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A Survey of French Art: Romanticism to the Modern Age

Though largely known by the ephemeral landscapes of the Impressionist frontrunners such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the history of French fine art boasts a vast history that encompasses numerous styles. In fact, many of the genres that we are familiar with today were pioneered in France, and the country remains one of the most fascinating epicenters of fine art paintings to date.



Jeté de Roses by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


Though pinpointing the exact origin of French paintings would be quite difficult, experts agree that expressionistic cave paintings in Lescaux created nearly 17,000 years ago can be considered the beginning point - proof that a rich culture of expression has existed since the country's virtual geographic inception.


However, it is the century following the fall of King Louis XVI in 1793 that is perhaps the most pivotal in art history. The movements that follow this important historical moment eventually break from traditional artistic conventions established by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. As an institution that for many years existed as the official purveyor of aesthetics, the French academy was accepting of only one style - the neoclassically-influenced Academic style - and was ruled by a strict jury of artists. Academic art reflected idealized scenes, historical subjects, a clear absence of brushwork, and a fixed set of aesthetics.


With the French Revolution, however, those fixed aesthetics slowly began to expand. Political disillusion, social change, and burgeoning ideals, France was poised for a change - and its art came to reflect that evolution. Following this moment, numerous art historical movements developed - all unique to one another and reflecting differing socio-political ideals.


Here, delve into the fascinating history of French art and learn more about these most key movements.




Romanticism (1775-1850)

The romantic movement in France began as a literary movement with writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who introduced a new style of prose - and new ideals - into French society. Their stance was simple: a focus on the self and individualism, with an emphasis on heightened emotion and nature. These new ideals stood in direct opposition to the notions of Rationalism and Neoclassicism that pervaded French society during the Enlightenment. So persuasive and powerful were these new ideas of subjectivity, however, that the influenced an entirely new artistic movement: Romanticism.


This movement displayed a key shift from the traditional Académie des Beaux-Arts style that prevailed in France for decades. Instead of depicting historical scenes imbued with idealized and neoclassical elements, canvases now depicted emotional, exotic, tragic, and highly dramatic subject matter.


Theodore Gericault's The Raft of Medusa is often considered the benchmark work of French Romanticism. Depicting an evocative shipwreck scene, numerous figures are seen struggling against the intensity and ruthlessness of the sea. The figures' clear display of fear and the mere narrative of the composition together creates a work of intense emotion and drama.



The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault Photo Courtesy of the Louvre (Paris, France)


Key Points

    • Emotionally intense and dramatic depictions
    • Exotic themes
    • A shift from the traditional Academic style

Key Artists

    • Theodore Gericault
    • Eugene Delacroix
    • Anne-Louis Girodet



Realism (1840-Late 19th Century)

Realism grew out of the aftermath of the 1848 French Revolution, which overthrew King Louis-Philippe. After this event, members of French society desired high democratic reform. Artists, consequently, took to this democratization process and produced art that sought to convey a truthful, objective view of contemporary French life. These artists rejected the idealized, overly dramatic themes of French Romanticism in favor of more objective everyday subjects. First and foremost, Realist French painters strove to capture the grittiest of detail of everyday life and the working class. In turn, this elevated the working class into the realm of high art - therefore colliding the social classes of aristocracy and hand laborers. For the first time, Realist artists put forward (and largely, proved) the conviction that everyday life was a suitable, if not extraordinary, subject for fine art.Undoubtedly, the leading proponent of the Realist movement was Gustave Courbet. In fact, Courbet was so faithful in the true representation of nature that he is cited in a statement made in 1861, quipping that “painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things.” His work, Burial at Ornans, is often cited as the first Realist painting.


Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet Photo Courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay (Paris, France)


Key points


    • Objective depictions
    • Truthful views of contemporary life
    • Contemporary subject matter

Key artists


    • Gustave Courbet
    • Jean-Francois Millet
    • Jules Bastien-Lepage






The Barbizon School (1830-1870)

Often considered a faction of Realism, the Barbizon School concerned themselves with asserting the importance of landscape painting. While landscapes were part of the naturalist tradition of early Netherlandish art, the genre was considered a lower form of art in France. Thanks to the Barbizon landscape painters, however, landscapes came to be viewed as a significant subject in fine art, rather than merely the background for a historical or genre scene.


