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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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.

Contents

Historic overview

Prehistory

Currently, the earliest known European art is from the Upper Palaeolithic period of between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago and France has a large selection of extant pre-historic art from the Châtelperronian, Aurignacian, Solutrean, Gravettian, and Magdalenian cultures. This art includes cave paintings, such as the famous paintings at Pech Merle in the Lot in Languedoc which date back to 16,000 B.C., Lascaux, located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne, dating back to between 13,000 and 15,000 B.C., or perhaps, as far back as 25,000 B.C., the Cosquer Cave, the Chauvet Cave, and the Trois-Frères cave; and portable art, such as animal carvings and great goddess stauettes called Venus figurines, such as the Venus of Brassempouy of 21,000 B.C., discovered in the Landes, now in the museum at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Ornamental beads, bone pins, carvings, as well as flint and stone arrowheads also are among the prehistoric objects from the area of France.

Speculations exist that only Homo sapiens are capable of artistic expression, however, a recent find, the Mask of La Roche-Cotard—a Mousterian or Neanderthal artifact, found in 2002 in a cave near the banks of the Loire River, dating back to about 33,000 B.C.—now suggests that Neanderthal humans may have developed a sophisticated and complex artistic tradition.

In the Neolithic period (see Neolithic Europe), megalithic (large stone) monuments, such as the dolmens and menhirs at Carnac, Saint-Sulpice-de-Faleyrens and elsewhere in France begin to appear; this appearance is thought to start in the fifth millennium B.C., although some authors speculate about Mesolithic roots. France has numerous painted stones, polished stone axes, and inscribed menhirs from this period.

In France from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, one finds a variety of archaeological cultures, including the Rössen culture of c. 4500—4000 B.C., Beaker culture of c. 2800 – 1900 B.C., Tumulus culture of c. 1600-1200 B.C., Urnfield culture of c. 1300-800 B.C., and, in a transition to the Iron Age, Hallstatt culture of c. 1200 - 500 B.C.

For more on Prehistoric sites in Western France, see Prehistory of Brittany.

Celtic and Roman periods

From the Proto-Celtic Urnfield and Hallstat cultures, a continental Iron age Celtic art developed; mainly associated with La Tène culture, which flourished during the late Iron Age from 450 B.C. to the Roman conquest in the first century B.C. This art drew on native, classical and perhaps, the Mediterranean, oriental sources. The Celts of Gaul are known through numerous tombs and burial mounds found throughout France.

Celtic art is ornamental, avoiding straight lines and only occasionally using symmetry, without the imitation of nature nor ideal of beauty central to the classical tradition, but apparently, often involves complex symbolism. This artwork includes a variety of styles and often incorporates subtly modified elements from other cultures, an example being the characteristic over-and-under interlacing which arrived in France only in the sixth century, although it was already used by Germanic artists.

The region of Gaul came under the rule of the Roman Empire from the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. Monumental works from this period include the amphitheater in Orange, Vaucluse, the "Maison Carrée" at Nîmes, the Pont du Gard aqueduct, and the Roman baths, and the arena of Paris.

Medieval period

Merovingian art is the art and architecture of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, which lasted from the fifth century to the eighth century in present day France and Germany. The advent of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul during the fifth century led to important changes in the arts. In architecture, there was no longer the desire to build robust and harmonious buildings. Sculpture regressed to being little more than a simple technique for the ornamentation of sarcophagi, altars, and ecclesiastical furniture. On the other hand, the rise of gold work and manuscript illumination brought about a resurgence of Celtic decoration, which, with Christian and other contributions, constitutes the basis of Merovingian art. The unification of the Frankish kingdom under Clovis I (465–511) and his successors, corresponded with the need to build churches. The plans for them probably were copied from Roman basilicas. Unfortunately, these timber structures have not survived because of destruction by fire, whether accidental or caused by the Normans at the time of their incursions.

Carolingian art is the approximate 120-year period from 750 to 900—during the reign of Charles Martel, Pippin the Younger, Charlemagne, and his immediate heirs—popularly known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian era is the first period of the Medieval art movement known as Pre-Romanesque. For the first time, Northern European kings patronized classical Mediterranean Roman art forms, blending classical forms with Germanic ones, creating entirely new innovations in figurine line drawing, and setting the stage for the rise of Romanesque art and, eventually, Gothic art in the West.

Illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, small-scale sculpture, mosaics, and frescos survive from the period. The Carolingians also undertook major architectural building campaigns at numerous churches in France. These include, those of Metz, Lyon, Vienne, Le Mans, Reims, Beauvais, Verdun, Saint-Germain in Auxerre, Saint-Pierre in Flavigny, and Saint-Denis, as well as the town center of Chartres. The Centula Abbey of Saint-Riquier (Somme), completed in 788, was a major achievement in monastic architecture. Another important building (mostly lost today) was "Theodulf's Villa" in Germigny-des-Prés.

With the end of Carolingian rule around 900, artistic production halted for almost three generations. After the demise of the Carolingian Empire, France split into a number of feuding provinces, lacking any organized patronage. French art of the tenth and eleventh centuries was produced by local monasteries to promote literacy and piety, however, the primitive styles produced were not so highly skilled as the techniques of the earlier Carolingian period.

