Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the French reputation for being the arbiter of luxury fashion, design and style. Read on to learn about the early evolution of French art styles.
During the 12th century, the heart of the High Middle Ages, the Romanesque style featuring rounded arches and domes dominated European art and architecture. Eventually, the Capetian dynasty, a powerful line of monarchs ruling over modern-day France, felt an increased desire to create a style that not only rivaled but surpassed Romanesque design in both form and grandeur. From this ambitious aspiration, the Gothic art style emerged.
As the Capetian dynasty began successfully uniting feudalistic communities across France, they also encouraged the growth of literary, artistic, philosophic and religious ideas. From these ideas there rose an increased desire to use artistic beauty as a way of symbolizing spiritual aspiration. Instead of short, rounded churches, patrons began building steeples with tall and pointed construction, ribbed vaulted ceilings, elaborate stained glass and ornate decoration. Not only did this artistic innovation provide more natural light for church-going patrons, but they also were seen as awe-inspiring reflections of heavenly beauty.
Gothic art quickly spread across Europe, and later re-emerged in 18th-century England in the form of Gothic revival art and architecture. Much of 19th-century architecture, specifically in the United States American Gothic style, features tall pointed spires, vaulted ceilings and elaborate glasswork.
When King Francis I invited Leonardo da Vinci to visit France in 1516, he was symbolically inviting the whole of the Renaissance movement to infuse his country with a reinvigoration of classical styles and humanistic thought. When da Vinci arrived with his painting Mona Lisa in tow, French society was in awe of the Italian painter’s genius.
François Clouet, who was only one year old at the time of da Vinci’s visit, would go on to become a prolific and revolutionary French painter during the Renaissance. As the official court painter to three successive kings, Francis I, Henry II and Francis II, Clouet was pivotal defining a uniquely French style among the Renaissance movement. His portraits, characterized by refined elegance, also show brilliant attention to detail and individualism.
Unlike the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance art movement (referring to a “rebirth” of classical artistic ideas outside of Italy), had fewer aristocratic patrons, such as the famous Italian Medici family, who required purely religious iconography. Artists of the Northern Renaissance also used religious imagery, but they more pointedly rendered motifs of natural beauty and emotional intensity.
In the Late Renaissance, European furniture artisans begin to embrace more elaborate decoration and carving, and the subsequent art and architecture of the Baroque period celebrated opulent decoration like no era before. In the second half of the 17th century, France rose to political and cultural prominence in Europe. France’s leader at the time, Louis the XIV , often called the Sun King, ushered in a golden age of art, music and leisure to the lavishly adorned court he presided over at Versailles. The king used this grandeur of Baroque design to symbolize his majesty and reign. Opulent decorations reflected the king’s power and influence, often including his chosen symbol — the sun.
Louis XIV brought the most talented artists and craftsmen from all over Europe to Paris to establish the city as the center of production of luxury goods. One of his most accomplished artisans was the famed cabinetmaker André Charles Boulle, who was undoubtedly the master of inlaying materials such as brass, pewter, horn, tortoiseshell and mother of pearl into ebony. This type of marquetry became known as Boulle work and is often considered the peak of achievement in decorative arts of the time.
The Evolution of French Art Movements
With the “Sun King’s” (King Louis XIV’s) victorious campaign to establish France as the preeminent leader of fashion and style, many of the subsequent global art movements were born and proliferated through France and beyond. Read on to learn about the later art movements that came from French soil, spread across the globe and ultimately changed the fine art world.
As the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment spread throughout Europe in the 18th century, cultural changes centered around freedom, progress and knowledge developed. Furthermore, archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748 were met with a surge of renewed interest in the lives and arts of the ancients. A new era of academia and artistic development began. Curiosity about and study of ancient Rome and Greece expanded, and as a result, opulent and ornate Baroque designs fell out of fashion in favor of a new artistic movement called Neoclassicism.
Under the direction of Louis XVI, French architecture and design still featured baroque opulence, though a greater value on symmetry, simplicity and classical details rose to the forefront of design. The style was highly promoted and used by Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI’s wife, as she decorated the Cabinet of the Queen.
Following the fall of the French monarchy and the death of Louis XVI came the Directoire period, which promoted a highly refined and understated style of art. Revolutionaries had revolted against the perceived overindulgences of the king, and thus fashions became far more stoic following the dissolution of the monarchy. Paintings and decorative arts began to feature elegant lines and limited details, and motifs were far more understated than Louis XVI-era designs.
