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Art & Architecture - Introduction

Palette and brush

"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony. The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed. The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere."

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), Italian-born French poet, critic.


French artist

To say that the French revere their time spent soaking up arts and culture is an understatement. Particularly in Paris — where an abundance of venues is concentrated within a few square miles — it is common to find the French devoting their weekends to exploring the wealth of museums and cultural havens; many of the provincial areas are likewise blessed with impressive monuments to art and architecture.

Not surprisingly, one can attribute both the people's pride in their heritage, as well as the sheer extent of France's artistic wealth, to a long, colorful and often tumultuous history. Much of the French thirst for cultural enrichment and education dates back to the Crusades, when books, artistic influences, mathematics, and philosophical thought were carried back to the Gallic people from distant, advanced civilizations. Though relatively few artifacts remain from earlier eras, art in ancient Gaul may be traced back through the Merovingian period (beginning in the late fifth century), to the Roman Empire (starting in the first century B.C.), the ancient Celts (fifth century B.C.), and even to the Cro-Magnons of Paleolithic times (10,000 to 32,000 years ago).

During the past millenium, many of the icons and most prolific minds in philosophy, literature, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture, architecture, and science can be credited to the French — or, in some cases, expatriates living in France. Encouragement and support for artistic endeavor has been a hallmark of France's kings, emperors, and presidents to this day. In order to preserve such a rich cultural heritage, and to make it more widely available outside of Paris, a Ministry of Culture was established by the French government in 1959. In this chapter, we will discuss France's fascinating history of art — painting, sculpture, and architecture — while related topics such as literature, theatre and music may be accessed through the Table of Contents on other parts of this site.

Author: Ian C. Mills © 1998-2002 — All rights reserved


The earliest artistic remains in France date from the Paleolithic Period. By far the best known examples of prehistoric rock art are the cave paintings of Altamira, Font de Gaume, Lascaux, Les Combarelles, Niaux Cave, Les Trois Frères, and other sites in southern France and northern Spain, which were discovered during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These paintings, associated with the remains of the Cro-Magnon peoples, have been widely reproduced in popular books and periodicals and have thus become familiar to the general public.

Periods of Celtic culture from the late 5th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., and of Roman occupation from the 1st century to the 5th century A.D., saw the building of towns and the creation of artifacts.

It is not possible, however, to speak of a nationally distinct French art before the mid-5th century A.D., when the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties established authority over this region.


After the decline of the Roman Empire, France was left as it had been before the Roman conquest, divided among many small regional tribes. These became small kingdoms and duchies between the 2nd and the 5th century A.D. Christianity spread during this period, leading to the foundation of many abbeys and monastic communities in the 5th to the 7th century. Few artifacts survive from the Merovingian period, named for the dynasty of Frankish kings that began with Clovis (c.481). The most notable Merovingian survival is the baptistery of Saint Jean at Poitiers, dating from the 7th century. Merovingian churches, with floor plans based on the Roman basilica, had stone walls, timber roofs, prominent bell towers, and echoed classical motifs in their ornamentation.

In the 8th century, under the authority of Charlemagne — the first king to create a unified realm — a great building campaign began. Carolingian churches were intricately decorated with pictorial murals, mosaics, goldwork, and tapestries. The richness of Carolingian church interiors was equaled by the illuminated manuscripts created at the monasteries of Reims, Tours, Metz, and Paris. The best preserved of Carolingian churches is the Chapel of Charlemagne (796-804) at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), whose octagonal sanctuary reflects the influence on Carolingian art of the Early Christian, Byzantine, and Greco-Roman traditions. The Aachen chapel is modeled on the octagonal Byzantine church of San Vitale (526-47) in Ravenna.

In larger Carolingian churches, built from the 8th to the 10th century, several important innovations were made, including the construction of an elaborate westwork, or entrance facade flanked by towers; an ambulatory, or semicircular aisle around the altar, allowing worshipers to circulate without disturbing services; and the use of the composite pier instead of a simple, massive column to support the upper walls and roof above the nave.


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


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