Multiple regional styles developed based on the chance availability of Carolingian manuscripts as models to copy, and the availability of itinerant artists. The monastery of Saint Bertin became an important center under its abbot Odbert (986-1007), who created a new style based on Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian forms. The nearby abbey of St. Vaast (Pas-de-Calais) also created a number of important works. In southwestern France a number of manuscripts were produced c. 1000, at the monastery of Saint Martial in Limoges, as well as at Albi, Figeac, and Saint-Sever-de-Rustan in Gascogne. In Paris a unique style developed at the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In Normandy a new style arose in 975. By the later tenth century with the Cluny reform movement and a revived spirit for the concept of Empire, art production resumed.

Romanesque art refers to the art of Western Europe during a period of two hundred and fifty years, from approximately 1000 A.D. to the rise of the Gothic style, which arose in the middle of the twelfth century in France. "Romanesque Art" was marked by a renewed interest in Roman construction techniques. For example, the twelfth-century capitals on the cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, adopt an acanthus-leaf motif and the decorative use of drill holes, which were commonly found on Roman monuments. Other important Romanesque buildings in France include the abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire in Loiret, the churches of Saint-Foy in Conques of Aveyron, Saint-Martin in Tours, Saint-Philibert in Tournus of Saône-et-Loire, Saint-Remi in Reims, and Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. In particular, Normandy experienced a large building campaign in the churches of Bernay, Mont-Saint-Michel, Coutances Cathedral, and Bayeux.

Most Romanesque sculpture was integrated into church architecture, not only for aesthetic, but also for structural, purposes. Small-scale sculpture during the pre-Romanesque period was influenced by Byzantine and Early Christian sculpture. Other elements were adopted from various local styles of Middle Eastern countries. Motifs were derived from the arts of the "barbarian," such as grotesque figures, beasts, and geometric patterns, which were all important additions, particularly in the regions north of the Alps. Among the important sculptural works of the period are the ivory carvings at the monastery of Saint Gall. Monumental sculpture was rarely practiced separately from architecture in the Pre-Romanesque period. For the first time after the fall of the Roman empire, monumental sculpture emerged as a significant art form. Covered church facades, doorways, and capitals all increased and expanded in size and importance, as in the Last Judgment Tympanum, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, and the Standing Prophet at Moissac. Monumental doors, baptismal fonts, and candle holders, frequently decorated with scenes from biblical history, were cast in bronze, attesting to the skills of the contemporary metalworkers. Frescoes were applied to the vaults and walls of churches. Rich textiles and precious objects in gold and silver, such as chalices and reliquaries, were produced in increasing numbers to meet the needs of the liturgy, and to serve the cult of the saints. In the twelfth century, large-scale stone sculpture spread throughout Europe. In the French Romanesque churches of Provence, Burgundy, and Aquitaine, sculptures adorned the facades and statues were incorporated into the capitals.

Gothic art and architecture were products of a Medieval art movement that lasted about three hundred years. It began in France, developing from the Romanesque period in the mid-twelfth century. By the late fourteenth century, it had evolved toward a more secular and natural style known as, International Gothic, which continued until the late fifteenth century, when it evolved further, into Renaissance art. The primary Gothic art media were sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco, and illuminated manuscript.

Gothic architecture was born in the middle of the twelfth century in Île-de-France, when Abbot Suger built the abbey at St. Denis, c. 1140, considered the first Gothic building, and soon afterward, the Chartres Cathedral, c. 1145. Prior to this, there had been no sculpture tradition in Ile-de-France—so sculptors were brought in from Burgundy, who created the revolutionary figures acting as columns in the Western (Royal) Portal of Chartres Cathedral —it was an entirely new invention in French art, and would provide the model for a generation of sculptors. Other notable Gothic churches in France include Bourges Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Laon, Notre Dame in Paris, Reims Cathedral, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, Strasbourg Cathedral.

The designations of styles in French Gothic architecture are as follows: Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant, and Late Gothic or "Flamboyant". Division into these divisions is effective, but debatable. Because Gothic cathedrals were built over several successive periods, and the artisans of each period not necessarily following the wishes of previous periods, the dominant architectural style often changed during the building of a particular building. Consequently, it is difficult to declare one building as belonging to certain era of Gothic architecture. It is more useful to use the terms as descriptors for specific elements within a structure, rather than applying it to the building as a whole.

The French ideas spread. Gothic sculpture evolved from the early stiff and elongated style, still partly Romanesque, into a spatial and naturalistic treatment in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Influences from surviving ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were incorporated into the treatment of drapery, facial expression, and pose of the Dutch-Burgundian sculptor, Claus Sluter, and the taste for naturalism first signaled the end of Gothic sculpture, evolving into the classicistic Renaissance style by the end of the fifteenth century.

Painting in a style that may be called, "Gothic," did not appear until about 1200, nearly fifty years after the start of Gothic architecture and sculpture. The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is very imprecise and by no means clearly delineated, but one may see the beginning of a style that is more somber, dark, and emotional than the previous period. This transition occurs first in England and France around 1200, in Germany around 1220, and in Italy around 1300. Painting, the representation of images on a surface, was practiced during the Gothic period in four primary crafts, frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination, and stained glass. Frescoes continued to be used as the main pictorial narrative craft on church walls in southern Europe as a continuation of early Christian and Romanesque traditions. In the north, stained glass remained the dominant art form until the fifteenth century.

Early Modern period

French Renaissance

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.

Modern period

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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