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"To say the word Romanticism is to say modern art -- that is, intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by every means available to the arts."

Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), French poet.


The 18th century interest in sentiment and emotion led to an interest in extremes of sensibility in the romantic art of the following century.


The greatest practitioners of romantic painting in France were Theodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (1818-19; Louvre, Paris), a depiction of the victims of a shipwreck, exposed the full range of human emotions from despair to exhilaration. Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus (1827; Louvre) explored the potential of color and vibrant brushwork as a means of heightening the sensations aroused by a dramatic narrative episode. In harem scenes such as The Great Odalisque (1814; Louvre) Ingres reflects 19th-century European fascination with the life of the senses and exotic foreign cultures.

By the mid-19th century the self-indulgence of romanticism was tempered by the changing relationship of the artist to the subject matter. Gustave Courbet insisted that his painting owed no debt to any school or style and that art should offer detached observations of unidealized reality. Courbet's paintings of peasants, such as Funeral at Ornans (1850; Louvre), caused a scandal at that time, but his powerful depiction of nature found other exponents in Jean Francois Millet and Honore Daumier.

An outgrowth of realism was a new conception of art as an activity that was worthwhile for its own sake regardless of its subject matter or allegiance to institutional values. This attitude was a necessary precondition for the emergence of impressionism, a movement in painting that concentrated on the effects of light and color. The favored subjects of Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, were coastal and river scenes in which light dissolves form and softens focus. The loosely associated impressionist group also included Edgar Degas, whose interior scenes challenged conventional theories of formal composition and subject matter.

Postimpressionism, a general term for the work of such painters as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Pierre Bonnard, evolved in reaction to the neutrality of subject matter and dissolution of form inherent in impressionism. These artists had few qualities in common, but their individual styles did much to determine the directions that painting would take in the 20th century.


In sculpture, the 19th century tended to be conservative. The romantic sculpture of Francois Rude, Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, and Antoine Louis Barye stands out. Auguste Rodin revitalized sculpture by returning to the direct study of the human form. Rodin's portrayal of physical and emotional stress led to a fresh appreciation of the Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Donatello and exercised a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture.


In architecture, the neoclassicism of the late 18th century was perpetuated by monumental forms serving the political ambitions of the Second Empire (1852-70) of Napoleon III. Later, an eclectic style based on both classical and baroque architecture emerged in the work of architects trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Beaux-Arts buildings such as Jean Louis Charles Garnier's spectacular Paris Opera (1861-75) played an important role in Baron Haussmann's modernization of the city during the Second Empire. Properties of new industrial materials and construction techniques were investigated by such pioneers as Henri Labrouste and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose Eiffel Tower (1889) has become a symbol of Paris.

"When I am finishing a picture I hold some God-made object up to it -- a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand -- as a kind of final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there's a clash between the two, it is bad art."

Marc Chagall (1889-1985), French artist.


Painting and Sculpture

In the early 20th century Paris was the center of the art world, but art in France--not French art--must be considered when describing the international influence of the Parisian avant-garde, because many expatriate artists worked in the city. The course of 20th-century art was shaped from Paris by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, and many lesser figures. The history of 20th-century expressionist art descends from van Gogh and other post-impressionists through the Fauve group that formed around Henri Matisse, one of the most influential French artists of the 20th century. Picasso and Georges Braque changed the direction of painting through their cubist experiments with the pictorial values of composition, color, and form. The last influential Parisian artistic movement was surrealism, a literary and artistic movement devoted to the exploration of irrational and subconscious states of mind.


In architecture, France was at the forefront of the creation of a new 20th-century aesthetic. At the turn of the century, the experiments of Art Nouveau led to the creation of graceful decorative motifs based on natural forms. The Swiss-French architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret, called Le Corbusier, pioneered a philosophy of functionalism in architecture that can be summarized by this famous dictum: "Buildings are machines to live in." The theory and practices of Le Corbusier, reinforced by those of the Bauhaus, in Germany, became the fundamental principles of the International Style, typified by Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye (1929-31; Poissy-sur-Seine).

Major achievements of French art since World War II include the paintings of Jean Dubuffet, and the Hungarian-born Victor Vasarely, the brilliantly colored paper cutouts of Matisse, and Le Corbusier's Pilgrim Church of Notre Dame at Ronchamp (1950-55).

Alden Rand Gordon
Source: 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v.9.0.1

Art Database (searchable, in French only)
The "Joconde" database is a catalogue of drawings, stamps, paintings, sculptures, photography and objects of art conserved in more than 60 museums throughout France. It contains details on more than 130,000 works, dating from the 7th century to the present, representing over 10,000 artists.

Introduction to French Art & Architecture

Pre-Historic, Celtic & Roman Periods

Merovingian and Carolingian Periods

Romanesque Period || Gothic Period

Renaissance Period || Baroque Period

18th Century || 19th Century || 20th Century


Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Gustave Caillebotte

Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Gustave Courbet

Edgar Degas, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Gauguin

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Le Corbusier

Fernand Leger, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse

Jean François Millet, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso

Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin

Henri Rousseau, Georges Pierre Seurat

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh


Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Fauvism

French Sculpture, Impressionism, Museums

Neoimpressionism, Postimpressionism

Realism, Rococo Style, Romanticism

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