Between 1775-1800, a new artistic, philosophical and literary movement began to sweep through France’s intellectual center. 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, emphasizing heightened emotion and nature. These new ideals directly opposed the notions of Rationalism and Neoclassicism that pervaded French society during the Enlightenment. Instead of depicting historical scenes imbued with idealized and neoclassical elements, Romantic artists like Eugène Delacroix created canvases depicting emotional, exotic, tragic, and highly dramatic subjects.
Realism grew out of the aftermath of the 1848 French Revolution, a tumultuous event that overthrew King Louis-Philippe and French society as it was known. Along with this political change, artists reflected democratic ideals through art that sought to convey a truthful view of contemporary French life. Realism artists rejected the idealized, overly dramatic themes of French Romanticism in favor of more objective everyday subjects. Often, Realism artists featured the working class, thus elevating the most marginalized people into the realm of high art. For the first time, Realist artists put forward the conviction that everyday life was a suitable, if not an extraordinary, subject for fine art.
In the mid-19th century, Impressionism, one of the most groundbreaking movements in all of art history, emerged with the united goal of creating fine art that captures a mere moment, or impression, of time. At their inception, the Impressionists were viewed as radical and dismissed by the ruling aesthetic elite. Barred from exhibiting at the French Salon, the first Impressionists, organized an exhibition in 1874 founded on artistic independence. Immediately seen as “avant-garde,” contemporary art critics deemed their work unfinished, sketchy, and amateur.
The cultural roots of this artistic movement stem from new conditions of urban life and the emerging modern world. Impressionist artists like the famed Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas decidedly chose to adhere to realistic representations of the world around them, and motifs of this movement widely ranged from scenes of picnics, seascapes, farmlands and dancehalls. With expressive painterly brushwork and brightened palettes, these artists sought to capture atmosphere and time on canvas, creating works that were unlike any seen before.
The Post-Impressionists (1885-1910) went a step beyond their Impressionist predecessors and began to portray depictions of subjective experiences and emotions rather than purely visual experiences. These artists, such as Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne attempted to compose more profound and symbolic compositions by way of simplified forms and a vivid color palette. Though they worked independently, art critic Roger Fry (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.
Cubism is undeniably a revolution in the modern arts, but it began as a private, esoteric art movement that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque created almost solely for themselves and a small circle of intimates. Braque described his time with Picasso: "We lived in Montmartre (the artistic hub in Paris), we saw each other every day, we talked. During those years, Picasso and I discussed things which nobody will ever discuss again, which nobody else would know how to discuss, which nobody else would know how to understand" (Berger). By abandoning traditional perspective, they instead explored the multiple "facets" of an object as it exists in a flattened plane. Some of Picasso's Cubist artwork used pasted paper fragments, introducing collages as a reputable medium of the fine art world.
Art Collector’s Quick Guide to Famous French Artworks:
- La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Neoclassicism
- The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault: Romanticism
- The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet: Realism
- Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet: Impressionism
- Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso: Cubism
What to research when collecting French Art:
- Read up: Do some digging and determine the era that is most interesting to you. The best decorative art, specifically when displayed in a home, should reflect your individual desires, intellectual pursuits and artistic curiosity.
- Determine a focus: Are you in awe of soft impressionist-style paintings? Are you taken aback by centuries-old mementos of the Renaissance? Although there is no restriction when it comes to the breadth of a collection’s possibilities, it’s often best to start out with an era of focus.
- Pick an artist: Significant French artists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas have been coveted since their triumphant exhibitions in their own lifetime. As the inspiration for many artists who came after them, these Impressionist masters laid the groundwork for generations more of renowned French artists, many of whom are still alive today. Don’t be afraid to start collecting contemporary artists who have successfully adapted masterful techniques in modern and palatable ways.
- Display and Share: Once you've acquired your French art, display them in a way that elevates its color and composition to the level they deserve. When it comes to displaying artwork, consider hiring a professional art installer to properly hang your artwork and ensure it's well-lit and approachable.
Looking for contemporary French art? We recommend truly inspirational 20th and 21st century artists such as André Brasilier, Yvonne Canu and Jean-Pierre Cassigneul.
20th Century. M.S. Rau.
If you’re interested in other European art styles, read our blog about Italian art and culture and their significance in art history.
Berger, John. 1972. The Look of Things: Selected Essays and Articles. Penguin Books, Ltd.
Huffington, Arianna S. 1988. Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. Simon and Schuster.