a style consciously inspired by that of the era of Louis XIV. During the first half of the century, France replaced Italy as the artistic centre and main artistic influence in Europe and many French artists worked in other courts across the continent.

The latter half of the eighteenth century continued to see French preeminence in Europe, particularly through the arts and sciences, and the speaking the French language was expected for members of the European courts. The French academic system continued to produce artists, but some, such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, explored new and increasingly impressionist styles of painting with thick brushwork. Although the hierarchy of genres continued to be respected officially, genre painting, landscape, portrait, and still life were extremely fashionable. Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Oudrywere hailed for their still lives although this was officially considered the lowest of all genres in the hierarchy of painting subjects.

Prometheus, by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam. Public domain image

One also finds in this period a Pre-romanticist aspect. Hubert Robert’s images of ruins, inspired by Italian cappricio paintings, are typical in this respect as well as the image of storms and moonlight marines by Claude Joseph Vernet. So too the change from the rational and geometricalFrench garden of André Le Nôtre to the English garden, which emphasized artificially wild and irrational nature. One also finds in some of these gardens—curious ruins of temples—called “follies”.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw a turn to Neoclassicism in France, that is to say a conscious use of Greek and Roman forms and iconography. This movement was promoted by intellectuals like Diderot, in reaction to the artificiality and the decorative essence of the rocaille style. In painting, the greatest representative of this style is Jacques-Louis David, who, mirroring the profiles of Greek vases, emphasized the use of the profile. His subject matter often involved classical history such as the death of Socrates and Brutus. The dignity and subject matter of his paintings were greatly inspired by Nicolas Poussin in the seventeenth century. Poussin and David were in turn major influences on Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Other important neoclassical painters of the period are Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Joseph-Marie Vien. Neoclassicism also penetrated decorative arts and architecture.

Architects like Ledoux and Boullée developed a radical style of neoclassical architecture based on simple and pure geometrical forms with a research of simetry and harmony, elaborating visionary projects like the complex of the Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans by Ledoux, a model of an ideal factory developed from the rational concepts of the Enlightment thinkers.