Skip to main content

The evolution of French art

It’s more than Monet!

Interactive - click on the tabs to explore art from different creative movements.

There is an awful lot more to French art than Monet’s lilies. And for that matter, the daubings of some Neolithic would-be artist who decided 17,000 years ago that the caves of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne needed a little brightening up with a lick of paint. 

French art has a long and rich history, dating back to the primitive but exquisite prehistoric cave paintings of the Dordogne, Auvergne and Ardèche. But it took centuries before the first signs of true maturity and style emerged in medieval times.

The Gothic tradition took over with particular examples being the stained glass works of Chartres, Bourges and Laon cathedrals (architecturally, the cathedrals of Paris, Amiens and Reims are still testament to this tradition).

The Renaissance had its heyday between the 15th and 17th centuries, a period of rebirth that signified the end of the Middle Ages and the arrival of a time of enlightenment, exploration, invention and a new aesthetic. 

From this point, there was a more or less constant evolution of artistic trends and movements through to the present day.

When did it all start?

Certainly, the founding in 1648 of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was a pivotal moment, both formalising the perception and appreciation of art and influencing European tastes for centuries to come. The framework for the understanding of art had been established.

A century later, The French Revolution of 1789 was a key turning point, heralding centuries of restless tumult and social upheaval that became reflected in the innovation of the artistic output.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1786 By Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson - KwHkqyZxc2i04A at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain

Anton Raphael Mengs, Judgement of Paris, c. 1757

By Anton Raphael Mengs - Steffi Roettgen, Anton Raphael Mengs 1728-1779, vol. 2: Leben und Wirken (Munich: Hirmer, 2003), plate 12b.Scan:James Steakley, Public Domain,

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808

Ingres' version of Neoclassicism By Unknown - Unknown, Public Domain,

1760s - Mid 1800s

^ Neoclassicism The idealised forms and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome were alluring subject matter in the late 18th to mid-19th century. The uncertainty and growing sense of political vacuum as revolution simmered meant that sophisticated paintings with a message of order and stability proved popular. Some proponents, like David, went on to paint Napoleon, thus creating key components of the regime’s propaganda.

Thomas Cole, Childhood, one of the 4 scenes in The Voyage of Life, 1842 Picture taken at: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA3. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Public Domain

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

By Caspar David Friedrich - The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain,

Dennis Malone Carter, Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat, 1878

Romanticist vision of the Battle of Tripoli By Painter: Dennis Malone Carter - Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington Navy Yard: NH 44647-KN, Public Domain,

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801

By Philip James de Loutherbourg - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

1800 - 1860s

^ Romanticism This was more emotional, more personal than Neoclassicism and was rooted in the literature of the time. Less epic and less deferential to the formalities of classical civilisation, it prompted some searingly influential works. Perhaps none more so than Delacroix’s ‘La Liberté guidant le peuple’ (1830), an iconic post-Revolution image close to many a Frenchman’s heart.

Gustave Courbet, Le Sommeil (Sleep), 1866, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris By Gustave Courbet - Gustave Courbet, 1866, Public Domain

Jules Breton, The End of the Working Day, 1886–87

By Jules Breton - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 35.867_reference_SL1.jpg, Public Domain,

Ivan Shishkin, A Rye Field, 1878

By Ivan Shishkin - iAEOUlRJYj2FAg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,

1850 - Early 1900s

^ Realism The notion of egalitarianism inspired many in the aftermath of revolution, and Realism was born out of a desire for something less grandiose and less dramatic. This movement was about the humdrum, the routine, the life of ordinary men and women. The artistic output depicted mundane daily activities, perhaps manual labour or prayer, as well as the human form in realistic style, neither heroic nor idealised. 

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris By Claude Monet -, Public Domain

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette), 1876

By Pierre-Auguste Renoir - (derivative work of image?)Notwithstanding the source description, this is the version at the Musée d'Orsay (in the smaller version the central figure leaning forward lacks an earring)., Public Domain,

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897

By Camille Pissarro - Hermitage Torrent, Public Domain,

1870s - 1890s

^ Impressionism Conveying an ‘impression’ of a scene, the Impressionists were viewed as rather radical with their disregard for accurately recording it in minute detail. Their soft brushwork and experimental approach to colour and light were initially scorned but gradually gained popularity.

Principal artists were Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Monet and Renoir, who painted the developing modern world, from bucolic landscapes to ethereal seascapes and colourful city life. There are few better places to see their work than the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) By Henri Rousseau - Unknown, Public Domain

Henri Rousseau, The Centenary of Independence, 1892

By Henri Rousseau (French, 1844 - 1910) (1844 - 1910) – artist (French)Details of artist on Google Art Project - WAFKMD3ymhrp_g at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–86

By Georges Seurat - Art Institute of Chicago, Public Domain,

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra), 1907

By Henri Matisse - Observer / Culture, The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution’ at the New-York Historical Society, PD-US,

Mid 1880s - 1910

^ Post-Impressionism Running into the 20th century, Post-Impressionism sparked a flurry of satellite styles, from Pointillism (detailed images comprised of myriad dots of colour), Symbolism (exemplified by Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings) and Fauvism (paving the way for modern art and championed by the Belgian Matisse).

Some paintings by Cézanne, Rousseau, Gauguin, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were initially viewed with scepticism by critics and public alike: the bright, clashing colours and almost graphic design-led techniques were deeply challenging at the time.

Francis Picabia, 1912, La Source (The Spring), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York By Francis Picabia - MoMA, PD-US

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

By Pablo Picasso - Museum of Modern Art, New York, PD-US,

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917, replica 1964

© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018

Joan Miró, Horse, Pipe and Red Flower, 1920

By Joan Miró - Philadelphia Museum of Art, PD-US,

Early 1900s - Late 1970s

^ Modern Art In the 20th century French art exploded in different directions. Cubism, pioneered by Picasso, with its shattered geometric shards of colour paved the way for Dadaism and then Surrealism and the challenging, topsy turvy perspectives of Tanguy, Chagall, Masson and Duchamp (not to mention Belgian Magritte and the Spanish Dali and Miró).

There was Art Brut – attainable by anyone, even those without artistic training, then Art Informel and Nouveau Réalisme with recognisable elements of Pop Art. French art is still evolving and reinventing itself - France has always been at the centre of world art and will no doubt continue to be so.