A Quick Guide to the History of French Art – Part One – Pre 19th Century

Below, I have put together some pieces from the web to hopefully explain the development of French art from around 1500 to 1800 a.d. I hope you enjoy it and that it gives you some kind of understanding of the development of artwork through these times. I am always open to comments and discussions so if you would like to talk about anything at all to do with art throughout the ages then please drop me an email at helenj@commissionanartist.com

School of Fontainebleau – from 1531

The École de Fontainebleau was two periods of artistic production during the Renaissance centred on the Château of Fontainebleau.

Birth of Cupid

The Birth of Cupid by The Chateau of Fontainebleu

Returning to his throne as king of France in 1527 after two years of captivity under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Francis I (r. 1515–47) launched an aggressive campaign to restore a small, dilapidated hunting lodge in the Forest of Bièvre, forty miles southeast of Paris. Due to the sack of Rome by imperial armies in 1527, Francis was able to lure an unprecedented number of talented artists, architects, and artisans from Italy, and collectively they transformed a ruined country château into the king’s primary royal residence, a palace of grandeur and great embellishment known today as Fontainebleau. These artists brought with them the prevailing Mannerist style developed by painters such as Pontormo (1494–1556), and influenced by Michelangelo (1475–1564).

Artists: First School (from 1531)

  • Rosso Fiorentino(Giovanni Battista di Jacopo de’ Rossi) (1494–1540) (Italian)
  • Francesco Primaticcio(c.1505–1570) (Italian)
  • Niccolò dell’Abbate(c.1509–1571)

Second School (from 1590s)

  • Ambroise Dubois(c.1542–1614) (Flemish born)
  • Toussaint Dubreuil(c.1561–1602)
  • Martin Fréminet(1567–1619)

17th Century Classicism/Baroque

France emerges during this period as a major world power and a cultural center to rival Rome, fountainhead of the Baroque style. This is largely due to the absolutist aims of the French monarchs, particularly Louis XIV, who, with a retinue of architects, painters, and sculptors, fashions a court of peerless splendour.

Baroque was not a break from Renaissance classicism, it was a development. At the time, artists and architects whom we today think of as being the masters of Italian baroque art saw themselves as painting and working in a new phase of classicism, one that emphasised emotions, apprehension, movement and vitality. Baroque was a new classicism exaggerated by intense light and shadow, dramatic perspecitves, and a sometimes exuberant use of colour.

Portrait Eine Dame by Nicolas de Largillière

Famous Artists of this era include:

  • Pierre Mignard (1612–1695)
  • André Le Nôtre (1613–1700) Landscape architect
  • Charles Le Brun (1619–1690)
  • Pierre Paul Puget (1620–1694)
  • François Girardon (1628–1715)
  • Charles de la Fosse (1636–1716)
  • Antoine Coysevox (1640–1720)
  • Nicolas de Largillière (1656–1746)
  • Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743)
  • Antoine Coypel(1661–1722)

Rococo/Late Baroque – 1700 to 1850

Rococo developed in the early 18th century in France as a reaction against the grandeur, symmetry, and strict regulations of the previous Baroque architectural style, especially of the Palace of Versailles until it was redone. Rococo artists and architects used a more jocular, florid, and graceful approach to the Baroque. Their style was ornate and used light colours, asymmetrical designs, curves, and gold. Unlike the political Baroque, the Rococo had playful and witty themes. The interior decoration of Rococo rooms was designed as a total work of art with elegant and ornate furniture, small sculptures, ornamental mirrors, and tapestry complementing architecture, reliefs, and wall paintings. Rococo was strongly influenced by and was frequently in association with Chinese figures and pagodas.

Scene Galante Dans In Parc – Jean-Baptiste Francois Pater

The expression “Rococo” is used for much European art throughout the 18th century, including works by the Italians Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Canaletto and Francesco Guardi and the English Joshua Reynolds and the furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale. Compared with the 17th century Rococo implies a lighter and more playful decorative art; the nude female is frequently featured; chinoiserie (imitation of Asian art) is also fashionable. Some of the artists that are most often grouped as “Rococo” are listed below.

  • Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) painter
  • Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766) painter
  • Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) painter
  • Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743) painter
  • Jean-Baptiste François Pater (1695–1736) painter
  • Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779) painter
  • Charles Joseph Natoire (1700–1777) painter
  • François Boucher (1703–1770) painter, engraver
  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) painter

Neoclassicism – 1789 – 1850

The French Revolution began in 1789, when citizens stormed the Bastille prison in Paris. Within a few years, France had adopted and overthrown several constitutions and executed its former king. It found itself at war with most of the Continent and endured horrible violence at home during the Reign of Terror. Even before 1789, popular taste had begun to turn away from the disarming, lighthearted subjects of rococo; as revolution neared, artists painted with restraint and discipline, using the austere clarity of the neoclassical style to stamp their subjects with certitude and moral truth. As a result Neoclassicism triumphed—and became inseparably linked to the revolution—where artists such as Jacques-Louis David, gave his heroic figures sculptural mass and arranged them frieze-like in emphatic compositions that were meant to inspire his fellow citizens to noble action.

Self Portrait – Jacques Louis David

Two of the most notable artists of this era are:

  • Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) painter
  • Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) painter

Romanticism – 1800 – 1900

Romanticism came around as Neoclassicism had come to be seen as conservative and academic, no longer as revolutionary; and while its artists and sculptors still had many decades of popularity ahead of them, up-and-coming artists were looking for something different. Art was evolving, coming out of the studio and out of the academy, and the first great school of art to successfully challenge the establishment was Romanticism.  Romanticism was all about mood and feeling, drama and emotions, not about precision or perfection. As a movement, it had begun at the start of the “Gothic” revival in England, then in Germany, in the mid 18th century.

The Raft of Medusa by Theodore Gericault

Most of the early 19th-century artists have been at some time grouped together under the rubric of “romanticism”, including the “realists” (as the Barbizon school) and the “naturalists”. Some of the most important are listed here.

  • Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824)
  • Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835)
  • Pierre Narcisse Guérin (1771–1833)
  • Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)
  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875)
  • Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
  • Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867)
  • Jean-François Millet (1814–1875)
  • Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856)
  • Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

I hope you have enjoyed this article! I didn’t want to make it too complex and there is clearly a lot more to discuss on all of these genres, there have been thousands of pages written about each. My aim was to give you a brief overview and I don’t know, maybe educate people so that by the time part 3 comes we understand where we are in the World of French Art!

As I mentioned before, I love to talk! So please do drop me an email at helenj@commissionanartist.com