Taking the name from the village of Barbizon in the Fountainbleau forest near Paris, Barbizon painters established objective, pure landscape painting as a legitimate, highly regarded subject in art.



Le Passeur by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot


Key points


    • Landscape as the main subject
    • Truthful depiction of the landscape
    • Abundance of foliage



Key artists


    • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
    • Jules Dupre



Impressionism (1860- 1890)

One of the most groundbreaking movements in all of art history, Impressionism stemmed from one simple goal: to paint a specific moment in time, an “impression” of a scene. It was a natural extension of the objectivity of the Barbizon School, and a severe break with the Academic tradition. At their inception, the Impressionists were viewed as radical and dismissed by the ruling aesthetic elite.


Effet de Brouillard près de Dieppe by Claude Monet

Effet de Brouillard près de Dieppe by Claude Monet


Barred from exhibited with the Academie-approved French artists at the French Salon, the firs Impressionists organized an exhibition in 1874 whose common factor was that they claimed their artistic independence. Immediately seen as “avant-garde,” contemporary art critics deemed their work unfinished, sketchy, and amateur.


The cultural roots of this movement stem from new conditions of urban life and the emerging modern world. Members of society were now surrounded by technological inventions, and therefore a surplus of leisure time. These artists decidedly chose to adhere to realistic representations of the world around them. Motifs of this movement widely ranged - scenes of picnics, seascapes, farmlands, dancehalls - but the great majority focus around outdoor leisure scenes. With expressive brushwork and brightened palettes, these artists sought to capture movement, atmosphere and time on canvas, creating works that were unlike any seen before.

Esquisse de Paysage by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Esquisse de Paysage by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


Key points


    • Ephemeral depictions of outdoor scenes
    • Evident brushwork
    • Lightened palette
    • No clarity of form
    • Effects of light and other fleeting atmospheric elements



Key artists


    • Camille Pissarro
    • Berthe Morisot
    • Pierre-Auguste Renoir
    • Claude Monet



Post-Impressionism (1885-1910)

The Post-Impressionists went one step beyond their Impressionist predecessors, seeking to portray depictions of subjective experiences and emotions rather than optical experiences. These artists attempted to compose deeper, symbolic compositions by way of simplified forms and a vivid color palette.


Though they worked independently, art critic Roger Rfry (1866-1934) coined their movement and broadly categorized them as Post-Impressionists in a 1910 exhibition he installed at the Grafton Galleries, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. It is important to note that the Post-Impressionist style included numerous smaller factions, such as Pointillism, Symbolism, and Neo-Impressionism.



Le Moulin by Vincent van Gogh


It is undoubtedly the work of George Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, that is seen as the forefront Post-Impressionist work. The revolutionary piece is imbued with bright colors, swift brushwork, and clearly defined forms that would become characteristic of this movement. The works of Paul Cezanne push the boundaries further, with broad swathes of solid color, flattened planes, geometric forms, and intentional distortion - all give us an expressive,subjective effect that differs from the loose, objective renderings of the Impressionists.


Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses by Paul Cézanne Photo Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY)


Key points


    • Vivid palette
    • Simplified forms
    • Often, distroted
    • Unnatural coloring
    • Expressive effects



Key artists


    • Vincent van Gogh
    • Paul Cezanne
    • Jean Dufy





Modern (20th-21st Century)

The modern artistic movement in France, beginning with the daring endeavors of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles, dominated the country's artistic stage at the close of World War I. The term embodies an abundance of styles that followed the movements of the mid-nineteenth century: Cubism, Surrealism, Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, a shift in the style of French Art Deco (also called arts décoratifs, or decorative arts), and Dada among them.



Soirée by Jean-Pierre Cassigneul


Perhaps the most important single figure of the modern art movement is Pablo Picasso. Though born in Spain, the majority of his lengthy artistic career took place in France. His oeuvre transcends many different styles of art, and he is most known for his part in developing Cubism. Comprised of highly abstracted works, Cubist art thoroughly rejected the idea that art should depict what is seen in real life. Instead, depictions should be broken down into their most simple form: an emphasis on the two-dimensional and portrayal of objects in abstracted forms.



L'Arlésienne by Pablo Picasso


Key points


    • Abstracted and distorted human forms
    • Unnatural color
    • Simplified, primary colors
    • Flattened planes

Key artists


    • Pablo Picasso
    • Raoul Dufy
    • Jean Dufy
    • Henri Matisse
    • Jean-Pierre Cassigneul




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