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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

French art consists of the visual and plastic arts (including architecture, woodwork, textiles, and ceramics) originating from the geographical area of France. Historical surveys of French art typically begin with Pre-Romanesque art, Romanesque art, and Gothic art, but some surveys, such as André Chastel's French Art, include discussions of prehistoric art, Celtic art, and Roman art within France.

In the late fifteenth century, the French invasion of Italy and the proximity of the vibrant Burgundy court, with its Flemish connections, brought the French into contact with the goods, paintings, and the creative spirit of the Northern and Italian Renaissance. Initial artistic changes at that time in France were executed by Italian and Flemish artists, such as Jean Clouet and his son François Clouet, along with the Italians, Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, and Niccolò dell'Abbate of what is often called the first School of Fontainebleau from 1531. Leonardo da Vinci also was invited to France by François I, but other than the paintings which he brought with him, he produced little for the French king.

The art of the period from François I through Henri IV often is heavily inspired by late Italian pictorial and sculptural developments commonly referred to as Mannerism, which is associated with Michelangelo and Parmigianino, among others. It is characterized by figures which are elongated and graceful that rely upon visual rhetoric, including the elaborate use of allegory and mythology. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the French Renaissance was the construction of the Châteaux of the Loire Valley. No longer conceived of as fortresses, such pleasure palaces took advantage of the richness of the rivers and lands of the Loire region and they show remarkable architectural skill.

French Baroque and Classicism

In the early part of the seventeenth century, late mannerist and early Baroque tendencies continued to flourish in the court of Marie de Medici and Louis XIII. Art from this period shows influences from both the north of Europe, namely the Dutch and Flemish schools, and from Roman painters of the Counter-Reformation. Artists in France frequently debated the contrasting merits of Peter Paul Rubens with his the Flemish baroque, voluptuous lines and colors to Nicolas Poussin with his rational control, proportion, Roman classicism.

There was also a strong Caravaggisti school represented in the period by the amazing candle-lit paintings of Georges de La Tour. The wretched and the poor were featured in a quasi-Dutch manner in the paintings by the three Le Nain brothers. In the paintings of Philippe de Champaigne there are both propagandistic portraits of Louis XIII' s minister Cardinal Richelieu and other more contemplative portraits of people in the Catholic Jansenist sect.

From the mid to late seventeenth century, French art is more often referred to by the term "Classicism" which implies an adherence to certain rules of proportion and sobriety uncharacteristic of the Baroque, as it was practiced in southern and eastern Europe during the same period. Under Louis XIV, the Baroque as it was practiced in Italy, was not in French taste, for instance, as Bernini's famous proposal for redesigning the Louvre was rejected by Louis XIV. Through propaganda, wars, and great architectural works, Louis XIV launched a vast program designed for the glorification of France and his name. The Palace of Versailles, initially a tiny hunting lodge built by his father, was transformed by Louis XIV into a marvelous palace for fêtes and parties, under the direction of architect Louis Le Vau, painter and designer Charles Le Brun, and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre.

French Rococo and Neoclassicism

Rococo and Neoclassicism are terms used to describe the visual and plastic arts and architecture in Europe from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. In France, the death of Louis XIV lead to a period of freedom commonly called the Régence. Versailles was abandoned from 1715 to 1722. Painting turned toward "fêtes galantes", theater settings, and the female nude. Painters from this period include Antoine Watteau, Nicolas Lancret, and François Boucher. The Louis XV style of decoration, although already apparent at the end of the last reign, was lighter with pastel colors, wood panels, smaller rooms, less gilding, and fewer brocades; shells, garlands, and occasional Chinese subjects predominated. Rooms were more intimate.

The latter half of the eighteenth century continued to see French preeminence in Europe, particularly through the arts and sciences, and the speaking the French language was expected for members of the European courts, hence the term, lingua franca, for the accepted language. The French academic system continued to produce artists, but some, such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, explored new and increasingly impressionist styles of painting with thick brushwork. Although the hierarchy of genres continued to be respected officially, genre painting, landscape, portrait, and still life were extremely fashionable.

One also finds in this period a Pre-romanticism aspect. Hubert Robert's images of ruins, inspired by Italian cappricio paintings, are typical in this respect. So too the change from the rational and geometrical French garden of André Le Nôtre to the English garden, which emphasized artificially wild and irrational nature. One also finds in some of these gardens—curious ruins of temples—called "follies".

The middle of the eighteenth century saw a turn to Neoclassicism in France, that is to say a conscious use of Greek and Roman forms and iconography. In painting, the greatest representative of this style is Jacques Louis David, who, mirroring the profiles of Greek vases, emphasized the use of the profile. His subject matter often involved classical history such as the death of Socrates and Brutus. The dignity and subject matter of his paintings were greatly inspired by Nicolas Poussin in the seventeenth century. Poussin and David were in turn major influences on Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

French art of the 19th century, French Romanticism

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars brought great changes to the arts in France. The program of exaltation and myth making attendant to the Emperor Napoleon I of France was closely coordinated in the paintings of Gros and Guérin. Meanwhile, Orientalism, Egyptian motifs, the tragic anti-hero, the wild landscape, the historical novel, and scenes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—all these elements of Romanticism—created a vibrant period that defies easy classification.

