The history of French art is intertwined with the history of the French monarchy. Since the upper paleolithic era, the influential force of French art has waxed and waned through the epochs. On the one hand, France was the leader of Romanesque art until the 13th century. On the other hand, Italy took over almost all stylistic convention until the rule of Louis the Fourteenth in the mid 17th century.
Louis XIV (1638-1715) was the longest ruling monarch in French history. Sometimes lengthy rule can be a travesty, but this is almost always a matter of perspective. A patron of the arts, Louis XIV ensured France to be the focal point of artistic style and tradition. Under the Sun King’s patronage, painters, writers and musicians flourished. In particular, he supported the people who worked under him in the Royal Court of France. By compensating writers such as Jean Racine (1639-1699) and Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), he allowed French literature to dominate the world stage.
Under his rule, French culture flourished to such a degree that extravagance became a reaction against the highly symmetric style that preceded it. The highly decorated late baroque style became known as the Rococo.
The images above are iconic images from the most famous practitioners of art during the Rococo. The first image, painted around 1767, is entitled The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). The hints of eroticism indicate an intimate and temporal subject that is devoid of religious embellishment.
The second image - the Palace of Versailles - captures the paramount values of the Rococo: hedonism and sensual pleasure at its pinnacle.
The final image is an etching after Mondon le Fils that represents a Chinese god and dragon. It was not uncommon for the French to infuse elements of other “exotic” cultures into their work.
The French Revolution of 1799 marked the end of the Rococo, the end of the absolute monarchy, and the end of the patronage system. When Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) declared himself emperor of the French from 1804-1815, the artistic climate forever changed. He brought about a period of Romanticism that established the historical novel, anti-heroic figures, unrestrained landscapes, Orientalism, and Gothic infusion into art. The period can perhaps be captured best by the gargantuan painting The Raft of Medusa (1819) by Théodore Géricault (1781-1824):
This famous painting represents an international scandal in which a french captain incompetently crashed a naval ship with 147 passengers. Nearly everybody starved and dehydrated - those who survived were participants of cannibalism. Works of art so often became entangled with politics, and no different was this painting that launched his career. So influential to the french people, it inspired later artists such as Delacroix, Turner, and Manet.
Once Romanticism was fully embraced by french culture, the primary aesthetic values were already well established in mainstream culture: symbolism, naturalism, individualism, and oriental infusion. In fact, the techniques became ingrained at academic institutions that would later be the subject of yet another reactionary movement.
The impressionist movement began in the late 19th century as a reaction against state sponsored paintings of the academic institutions. The academic institutions favored realism and historic narratives in paintings. However, the bland use of colors and strict adherence to technique was questioned by painters as early as the 1860’s.
In particular, Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renior (1841-1919) experimented with the use of colors and textures. The subjects of the paintings were almost always temporal; in other words, they featured very worldly subjects such as ballet, haystacks, cathedrals, and parks. Below is a painting called L’Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) that many believe represents the darker side of impressionism:
The 20th century artists, like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), exercised a highly expressionistic form of painting that eventually diverged into a wide range of loosely related styles: cubism, surrealism, expressionism, and others. No matter the style, however, the existential and temporal themes remained the same.
Perhaps the French style can be best summarized as follows: the scene itself disappears, and all that remains is beauty.