Romantic tendencies continued throughout the century, both idealized landscape painting and Naturalism have their seeds in Romanticism. The work of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon school are logical developments from it, as is the late nineteenth century Symbolism of such painters as Gustave Moreau, the professor of Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, as well as Odilon Redon.

For many critics Édouard Manet wrote of the nineteenth century and the modern period (much as Charles Baudelaire does in poetry). His rediscovery of Spanish painting from the golden age, his willingness to show the unpainted canvas, his exploration of the forthright nude, and his radical brush strokes are the first steps toward Impressionism. Impressionism would take the Barbizon school one step farther, rejecting once and for all a belabored style and the use of mixed colors and black, for fragile transitive effects of light as captured outdoors in changing light (partly inspired by the paintings of J. M. W. Turner). It led to Claude Monet with his cathedrals and haystacks, Pierre-Auguste Renoir with both his early outdoor festivals and his later feathery style of ruddy nudes, Edgar Degas with his dancers and bathers.

After that threshold was crossed, the next thirty years became a litany of amazing experiments. Vincent van Gogh, Dutch born, but living in France, opened the road to expressionism. Georges Seurat, influenced by color theory, devised a pointillist technique that governed the Impressionist experiment. Paul Cézanne, a painter's painter, attempted a geometrical exploration of the world, that left many of his peers indifferent. Paul Gauguin, a banker, found symbolism in Brittany and then exoticism and primitivism in French Polynesia. Henri Rousseau, the self-taught dabbling postmaster, became the model for the naïve revolution.

French art of the 20th century

The early years of the twentieth century were dominated by experiments in colour and content that Impressionism and Post-Impressionism had unleashed. The products of the far east also brought new influences. Les Nabis explored a decorative art in flat plains with the graphic approach of a Japanese print. At roughly the same time, Les Fauves, exploded into color, much like German Expressionism.

The discovery of African tribal masks by Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris, lead him to create his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907. Working independently, Picasso and Georges Braque returned to and refined Cézanne's way of rationally comprehension of objects in a flat medium, heir experiments in cubism also would lead them to integrate all aspects and objects of day to day life, collage of newspapers, musical instruments, cigarettes, wine, and other objects into their works. Cubism in all its phases would dominate paintings of Europe and America for the next ten years. (See the article on Cubism for a complete discussion.)

World War I did not stop the dynamic creation of art in France. In 1916 a group of discontents met in a bar in Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire, and created the most radical gesture possible, the anti-art of Dada. At the same time, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp were exploring similar notions. At a 1917 art show in New York, Duchamp presented a white porcelain urinal (Fountain) signed R. Mutt as work of art, becoming the father of the readymade.

When Dada reached Paris, it was avidly embraced by a group of young artists and writers who were fascinated with the writings of Sigmund Freud, particularly by his notion of the unconscious mind. The provocative spirit of Dada became linked to the exploration of the unconscious mind through the use of automatic writing, chance operations, and, in some cases, altered states. The surrealists quickly turned to painting and sculpture. The shock of unexpected elements, the use of Frottage, collage, and decalcomania, the rendering of mysterious landscapes and dreamed images were to become the key techniques through the rest of the 1930s.

Immediately after this war the French art scene diverged roughly into in two directions. There were those who continued in the artistic experiments from before the war, especially surrealism, and others who adopted the new Abstract Expressionism and action painting from New York, executing them in a French manner using Tachism or L'art informel. Parallel to both of these tendencies, Jean Dubuffet dominated the early post-war years while exploring child-like drawings, graffiti, and cartoons in a variety of media.

The late 1950s and early 1960s in France saw art forms that might be considered Pop Art. Yves Klein had attractive nude women roll around in blue paint and throw themselves at canvases. Victor Vasarely invented Op-Art by designing sophisticated optical patterns. Artists of the Fluxus movement such as Ben Vautier incorporated graffiti and found objects into their work. Niki de Saint-Phalle created bloated and vibrant plastic figures. Arman gathered together found objects in boxed or resin-coated assemblages, and César Baldaccini produced a series of large compressed object-sculptures. In May 1968, the radical youth movement, through their atelier populaire, produced a great deal of poster-art protesting the moribund policies of president Charles de Gaulle.

Many contemporary artists continue to be haunted by the horrors of the Second World War and the specter of the Holocaust. Christian Boltanski's harrowing installations of the lost and the anonymous are particularly powerful.

Vocabulary

French words and expressions dealing with the arts:

Reference works

See also

a history of French art




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